Tabernacle Forms New Fire Company

The New Township Fire Company

For the third time in eight years, Tabernacle has a new fire company.

At its October 26, meeting, the township committee created a township fire company named the “Tabernacle Fire Company” (Ordinance 2020-4). The committee will choose the company’s new chief who will select its officers subject to the consent of the township committee. Members of the Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC1) can apply to the township to join the new company.

I wish the best success to the new township-run fire company.

At the October 26, meeting, the committee also voted to advertise for a new fire chief. The discussion to proceed with the hiring was not on the agenda nor was it raised at the public hearing for the new fire company. Instead, Committeeman Moore, with the backing of Mayor Brown, started discussing a prepared resolution that only he had regarding advertising for the new chief. He did this after public comment had closed and during the committee reports at the meeting.

Obviously, because Mr. Moore was working from a prepared document, the topic could have and should have been listed on the meeting agenda for all to see.

The new chief will likely be paid a $12,000 stipend. The committee will also create an independent hiring board to review the applicants and make recommendations. This hiring process for the chief seems to be identical to the process recommended long ago by John Welling, former chief of the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company.

The committee will also terminate its contract with the existing fire company TCF#1. The township will also take over the grant that TFC1 received from the federal government. This grant is used to pay fire fighters to staff the firehouse during weekdays. It’s unclear whether the township will remove the TFC#1 name from the fire house or remove the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company (MFVFC) sign from the garage on the property.

The new township fire company is the latest chapter In the committee’s continuous re-organization of fire services. These reorganizations have always turned out better for the TRS than the fire company.

Back in 2010, which seems like a long-past golden age of fire services, the MFVFC (then the oldest volunteer company in the township) was one of the most respected volunteer fire companies in the county, if not the state. John Welling was its chief.

But a clash arose between Chief Welling, Tabernacle Rescue Squad Chief George Jackson and the township over which group would provide rescue services. That’s not an issue in most New Jersey towns because almost every town in New Jersey pairs rescue with its fire company.

But Tabernacle sided with Chief Jackson and paired rescue with ambulance services. The committee transferred the rescue truck and tools from fire to the TRS and established the TRS as the township’s exclusive rescue provider.

In 2013, the committee dissolved the Tabernacle Fire District, which was the independent manager and funding source for fire services. Upon dissolution, the township took the District’s money (about $400,000) to plug a hole it created in the township budget.

Some MFVFC younger firefighters, and future company leaders, left Tabernacle for other townships. The remaining members reformed into the TFC1, which the committee hired. Township Administrator Doug Cramer managed the TFC1’s contract and budget, notwithstanding his conflict of interest with the TRS because his son, Stephen, is a TRS captain.

In 2015, after I revealed that the TRS had been using township resources to provide free EMS services to Shamong residents (which it still does), the committee hired a Public Safety Director (PSD) to establish a township department to manage fire, rescue, EMS and emergency management. That reorganization effort was lead by committee members Joseph Barton, Stephen Lee and Joe Yates. Committee members Kim Brown and Rick Franzen opposed it.

But, in late 2018, Committeeman Joe Barton changed his mind and joined Mayor Kim Brown and Committeeman Rick Franzen to accept the resignation of the PSD. This ensured that the TRS and fire remained separate, private and independent.

This was a great deal for the TRS. By then, the TRS was ensconced in the new $4 million Emergency Services Building and the committee had approved TRS to keep all the money it got from billing insurance companies for ambulance services. That’s about $250,000 per year. Plus, Tabernacle pays it about $30,000 per year. In return, the TRS gives modest givebacks of much less monetary value.

Fire services, now provided by TFC1, were clearly secondary to the TRS.

The committee’s new plan to have its own fire company came out of nowhere. It’s remarkable for how much of a back-room deal it was. Mayor Brown and Committeeman Moore did all of the work in secret as a subcommittee. The plan was never discussed in public until it was fashioned “on the spot” at the September 28, township meeting.

Here’s some important questions and answers to illustrate how the Tabernacle Fire Company was rammed through without any public explanation at the public hearing.

Q1: At the public hearing, what was the township’s explanation for forming a township fire company?
A: The committee didn’t say. Typically, and almost always, a committee will explain to the public what a proposed  ordinance is designed to address. But here, the committee was silent.

Back on September 28, 2020 Committeeman Moore read a statement into the record about conclusions that he and fellow subcommittee member Mayor Brown reached about Tabernacle’s fire and emergency service organizations. Those statements should’ve been available to the public in advance of the October 26, 2020 public hearing. They weren’t. I had to ask for the official minutes through an OPRA request before they were released.

In short, Committeeman Moore, writing for himself and sub-committee member Brown, called for a township fire company citing a raft of problems including conflict, dysfunction, insufficient financial transparency and a lack of oversight of township resources. Errors of this magnitude show how unwise the committee was for dissolving the fire district and firing the well respected Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company. They also don’t speak well for Administrator Cramer’s management of fire services.

Q2: What were the problems with keeping an independent fire company?
A: The committee didn’t say.

Q3: What are the expected benefits and costs of having a township fire company?
A: The committee didn’t say.

Q4: Who did Mayor Brown and Committeeman Moore speak with about a township fire company?
A: They didn’t say. But they said they spoke with other people and did a lot of research. They didn’t say what they learned from them.

Q5: Were there other options?
A: They didn’t say. Mayor Brown said that the people she spoke with told her that this was the best option.

Q6: What did Mayor Brown and Committeeman Moore say in their subcommittee report?
A: They didn’t present a subcommittee report. Mayor Brown did say that we’d never know how much work she did on the plan. It’s unclear if she was boasting about her secrecy or her productivity. But I have to agree that she gave the public diddly.

Q7: What explanation did committee members give the public when the ordinance was introduced at first reading on October 13?
A: None. They didn’t explain why a township fire company was a good idea. Nor was the ordinance available for the public.

Q8: What explanation did committee members give the public when they considered the ordinance and adopted it at second reading on October 26?
A: None. They didn’t explain why a township fire company was a good idea.

Q9: What answers did the committee give in response to public questions and comments at the October 26, public hearing?
A: None. They didn’t respond to public questions or comments at the pubic hearing.

Q10: Why did the discussion about the new fire company and the hiring of the chief occur during the committee reports section of the October 26, meeting and not during the public hearing?
A: That’s a good question. Before Mayor Brown took office in January 2020, public comment was after committee reports. This allowed the public to comment on anything the committee or its professionals discussed at the meeting. But Mayor Brown changed that by putting public comment before committee reports. She promised the public that the committee would not take action in the reports section of the meeting so that the public wouldn’t be denied the opportunity to comment.

Promises made, promises broken again.

The committee’s discussion about the chief and new fire company was the only extended discussion of the meeting. Mayor Brown conducted the discussion during committee reports thereby preventing public comment.
With the exception of Committeeman Barton, the entire committee accepted Mayor Brown’s and Committeeman Moore’s plan to create a township fire department without publicly asking any questions or having any discussion. They were like zombies.

To his credit, Committeeman Barton raised thoughtful questions and serious concerns that should have been discussed and evaluated. In particular, he asked if there were enough volunteer members to staff a new fire company and whether this change might lead to a paid fire company.

His comments fell on deaf ears. The other committee members had already made up their minds. They were going through the public hearing as a mere formality. Mr. Barton was the sole vote against the plan.

In addition to his thoughtful comments, Mr. Barton also made a strange and unexpected recommendation. He suggested that the township hire a pubic safety director. HUH??!!

Back in 2018, Committeemen Barton, Lee and Yates voted for a PSD. Arch Liston was then hired to manage fire, EMS, rescue and emergency management. But Mr. Liston was frustrated by the TRS’s refusal to work with him and the committee’s refusal to support him. Mr. Liston submitted his resignation in December 2018.

Mr. Lee, the chairman of the public safety subcommittee, couldn’t attend the next meeting, when the resignation would have been considered. He asked Mayor Barton to adjourn the committee’s consideration of Liston’s resignation.

Typically, Tabernacle mayors always adjourn important matters when a committee member can’t attend. The committee always insisted that it should only consider important business when all members were present. But, in this case, Mayor Barton refused to adjourn discussion of the resignation.

At the next meeting, with Mr. Lee absent, Mr. Barton joined with committee members Brown and Franzen to accept Arch Liston’s resignation. That effectively killed the PSD position. Indeed, it’s obvious that the $12,000 stipend for the new fire chief is the same money previously earmarked for the PSD.

Mr. Barton’s call for hiring a PSD is the right solution now, just as it was in 2018. The township should manage fire, EMS, rescue and emergency management from one centralized department. It’s just as Committeeman Moore said on September 28, 2020, speaking for himself and subcommittee member Brown, “The paramount point to be made is that these agencies, notwithstanding their private incorporation, are public agencies.”  That’s true, fire, emergency and rescue function like public agencies. The problem is that neither Committeeman Moore nor Mayor Brown have any interest in imposing the same public oversight on TRS that they are now imposing on fire.

Mr. Barton is a day late and a dollar short in calling for a PSD now. That ship sailed away in December 2018 when he flipped over to join committee members Brown and Franzen in accepting Arch Liston’s resignation. Mr. Barton’s current call for a PSD was a major reversal of that prior major reversal. I’ve got whiplash just thinking about it. Other committee members greeted Mr. Barton’s new proposal with total silence. 

The next township meeting is November 23, 2020 at 7:30pm.