Tabernacle Fire District Dissolved

fact or fictionOn November 12, 2014, the state Local Finance Board voted 3-1 to approve the Township Committee’s application to dissolve the Tabernacle Fire District. The LFB approved the application based on the Township’s statements that the dissolution would save money and that the Township would provide the essential fire protection services through a contract with either the old or the new volunteer fire company. The ordinance to dissolve the Fire District will be introduced Monday, November 24th. The meeting begins at 8pm.

Here are some highlights (and low lights) of what happened.

A. WHAT THE COMMITTEE SAYS IT WILL DO.

1. The Cost Savings.

The Committee has given three different estimates of cost-savings. At the April 28, 2014 meeting, Committeewoman Brown said that the Township would save between $70,000 and $100,000 annually (Recording). In the Township’s June 2014 application to the LFB, the Committee said the dissolution would save $50,000 annually. At the July 16, 2014 Local Finance Board hearing, the Township gave a third estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 in savings. It seems like they don’t know.

2. Fire Protection.

The Township says it will provide firefighting services through a contract with either the existing Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company or the newly formed Tabernacle Fire Company No. 1. There’s significant overlap in the membership in the two fire companies, including Chief Dave Smith. The main difference between the two companies is who’s excluded from the new fire company.

The Township’s application calls for a similar contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad for the provision of public emergency/rescue services.

B. THE DRAMA.

The Township portrayed its application as a rational plan to save taxes. Committeeman Steven Lee explained at the December 16, 2013 hearing on the Petition to Dissolve the Fire District, that the dissolution is about “…taking the middleman out of the equation that controls the checkbook” (Recording).

Despite this story, the dissolution carries a heavy odor of retribution against the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company. Previous posts (July 2013, “The Lawsuit over the Rescue Tools, Parts 1 and 2), explain how a squabble over equipment blew up into litigation and how the Committee exacerbated this corrosive dispute by refusing mediation and then exacting a punitive settlement against the Medford Farms Fire Company. Readers may remember that the Township wanted Fire Chief John Welling’s resignation.

According to Fire Company minutes, Fire Commissioner and Medford Farms volunteer Rudy Saldan reported this: 

We met with the town and they will walk away [from the lawsuit] under certain rules 1) They want to look at the fire company books; 2) List of all equipment that BMS [Bristol Myers Squib] has donated 3) They want John Welling to resign and never come back [emphasis added](December 13, 2012).

Given the level of the Township’s animosity towards Medford Farms, the Committee really needed to show that they were working in good faith on behalf of the residents’ interests not their own. Residents wanted to believe that Committee members would take an honest look, make good recommendations and present some of their ideas for discussion with the public.  

Instead, and unfortunately, the Committee didn’t take an honest look at how fire services were provided, avoided public discussion at all times and handled the issue in a deceptive and less-than-forthright manner.  

TTJ readers will recall Mayor Barton’s promise at the January 27, 2014 meeting, to study the issue, bring back all of the information to the Committee where, having given the public notice (and the opportunity to participate) the decision would be made.  

I’m gonna appoint a sub-committee and Committeewoman Kim Brown has agreed to be on the sub-committee along with Deputy Mayor Steven Lee…, and they’re going to take the time necessary, the resources necessary, to get all the facts and information and present it back to the committee, I’m sure they’ll do a good job in calling in whoever they feel necessary they need to interview, whatever information they need to petition so that one day we can put this on the agenda and we can make an intelligent decision about the petition that’s before us.  [S]o as far as the petition, we will have it on the agenda, it will be noticed, you’ll see it; and this governing body will take action on the petition that was presented to us [emphasis added] (Recording).

C. WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.

As I wrote in the May 31, 2014 Post “Pants on Fire,” the Petition to Dissolve, the Resolution to Dissolve (2014-80) and the Sub-committee’s reports were never put on the April 28, 2014 meeting agenda when the Committee adopted the Resolution to dissolve the Fire District. The Committee sprung the Resolution at the meeting. I’ve attached a copy of the April 28th agenda. Because the Committee didn’t give public notice that it was going to take action on the Petition, people who had an interest in the issue wouldn’t know to attend the meeting.

After Mayor Barton announced that they had a resolution and that they were going to add it to the agenda, Mayor Barton, Deputy Mayor Lee and Committeewoman Brown said that they wouldn’t take public comment in advance of the vote on the resolution. Mr. Barton said that it was enough that the Committee had taken public comment at the Olsen School, December 16, 2013 hearing on the Petition: “…we already took public comment at the public meeting in December” (Recording).

Residents pointed out that the hearing at the Olsen School was about the Petition. It didn’t (and couldn’t) address the Sub-committee’s report or the resolution for dissolution because that night, the Committee was introducing them for the first time. Residents roundly criticized the Committee for refusing to take public comment and not listing the resolution on the agenda as they had promised and for not making copies of the resolution available at the meeting.

The Committee finally relented on the public comment and allowed people to speak. Of course, people who weren’t at the meeting didn’t have this opportunity. As over 200 people attended the hearing at the Olsen School, it’s easy to see that a lot of residents were denied the opportunity to comment.

Because the sub-committee never produced a report of their findings and recommendations, public comment was limited largely to the shortcomings of the Committee’s process and the Sub-committee’s work. The Committee then voted unanimously to dissolve the Fire District (Recording, April 28, 2014).

Unfortunately, the Committee continued its duplicitous behavior through the Local Finance Board’s approval process.

D. ANOTHER STAB IN THE BACK?

In its submission to the Local Finance Board, the Fire District described how the Committee agreed that it wouldn’t dissolve the District if the District formed a new fire company. The District says this agreement was reached at a February 2014 meeting at Township Attorney Peter Lange’s office between Fire Commissioners, Sub-Committee members Brown and Lee and their respective attorneys. The District’s attorney, Richard Braslow, describes it to the Local Finance Board this way:  

The February 2014 meeting was held between 2 Commissioners and I as the Fire District attorney with 2 individuals comprising the committee established by the Township to investigate the proposed dissolution of the Fire District and Township attorney. The meeting was held at the office of the Township attorney. At the meeting the Fire Commissioners were advised that the creation of a second fire company, minus certain individuals, would resolve the dissolution issue. It is the position of 2 Commissioners and their attorney that this statement was made. A petition was prepared and submitted to the Fire District for reasons previously stated the Fire District did not believe it appropriate to recognize the second fire company. For the Township to submit that it had no knowledge or interest in the creation of the second fire company is false (Braslow, November 5, 2014, Item 3).  

The Township admits that there was a meeting. They have to. Peter Lange billed $403 for his attendance (Invoice 4391). But they say that it was the Commissioners’ idea to sacrifice the MedFord Farms Volunteer Fire Company.  

The Township’s story just doesn’t square with other facts. It’s been well documented that the Committee has hard feelings towards particular members of the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company, so it’s plausible that they still wanted to get back at it. It’s also true that the Committee made other promises which it broke (see B above, for example). And the fact that Committeeman Stephen Lee, who rarely, if ever, attended Fire District meetings, showed up at the March 31st meeting and witnessed the submission of the thick binder of incorporation papers and bylaws from the new fire company, also suggests that the Committee was interested in the formation of the new fire company (Minutes, March 31, 2014).  

Besides, why would the District have gone ahead with the work to create the new fire company if there wasn’t some kind of an agreement? The Township’s story sounds like “fiction.” It just doesn’t add up.

E. BUT IT GETS EVEN WORSE.

The Township’s behavior sank to sleazy when it sent a copy of Commissioner Nancy Freeman’s personal check to the Local Finance Board, without redacting her personal information. Township Attorney Peter Lange submitted the check to show that the Fire District was involved in establishing the new Fire Company. Because Mr. Lange submitted it to the LFB (and didn’t black-out her personal information) the check has been circulating as a public document ever since, fully revealing Ms. Freeman’s personal checking account number to the world. [I will not put the information into this Post.]

The District explained that she wrote the check to pay for the incorporation of the new fire company because that was part of the agreement with the Township and “…there were no alleged method of paying for the service” (Braslow, November 5, 2014).

The requirement to redact personal financial information, like a checking account number, is elementary. Mr. Lange, who is also a municipal court judge in Burlington County, surely knows this. It’s a violation of the Open Public Records Act (N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1) and other New Jersey requirements.

Nancy Freeman has been a dedicated volunteer in Tabernacle for many years. She deserved better from the Committee and its attorney Peter Lange.

F. TOWNSHIP PROMISES TO THE LOCAL FINANCE BOARD.

Committeewoman Brown, on behalf of the Township, made two major promises to the Local Finance Board:

1. The Township will purchase the fire truck that the voters approved and

2. The Township will preserve LOSAP, the “Emergency Services Volunteer Length of Service Award Program.” LOSAP provides tax-deferred income benefits to active volunteer members of an emergency service organization (Division of Community Affairs).

The Committee was successful in dissolving the Fire District. The idea that it did a good job in getting “all the facts and information” that were necessary to make a well-reasoned decision is “fiction.” They didn’t. It seems unlikely that the Township’s conduct will bring about the healing and cooperation that the Committee has long claimed it wants, but has done little to foster. Residents will see if the dissolution achieves a good result.