Tabernacle Committee Struggles With Plans For Public Safety Director

bang-head-against-brick-wallThe introduction of Ordinance 2017-7, which creates a Department of Public Safety to coordinate all township emergency services, was derailed and tabled after 1.5 hrs of spirited discussion.

The lengthy discussion was unusual. The committee rarely discusses issues when they instruct the township attorney to draft an ordinance. Members rarely discuss ordinances when they are introduced at first reading. Indeed, when Ms. Brown was mayor, she even prohibited public comment on ordinances at first reading! It’s not until the second reading, after the public has made its comments, that committee members tend to speak up. When they do, there’s usually not a back and forth discussion. They usually just offer individual comments.

That’s why the extensive discussion of Ordinance 2017-7 at first reading was so remarkable. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like the committee had adopted a new policy of thoroughness and transparency. It looked like this ordinance was drafted at the last minute without a thorough plan for how emergency services should be centrally organized.

The reason for centralized management of emergency services goes back to the committee’s dissolution of the fire district in December 2014. At that time, the committee said that there was a compelling public safety interest to centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote the professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services in the township.

But, during the July 24 meeting, Mayor Lee impatiently, but correctly, pointed out that Tabernacle’s issues with emergency services go back well before 2014.

This has been an ongoing problem with this committee for the last six years. It’s time to pull the trigger and put a structure in place that’s beneficial to taxpayers.

With all due respect to the Mayor, it doesn’t make sense to pull the trigger without having the target in sight. The plan for centralized management still isn’t ready.

There’s been ample time and opportunity to formulate a plan. Though the committee and Administrator Doug Cramer spoke about a “community service approach” that would create an “emergency services team,” the committee hasn’t done it. The list of missed opportunities is surprisingly and sadly long.

  • At the July 24 meeting, Mayor Lee commented that a plan should’ve been done when the Fire District was dissolved in 2014. A plan would have been the natural product of the subcommittee, which was composed of Mayor Lee and Committeewoman Brown. They supposedly evaluated the fire district; and they recommended its dissolution. But they didn’t produce a written report nor did they make any recommendations about a comprehensive management plan for emergency services. The committee didn’t pursue that idea either.
  • By the time the committee submitted its application to the state to dissolve the fire district, it should’ve had a clear idea about how the remaining emergency service providers should be managed and organized. But the township could say no more than that they wanted to centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote their professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery.
  • Later, in 2015, the township tasked Administrator Cramer and Township Attorney Peter Lange to work with Tabernacle Fire Company No. 1 and draft a contract with it. The contract established a new relationship with the new fire company and should’ve been a basic element of a comprehensive plan. The committee adopted that contract in 2015, but still had no comprehensive plan for emergency services.
  • In October 2015, when the TRS’s agreement with Shamong Township was publicly revealed, the committee immediately tasked Peter Lange to write an ordinance that would authorize a public safety director. Apparently, that was a different ordinance from Ordinance 2017-7, because, when Mayor Lee was asked if they were the same ordinances, he avoided the question. This work wasn’t connected to a centralized management plan, it was just a response to the TRS’s bad behavior.
  • In 2016, the committee formed the Public Safety Subcommittee which was tasked to examine emergency services in Tabernacle. Mayor Lee and Deputy Mayor Yates were the subcommittee members. This effort is the closest that the committee has ever come to studying the issue and presenting options for a plan. Their report remains as a draft and there’s been no discussion of a centralized management plan until the surprise introduction of Ordinance 2017-7.
  • Also in 2016, the township tasked Peter Lange to draft a contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad. That contract, like the TFC #1contract, should have been an integrated element of an overall plan. But the TRS contract has never been finalized or adopted.
  • All of these efforts over the years required significant expenditures of staff time and costs for legal services. But none have led to a plan for centralized management of emergency services that this committee said was a compelling public safety interest.

Why has it taken so long for the committee to put together this plan?

The main problem is the TRS’s insurance billing program. This isn’t a practical problem. Other townships have been able to set up successful billing programs. They are models that Tabernacle could easily follow.

Tabernacle’s problem is political. The existing billing program was set up in 2013, by the Tabernacle Rescue Squad with the approval of the township committee. It’s unmistakably obvious now that the TRS billing program puts the interests of the TRS above the interests of Tabernacle residents and causes problems with other township emergency service providers. The committee needs to find the courage to change the billing program.

Courage is hard to muster because the committee had a key role in setting up the TRS’s billing program and as Fire Chief Dave Smith said at the July 24 meeting, “It seems like in this township everything revolves around the Squad.”

The committee approved the TRS billing program at its January 28, 2013 meeting through a deceptive process that hid the discussion of the billing program from the public and avoids thorough discussion. If the committee allowed a full and thorough discussion of the billing program, its problems could have been identified and a better program could have been created.

The committee’s approval process worked like this. After it had completed all of the items listed on its official agenda, it instructed the public to leave town hall to convene an executive (aka closed) session. When the committee returned from closed session, it re-opened the meeting and convened an extensive 30-minute discussion with TRS President Jamie Wood and TRS Chief George Jackson.

I know about this because I saw President Wood and Chief Jackson waiting around town hall while the committee was in closed session. I figured that something was going on and decided to return to the meeting when the committee re-opened it.

Obviously, President Wood and Chief Jackson had notice through private channels that the billing program would be discussed after executive session. But the public had no notice. The billing program isn’t mentioned anywhere on the official meeting agenda, which is produced by Township Clerk Barber in consultation with the mayor (Steven Lee, at that time).

The official minutes are also deceptive. First, Clerk Barber put the billing discussion under ‘Public Comment’ following the executive session, even though Public Comment actually preceded executive session just as outlined in the official agenda and just as it occurs at every public meeting. Indeed, the only item listed on the official agenda after executive session was item 12, ‘ Adjournment.’

Second, Clerk Barber abbreviated her description of the 30-minute discussion to a mere three sentences. By law, official minutes are supposed to be “reasonably comprehensible.” These minutes, as shown below, aren’t.

Public Comment [following Executive Session].

Jamie Wood, Tabernacle Rescue Squad, spoke about wanting to move forward with the Township with avoiding balance billing for Township residents. Ms. Wood was advised to have the EMS legal counsel provide their recommendation when going forward concerning billing.

Fran Brooks, 78 Moores Meadow Road, question if this program would cause the Township to give less money to the rescue squad.

The billing program worked exactly as the TRS and committee designed it: it allows TRS to make money. The township committee designated TRS as Tabernacle’s official EMS provider. This gives TRS the exclusive billing franchise. Billing revenues are approximately $250,000 per year. TRS has the exclusive use of this money and can spend it however it chooses without any township oversight. Currently, TRS uses it to pay its members and to buy its own equipment.

The TRS billing program doesn’t even cover the cost of services for Tabernacle’s uninsured residents and costs in excess of insurance coverage. These costs are paid by the township through an additional separate cash payment of $35,000 per year to the TRS. We used to pay TRS $70,000 per year, even though its actual costs were around $35,000.

As TTJ has pointed out before, the $250,000 is just part of the funding that the TRS gets from Tabernacle. As described above, taxpayers give TRS $35,000 per year for service to uninsured residents and for costs that exceed insurance coverage. In addition, taxpayers pay for TRS’s fuel and insurance.

Tabernacle also gives the TRS free rent, even though taxpayers pay approximately $200,000 per year for the bond on the building that the TRS uses for free. To the best that can be determined, the total costs of the TRS are approximately $400,000 to $500,000 annually.

According to TRS President Jamie Wood, the non-profit TRS has been able to build a surplus. In contrast, Tabernacle Township had to draw down its surplus and increase taxes to meet its 2016 budget. In 2017, the township increased its tax rate again to re-build its surplus.

Given these circumstances, maybe the TRS should hold a free chicken barbecue for Tabernacle residents every summer instead of its annual chicken barbecue fundraiser.

Allowing the TRS to keep the insurance money, while giving it all of these other public subsidies, doesn’t just build the TRS’s surplus. It’s changed the relationships between all of our emergency service organizations. Those changes haven’t been for the better.

For the TRS, the lure of increased billing revenue drove it to contract with Shamong Township to provide free services for Shamong residents using resources and equipment paid for by Tabernacle Township residents. According to the township committee and administrator Cramer, the TRS never bothered to mention the Shamong arrangement to them. Apparently the lure of billing revenue has caused decreased communication and oversight too.

The insurance billings, coupled with Tabernacle’s generous subsidies, also enable TRS to remain stalwartly independent and less a part of the “emergency services team.” TRS has little interest in centralized management because they don’t need it.

The TRS’s access to the billing revenues has relegated our fire company to a secondary position because it’s dependent on the township for funding and is subject to township oversight, while the TRS isn’t.

The billing revenues also seem to have created a dissatisfaction with the Length of Service Award Program. LOSAP is a tax-deferred income benefits program that volunteer fire fighters and first aid organizations are eligible for. In Tabernacle, the LOSAP program was established for fire fighters. According to Mayor Lee, the fire company doesn’t like it, “it’s an antiquated system.” Joint members of TRS and TFC#1 have said the same thing. And, indeed, the joint members generally run with the TRS instead of the fire company.

It’s understandable that the fire company doesn’t like LOSAP. The maximum annual payment for 2016 was $1,636. This amount pales in comparison to what TRS members are being paid from insurance billings. Rumor has it that they earn $10,000 to $12,000 annually.

What every other town figured out when it set up its insurance billing program is now obvious in Tabernacle: insurance billings generated by the township’s EMS provider should belong to the township, not the provider.

At the July 24 meeting, Committeeman Joe Barton pointed out how atypical it is for the TRS to have exclusive use of the billing revenue.

And in almost every other township in New Jersey, [insurance billing revenues] is taxpayer money that comes to the township for the good of emergency services across the board.… [they] TRS taken some of that money and bought equipment and titled it to themselves, not the township. To me that’s a risk in the future [that] they own all of the equipment. It’s [TRS] is one of the only squad in the state of New Jersey that gets to keep the funds and use it how they see fit.” And every other town that I know it’s [insurance billings are] taxpayer funds. It [insurance billings] comes to the town and [the town] uses it for emergency services.

The insurance billing system must be changed for Tabernacle to establish a plan for comprehensive management of emergency services. The proposed ordinance offered a vaguely worded change to the billing program.

The Tabernacle Township Department of Public Safety, in order to support the provision of emergency services and the volunteer companies serving the Township, shall bill for ambulance and transportation and other services provided by the emergency service entities operating within the Township. The rates of such service shall be determined and modified from time to time by the Public Safety Director. These charges shall be billed to the insurance company of the resident or party receiving assistance from the Department of Public Safety” (Ordinance 2017-7, Section III, fifth paragraph).

Committeewoman Kim Brown rightly pointed out that this language is unclear. It doesn’t address the fact that now only the TRS can bill because it’s the only organization that has the federal medicare number that’s required for billing. It doesn’t explain how or why the TRS would turn over the insurance revenues.

Mayor Lee replied that the billing would be a “partnership.” But he couldn’t explain what that means or how it would work.

The spirited discussion between Mayor Lee and Committeewoman Brown highlighted this practical shortcoming of the ordinance. The ordinance has other practical problems too. They’re discussed below.

In order for the Committee to develop and implement an effective plan for centralizing the delivery and management of all emergency services, its members need to consider the facts in an objective and non-partizan way. But again as Fire Chief Dave Smith said at the July 24 meeting: “It seems like in this township everything revolves around the Squad.”

Ms. Brown seemed disposed to keeping the TRS at the center of Tabernacle’s universe; and seemed genuinely affronted by the idea that the insurance billings shouldn’t belong to the TRS.

It sounds to me like [under the proposed ordinance] the volunteers go out to do the service, they do the billing for the township and then turn around and give [the money] back to the Township.

This idea that the TRS is entitled to keep the insurance billings because its “volunteers” provide ambulance service, doesn’t hold up to examination and is wrong on many levels.

First, the TRS isn’t a volunteer organization. It receives payment for its services from the insurance billings. Because it receives payment for its services, it’s not a volunteer organization. This is clear from state regulations which define what a volunteer rescue squad is.

Volunteer ambulance, first aid or rescue squad” means, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 27:5F-20, an ambulance, first aid or rescue squad that provides emergency medical services without receiving payment for those services. Whether the members of a squad provide their services for free or are compensated by the squad is irrelevant to a squad’s volunteer status. [emphasis added] (N.J.A.C. 8:40-1.4).

Second, TRS members aren’t volunteers. They’re paid through the Squad’s “compensation” program that is funded by the insurance billings. The Webster Dictionary definition of volunteer is “a person who works for an organization without being paid.”

Third, the TRS’s authority for operating its “compensation” program is highly questionable. TRS relies on N.J.S.A 40A:14-81.4 to justify compensating its members. But this statute applies to fire districts and fire companies.

40A:14-81.4. Employees and volunteer firemen; reimbursement for expenses and losses. Any employees of a fire district and any volunteer firemen having membership in a volunteer fire company within the fire district may be reimbursed within the limitations of amounts appropriated therefore in the annual district budget for expenses and losses actually incurred in the performance of their duties.

Fourth, in almost all other New Jersey townships, EMS providers don’t keep the insurance billings. The insurance revenue goes into the general budget or goes into an overall emergency services budget that funds all emergency providers. In fact, in most townships, the ambulance squad is part of or under the direction of the fire company. Medford and Evesham Townships are local examples of this. The privilege of keeping insurance billings that the Tabernacle Committee extends to the TRS is highly unusual.

There’s no excuse for committee members to continue to give TRS absolute control over the insurance billings simply because the TRS provides ambulance service. All squads provide ambulance service. Nor does the correction of this problem disrespect TRS. As part of Tabernacle’s “emergency services team,” it knows that the team’s goals, (the public health, safety and welfare) have priority. There’s no “I” in team.

At the very least, the committee should issue a Request for Proposals for ambulance service. A properly crafted RFP would give the committee a real market-based understanding of the financial value of the insurance billings. This would enrich discussions about reduced costs, (from the elimination of subsidies for fuel, insurance, rent, etc.), the income available for other emergency services (from payments made to Tabernacle by the EMS provider) and the levels of coverage that are available. It would also solve the problem caused by the township’s lack of a billing number, because a billing number would be a pre-requisite for the submission of an RFP. Without this information, the committee can’t develop a proper emergency management plan.

An RFP wouldn’t harm the TRS and it shouldn’t object. The TRS is qualified to submit a proposal. Indeed, in November 2013, the TRS submitted an extensive, multi-option proposal for ambulance services in response to Southampton Township’s RFP for EMS services.

As mentioned earlier, the other major problem with Ordinance 2017-7, beyond its inability to address the insurance billing program, is that it doesn’t create a coherent management plan. Other than broadly establishing that the Public Safety Director (PSD) “shall be responsible for the organizational and administrative control of the Department of Public Safety,” the ordinance doesn’t say what the PSD is supposed to control or how he/she is supposed to go about it.

The ordinance doesn’t specify who the PSD directly reports to. Nor does it specify the PSD’s duties and responsibilities. Responsibilities for reports, state compliance, discipline, budgeting, capital expenditures, staffing rosters and certifications come immediately to mind for this position. Surely there are others. But none, except for a quarterly report to the committee, are mentioned in the ordinance. Wisely, however, the ordinance specifies that the PSD doesn’t have direct operational control of emergency services.

The ordinance establishes three divisions within the Department of Public Safety: Fire, Emergency Services and Office of Emergency Management. These correspond with the existing emergency service providers in Tabernacle. The chiefs of fire and EMS are established as the heads of their division. The head of Emergency services is appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the committee.

Some of the requirements for each division seem to have been added just to fill out the ordinance. For example, in each division, the ordinance prohibits on-duty tobacco use by members of that division. This is a requirement that should be in the contract with each emergency provider, not in the ordinance. Presumably, the PSD has a duty to enforce that provision. But there’s no enforcement provision in the ordinance.

As the ordinance doesn’t specify the duties of the PSD, it also doesn’t specify the duties and responsibilities of the division heads. It’s not clear how division heads are required to interact with the PSD. The nature of that interaction lies at the heart of what a comprehensive management plan for emergency services would be.

Ordinance 2017-7 may be regarded as a start towards establishing the centralized management of emergency services. But after six years, Tabernacle residents should get a lot more.

The next township meeting is Monday, August 28, at 7:30 PM at town hall.