The Tabernacle Rescue Squad still hasn’t submitted its 2014 financial statement and its now more than nine months late. We’re closer to the due date for its next financial statement (which is December 2015) than we are to the due date of this one, which was December 2014.
According to the Facility Use/License Agreement between the TRS and the Township (that’s the document that governs how the TRS can use the Township’s new Emergency Services Building), the TRS must submit its financial statement to the Township Clerk every year. The due date is the anniversary of the signing of the Facility Use/License Agreement, which is December 9.
Until this year, the TRS submitted its financial statement routinely. Because it’s a public document, the Township released it through an OPRA request. That’s how I got the TRS’s 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 financial statements.
As in past years, I requested the 2014 financial statement. I’ve asked for it at various times over the last few months because it’s usually available by June. But this year, perhaps because I’ve started asking the Committee how much money the TRS makes from its insurance billing program, there’s no financial statement.
The 2014 financial statement is essential to understand how much money is generated through the TRS insurance billing programs in Tabernacle and Shamong. It will be the first financial statement to show a full year of billing revenue. And, presumably, it will also report the billings from June to December 2013, which were not included in the 2013 financial statement. (These months were omitted because the financial statement was filed in June 2013).
By withholding this information, residents can’t see for themselves if the Township’s substantial contributions and subsidies to the TRS are still warranted or if the insurance billing program is in the best interests of Tabernacle taxpayers. The Township Committee should’ve been evaluating this publicly. But, as discussed later, it hasn’t.
It’s possible that the TRS’s failure to submit its financials could just be a nine-month oversight. But that’s unlikely. They’ve submitted it all other years, so they know it’s required. Besides, the Squad and the Township use the same accountant and he also knows the procedures. The bottom line is that it’s the TRS’s responsibility to make this submission on time.
The Township has responsibility here too. It should make sure that it receives the TRS financial report as Ordinance 2013-9 requires. After all, the Committee adopted the Ordinance to advance the safety and welfare of Tabernacle residents.
But neither the Committee nor its staff have done anything to get the 2014 financial statement. Surely, township staff keeps a calendar to alert them to due dates and, because of my request for it, they know that the TRS missed the December 2014 due date.
Back in December or January, Administrator Doug Cramer should have given a friendly reminder by phone or email to TRS president Jamie Wood or Chief Jackson. Or, because the Chief is in town hall from time to time, Mr. Cramer could have simply said, “Hey Chief, don’t forget the financial statement; it was due in December.”
Because the TRS is now more than nine months late, Township staff should have sent them an email or a letter to formally remind them of the requirement and to set a short schedule for its submission. Yet township staff hasn’t had any written communication with the TRS about the overdue financial statement.
The Committee hasn’t done anything either. The Squad’s financials have generated questions every month. Surely, by now, the Committee realizes that the financial statement is missing. Probably its subcommittee (Mr. Barton and Mr. Franzen), which was charged in January 2015 to review all of the ordinances, has also reviewed Ordinance 2013-9 and noticed the due date for the submission of financials. The TRS’s failure to submit the financial statement is also in violation of Ordinance 2013-9. Don’t hold your breath for the Township to start any enforcement action.
Although an enforcement action against one of our volunteer organizations would be heavy-handed, there are other more appropriate steps that the Committee should have taken by now, but hasn’t. Committee members haven’t mentioned the overdue report at any public meeting. They haven’t directed its staff to follow up. Nor has it had any written communication with the staff or the TRS about the overdue financial statement. I know this because I filed an OPRA request for all of the correspondence between the Township and the TRS and there isn’t any.
The TRS’s failure to submit the 2014 financial statement, and the Township’s failure to demand it, are consistent with Mayor Kim Brown’s idea that the public shouldn’t know how much money the insurance billing programs in Shamong or Tabernacle generate. In her explanation of why the Committee doesn’t get a written budget document from the TRS, which also would show the insurance billing revenues, Mayor Brown said she didn’t want the public to see this financial information (see TTJ August 22 Post).
We know if we take a document from them [TRS], and again, they’re a private non-profit 501-C3, I believe they are, organization so they’re not subject to OPRA, so once we take that document it becomes an OPRA-able document and it’s not fair to the non-profit that isn’t OPRA-able for us to make them OPRA-able”. So I see no problem as long as we are given and shown the facts that these are the numbers and continue to handle it this way.
The Committee’s protection of the TRS and its insurance billing information undermines the budgeting process and has no governmental purpose. The budget decisions about the annual contribution to the TRS ($70,000) and other substantial subsidies (such as fuel, rent, insurance, etc.) can only be justified if we know how much money is received through insurance billing. The TRS, which gets all of the insurance revenue, seems to be working with the Township to hide this information from the public (see below).
The TRS’s failure to submit its 2014 financial statement, and the Township’s failure to demand it, are two more steps that these organizations have taken to hide the operation of the insurance billing program and the amount of revenues that it generates. Here’s a quick history.
The Secret “Public” Meetings
The TRS first discussed the insurance billing program with the Committee on January 28, 2013. The subject wasn’t listed on the Township’s agenda. The discussion occurred after the public had been asked to leave the building so that the Committee could go into executive session. When the Committee finished its executive session, the public was invited back into the building. By this time, most of the public had gone home as they usually do when the Committee goes into executive session. That’s because the Committee rarely, if ever, conducts business after executive session. Usually, if not always, the Committee simply re-opens the regular session to officially adjourn the meeting.
But this meeting was handled differently. Instead of adjourning the meeting, the Committee recognized TRS President Jamie Wood and Chief George Jackson. The Committee then allowed them to give a detailed 20-minute presentation on the insurance billing program. It was obvious that this presentation was pre-planned and that the Committee was expecting it.
Because it was pre-planned, the discussion about the insurance billing program should have been listed on the agenda as “new business.” That way, the public would know about it. But it wasn’t listed; and therefore no one from the public could have known that the billing program would be discussed.
When the TRS and the Committee had their second “public” discussion, it wasn’t on the agenda either. But at least it was held during the regular meeting, March 10, 2014.
Abandoning Its Plan For Centralized Management And Delivery Of Emergency Services
In June 2014, when the Committee applied to the State to dissolve the Fire District, it told the State that the Township would “centralize the delivery and management of emergency services in the Township.” The application included a draft ordinance to show the State that the Township had a plan for a “community services approach” (that’s what Doug Cramer called it), and was serious about accomplishing it. The draft ordinance said the Township Committee recognized “a compelling public safety interest” in centralizing delivery and management of emergency services. Here’s the exact language:
Whereas, the Township Committee recognizes a compelling public safety interest in coordinating the use of emergency personnel, assets, resources and equipment in the Township of Tabernacle.
But at the Committee’s December 8, 2014 meeting, after the State approved the dissolution of the Fire District and when Ordinance 2014-8 was introduced to establish contracts with the Fire Company and the Rescue Squad, Ms. Brown, Mr. Franzen and Mr. Barton completed the bait and switch. Instead of adopting the Ordinance as they told the State they would, they removed the TRS from the Ordinance. Mr. Lee voted No; Mr. Yates was absent.
By removing the TRS from the Ordinance, the Committee abandoned its plan for centralized delivery and management of emergency services. It allowed the TRS to operate independently (and outside the scope of OPRA) rather than under a contract with the Township. Hiding the insurance billing information from the public became more important than a “compelling public safety interest.“
If the Township had a contract with the TRS there’s a greater likelihood that the TRS’s insurance billing records would be subject to OPRA and would become public. Let’s be clear, I’m talking about the financial records, not the personal medical information of the people being transported. But as long as there’s no contract between the TRS and the Township, the financial records aren’t subject to OPRA.
Mayor Brown was very clear in explaining that she didn’t want TRS’s insurance billing records to be subject to OPRA at the August 10, 2015 meeting. Her explanation applies perfectly to the Committee’s abandonment of its plan for centralized management and delivery of emergency services.
Although Mayor Brown says she sees no problem keeping this information from the public, the problems with the abandonment of the contract are obvious. First, Tabernacle residents aren’t getting the benefits of centralized management and delivery of emergency services. Committee members are very familiar with these benefits because they’re the ones who convinced the State and Tabernacle taxpayers that centralized management and delivery were so critical.
Another problem is that the Committee isn’t keeping its word about its “plan” to provide emergency services after it dissolved the Fire District. After all, this is the plan that resulted from Ms. Brown’s and Mr. Lee’s “thorough investigation.”
As a public service, TTJ is re-publishing the management tool that shows the amount of time that has gone by without the TRS contract. The counter starts November 12, 2014 when the Local Finance Board approved Tabernacle’s application to dissolve the Fire District and implement its “community services” plan. We are now almost a year past State approval. This is far too long a delay to address a “compelling public safety interest.” But there haven’t been any discussions since 2014, about contracting with the TRS.
The Denial Of The Shamong Township Agreement
Committee members seem to think that if they say they don’t know about the Shamong Agreement, they’re not responsible for knowing how much money the TRS earns from its operations or how much it costs Tabernacle taxpayers. Every time I ask about the Shamong Agreement, committee members say they don’t know about it. Yet numerous people know about the Shamong Agreement and have known about it since 2013, when the TRS and Shamong Township first developed it.
People connected to the Tabernacle Committee who know about the Agreement include Tabernacle Township Administrator Doug Cramer, the TRS and TRS accountant Kevin Frenia. He acknowledges the Agreement on page 10 of the TRS’s 2013 Financial Statement. It’s possible that Tabernacle Township Attorney Peter Lange knows about it. He’s the solicitor for the Shamong Township Joint Land Use Board.
At best, when the Committee denies knowledge of the Agreement, it shows them to be sloppy because the Agreement was clearly referenced in the TRS’s 2013 financial statement that was submitted to them. If they don’t know about it, then they’re not reading the financial statements.
I’ve asked the Committee about the Agreement many different times. Despite my questions, they haven’t taken any initiative to ask the TRS or Shamong about it. It would be so easy for them to do this. Tabernacle has very close ties and a strong working relationship with Shamong through shared-services agreements, shared staff and common professional staff. And the Tabernacle Committee members are very close to the TRS. The fact that the Committee hasn’t asked shows a lack of initiative and responsibility.
At worst, if Committee members truly don’t know about the Shamong Agreement, then the TRS hasn’t been open or candid. Obviously, TRS knows about its Agreement with Shamong because President Jamie Wood signed it. And the TRS also knows that the Committee relies on what they say to set Tabernacle’s contribution to the Squad and to make budget decisions (see The Chalkboard Presentations below). It would be a serious breach of trust if the TRS didn’t tell Tabernacle Township about its Agreement with Shamong.
I doubt that the TRS kept the Committee out of the loop. The two groups work closely together. The Committee has been very supportive of the TRS and the insurance billing program. The TRS discussed the insurance billing program with the Committee extensively at two meetings and the Committee was on board with it. Because of all these connections, surely the TRS discussed the Shamong Agreement with the Committee at a chalkboard presentation or some other type of presentation which didn’t leave a record.
I think that Committee members have known about the Shamong Agreement for a long time. But, just in case they don’t, I’m posting it and will send a copy to them directly. The Agreement was discussed at Shamong Township Committee meetings fall 2013. It became effective January 1, 2014 and is still in effect.
The Chalkboard Presentations
The TRS doesn’t give an annual report to the Township or publicly discuss it’s budget. Instead, it presents private chalkboard presentations to Committee members, one or two at a time so as not to create a quorum. By avoiding a quorum, they avoid the requirement of public notice and a public meeting. The entire chalkboard practice is too absurd to describe again, except to acknowledge Mayor Brown’s admission that this is done to keep information from the public (see TTJ August 22, 2015 Post).
Where Do We Go From Here?
If there was a thorough 2014 report, taxpayers would see for themselves how much money the programs generate in Tabernacle, Shamong and any other township where the TRS operates. Taxpayers could then evaluate if the Township’s contributions and subsidies are still warranted and if the billing program is in the best interests of Tabernacle taxpayers.
Don’t get me wrong. It makes sense to bill insurance companies for ambulance services. It’s an alternative revenue stream. But there’s no legitimate reason for Township Committee members and the TRS to hide this information. The Committee should do its job and get the long overdue 2014 financial statement.