Tabernacle Rescue Squad, Has Anything Changed?

At the October 22, 2018 committee meeting, the room was packed with TRS supporters who came for Item 6: the second reading of Ordinance 2018-7, “An Ordinance …Repealing Chapter II, Article 2-7A of the Revised General Ordinances of Tabernacle Township.” That’s the ordinance that designates the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) as the “…official emergency medical and rescue service….”

The designation of the TRS, an EMS provider, as the official rescue service was a highly unusual and controversial move. Throughout the state, rescue is generally under fire services. The placement of rescue within the TRS generated a lot of discussion and disagreement.

Before the second reading occurred, there was a 20-minute discussion about the draft minutes of the September meeting. This discussion focused on the introduction of the repeal ordinance (Ordinance 2018-7) at first reading.

At the September meeting, the committee went into executive session to discuss “Matters Relating to Contract Negotiations with Tabernacle Rescue Squad.” When the committee returned, Committeeman Yates introduced a motion to repeal the ordinance that designated TRS as the official emergency medical and rescue service provider. The motion was approved. The committee then adjourned the meeting.

At the October meeting, when September’s draft minutes were presented for approval, committee members Franzen and Brown disputed that Mr. Yates’s motion introduced the repeal ordinance at first reading. Committeewoman Brown also said that the committee always introduces ordinances at first reading by title and sets a hearing date; but this wasn’t done at the September meeting.

Committeeman Yates confirmed that he made a motion to repeal the designation of the TRS but said he didn’t make a motion to introduce the ordinance at first reading. Attorney Peter Lange gave his legal opinion that a motion to repeal an ordinance is the practical equivalent of introducing the ordinance at first reading.

Ultimately, September’s draft minutes were modified by unanimous vote to say that a motion was made to repeal Chapter II, Article 2-7A of the revised general ordinances of Tabernacle Township. Thus the repeal ordinance (Ordinance 2018-7) remained on October’s agenda at second reading.

After approving September’s minutes, the committee opened the public hearing on Ordinance 2018-7. The hearing lasted about 1 hour 20 minutes. Many people, mostly TRS supporters, commented positively about the TRS and the services it provides. I’ve grouped the comments into three general categories and provided my comments below.

A. TRS is a positive community-based volunteer organization.
One common thread among the public comments was the TRS’s positive role as a volunteer organization that has served the Tabernacle community for a long time. People described the high quality of the TRS’s service; the significant role that TRS has played in their family and the Tabernacle community and the importance of having local people provide EMS service. As an example, it was said that the TRS volunteers to be at Seneca’s sporting events.

My Comment. The TRS’s technical expertise is well established. But I question whether anyone needing emergency services would quibble about whether the provider lived in the same home town.

What’s missing from these comments is an acknowledgement that the TRS, as an organization, steadfastly holds itself apart as a private organization and has been unaccountable to Tabernacle government or the larger Tabernacle community.

Some people will surely bristle at a description of the TRS as anything but an upstanding community-minded organization. But the reality is that, apart from its EMS operations and more often than not, the TRS pursues its own political self interest. Here are just a few examples of how TRS has served itself first.

1. When TRS sought township approval for its billing program at the January 28, 2013 meeting, TRS didn’t present itself as new business. It came in after an executive session for a long discussion that wasn’t listed on the agenda.

2. When TRS presented its annual billing revenues for township review and determination of the taxpayer contribution, it convened private “chalkboard presentations,” which excluded the public and intentionally didn’t leave a paper trail (see TTJ POSTS June 30, 2015 and August 10, 2015).

3. In February 2013, when TRS transferred its old squad building to the Township for $1.00 and moved into the new $4 million Emergency Services Building (ESB), it secretly negotiated an unwritten promise that the township wouldn’t charge it rent for the new ESB (see TTJ POST of October 20, 2018).

4. The township built the ESB at a centrally-located site and largely followed the TRS’s design. The location and the design allowed the TRS to efficiently serve the entire community. Although the TRS said it provided 24/7 duty crew coverage from the ESB, the TRS allowed its members to take ambulances to their own homes (many of which were NOT centrally located) so that they could be on duty (and collect compensation) at their convenience.

5. Mayor Lee requested TRS’s roster. This was a reasonable request because Tabernacle was insuring the TRS; TRS was its official provider; and TRS was using substantial township resources. But President Jamie Wood refused and said, “No, I don’t think that’s something as a member they would even want out in the public. I think that’s private. We’re a private entity…” (see TTJ POST January 17, 2016).

6. The TRS has been using Tabernacle resources in Shamong Township to provide free transports to uninsured Shamong residents and to bill the insurance companies of insured residents. Shamong taxpayers pay nothing for the TRS’s service. The Shamong Agreement is a billing agreement not a mutual aid agreement. The arrangement was made without public discussion or formal approval by the Tabernacle committee (see TTJ POST, October 12, 2015).

7. In 2013, the TRS submitted an extensive proposal to provide EMS services to Southampton Township. TRS would receive the insurance billings of covered residents. The proposal touts the ESB, which the TRS uses rent-free and costs Tabernacle residents about $200,000 annually. This proposal was also submitted without public discussion or formal approval by the Tabernacle committee.

The TRS’s sales pitch of “neighbors helping neighbors,” a phrase used in its Southampton proposal and echoed constantly by TRS supporters, is warm and fuzzy. But good neighbors don’t pull any of these shenanigans and show more respect.

The fundamental problem is that the TRS still thinks of itself as a private, self-sufficient organization. Maybe that was true when the TRS worked out of its old building on Hawkin Road and held coin tosses to raise revenue. But it hasn’t been true since insurance billing became its economic engine and the Township built it the ESB.

Incredibly, even though the TRS still gladly takes Tabernacle’s annual cash contribution, subsidies for rent (it now pays for fuel and insurance) and earns about $250,000 through insurance billing because the township allows it to be the official EMS provider, the TRS still thinks it’s independent! The TRS refuses to acknowledge how connected it is to the township and how accountable it must be for taxpayer funding.

By the way, the TRS doesn’t volunteer to be at Seneca’s sporting events. It gets paid for being there. And if they transport someone who has insurance, they’ll either bill the insurance company for the call or cover the cost through the township’s contribution.

Finally, all TRS members receive compensation for duty crew. It is said that some members receive as much as $10,000 dollars. But TRS won’t release those records. Are they really volunteers?

B. The TRS as a cost-efficient provider.
Others commented about cost efficiencies that they said the TRS provided to taxpayers. These comments provided limited analysis and were too thin to be persuasive.

Chief Jackson added that the TRS pays all of the expenses that it possibly can. He said that the TRS pays the electrical bills for the ESB. In 2017, it paid $5,800 for fuel and would continue to do so. In 2018, TRS began to pay for its insurance costs provided through the township’s Joint Insurance Fund account.

My comment. In reality, TRS took public subsidies (fuel, insurance, rent and township cash contributions) for as long as possible. It built its own surplus as Tabernacle’s taxes increased and Tabernacle’s surplus diminished.

Only after TRS subsidies were juxtaposed with its insurance earnings of about $250,000 annually, and taxpayer expenditures of about $200,000 annually for the ESB bond, did the TRS even consider paying some of its own costs. This took several years to accomplish.

In July 2018, Arch Liston, Tabernacle’s Public Safety Director, reported that he started conducting a financial review of emergency services as the committee had directed him to do.

Residents would be interested in knowing how many of the TRS’s runs are outside of Tabernacle. I’ve heard the amount is almost 50%. I understand that TRS has an obligation to provide mutual aid to other townships. But as the TRS’s arrangement with Shamong and the proposal to Southampton Township suggest, there is a difference between the occasional mutual aid call and the regular provision of emergency services to another community.

One economic comment that caught my attention was the description of the $4 million dollar Emergency Services Building as a “sunk cost.” This phrase suggests that because the building is already constructed, it’s too late to reconsider how taxpayers could recover some of those costs.

That’s faulty reasoning. First, although the ESB is indeed already constructed, the bond payments are an ongoing annual expense that will continue through at least 2033. Second, because the billing program has been more successful than the TRS and the committee expected it to be (so they say), the committee has the obligation to re-examine how costs and revenues are allocated. It’s unfair to taxpayers to continue to let the TRS use the ESB rent free as its own profit center while taxpayers make the bond payments.

C. But we’re so close to having a contract.
Chief Jackson and others spoke about the status of the contract discussions that began in 2016. Tabernacle has a contract with its fire company. It should also have a contract with an EMS provider.

Chief Jackson and most TRS supporters spoke about how the TRS had agreed to virtually all of the contractual terms that the township had asked for. They said that the virtually complete contract was in the township’s hands waiting for signature. The fact that the contract hadn’t been signed they said was the township’s fault. And the township’s failure to sign it, said some, showed bad faith and an intention to get rid of the TRS. Some called for the township to either finish the contract or admit that it doesn’t want the TRS.

Public Safety Director Arch Liston, who is negotiating the contract for the township, didn’t think that the township and the TRS were close to a contract. He explained that he offered to have the differences mediated but the TRS’s attorney refused. He also explained that the TRS’s attorney refused to meet with him unless Township Attorney Peter Lange also participated. Mr. Lange said his participation isn’t required.

Taking the TRS at its word that the differences were few and small, Committeeman Joe Yates moved to table the ordinance until the next meeting, November 26. Based on what the TRS said, this should be ample time. “We’re so close. Let’s do it,” Yates said. The committee voted 5-0 to table the ordinance to repeal.

My comment.
The goal is to establish an effective, fair and transparent policy for the provision of emergency services in Tabernacle. Progress in negotiations isn’t helped by comments like “Get your head out of the bogs,” which was said to Deputy Mayor Lee by a TRS supporter. I understand that similar disparaging comments are posted by squad members on social media.

We’ll see what happens.

The next township meeting is November 26, 2018, at town hall at 7:30 PM.