More Tabernacle Rescue Squad Problems: Reimbursement

Off the Cliff for Money

Tabernacle Rescue Squad Contract

“Old Business” on the February 13, 2017 meeting agenda included the draft contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad for emergency medical and rescue services. The draft contract has been tabled since the Committee distributed it in July, 2016.

The Committee has never publicly discussed the TRS contract. Its discussions have been held exclusively in closed sessions, which aren’t open to the public. Those closed session discussions were on June 13, 2016 and July 18, 2016.

When the draft contract was released, my husband and I submitted detailed comments and questions. We were hoping that the Committee would provide answers. Instead, they tabled the contract again.

That was a wise move because of the new questions that have surfaced about the TRS’s “reimbursement” program. These, when added to all of the other questions surrounding Tabernacle’s emergency services, require a fresh and comprehensive examination before any contract is signed.

At the public comment on agenda items, Stuart Brooks said that the key to making a fair agreement starts with understanding how much money taxpayers give to the TRS directly and indirectly.

Based on the TRS’s 2015 financial report, (which is the most recent available), its total annual revenues are about $325,000. Roughly, $235,000 came from insurance billings. The TRS receives the insurance billings only because the Township allows it. Few, if any, local townships allow their rescue squad to keep the insurance billings.

The Township has also chosen to make an annual cash contribution to the TRS. Tabernacle’s contribution was $70,000 through 2015. That was reduced in 2016, to $35,000 because the TRS’s uncollected insurance billings were half of what they originally estimated. The TRS kept the overpayments, and then asked for a cash contribution of $40,000, not $35,000.

The Township also gives the TRS annual subsidies, which total well over $100,000 annually, depending how you figure the value of the free rent for the Emergency Services Building (ESB). The subsidies cover the following:

  • Free rent.
  • Our interest costs for the ESB bond are about $13,000 annually.
  • Our principal payments are about $260,000 annually and increase significantly every year. The costs are so high because the ESB, whose design the TRS was actively involved in, was so expensive.
  • Free fuel: approximately $8,000 annually.
  • Free insurance: approximately $14,000.

When the Township’s total costs for emergency and rescue services are added up, they could easily be $400,000 to $500,000 per year.

All of the Township’s funding and subsidies, especially the unrestricted insurance billing revenues, gives the TRS extraordinary freedom and purchasing power.

TRS can buy equipment without Township approval and keep it. In 2015, it spent about $110,000 on an ambulance. That’s a different arrangement than the Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC#1) has. When the TFC#1 buys equipment with Township funds, the Township reviews the purchase and owns the equipment.

TRS also pays its members. When the insurance billing program was established, it created a $225,000 annual revenue stream. TRS then started an “Expense Reimbursement Program.” It costs approximately $75,000 per year. According to several sources, some TRS members are receiving up to $10,000-$12,000 per year through this program.

In 2016, the Committee publicly asked TRS leaders for information about it. But, as is typical, TRS wouldn’t provide this information. The Committee backed off and didn’t publicly demand it.

TRS President Jamie Wood said that the Expense Reimbursement Program is so rich that it draws members from other squads, including Tabernacle’s fire company.

Recently, I received a copy of a TRS memorandum that shows how the reimbursement program works.

For starters, the memorandum says the reimbursement program is authorized by a particular statute, N.J.S.A. 40A:14-81.4. Understandably, the TRS wants to show that there’s legal authority for it to have a reimbursement program. But the statute they’ve cited is specifically limited to Fire Districts and firefighters. It doesn’t authorize reimbursement programs for rescue squads. This is what N.J.S.A. 40A:14-81.4 says:

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.

It’s not surprising that this statute treats fire companies and rescue squads differently. Differences show up in other laws too, such as the Open Public Records Act.

The title of the TRS’s program “Expense Reimbursement Program” is a misnomer. It implies that volunteers are reimbursed for unexpected cash outlays like buying a tank of gas, paying tolls or having an emergency road repair done to an ambulance. That’s not how the program works.

The program pays TRS members for the ordinary duties that they perform. The “reimbursement” categories are:

  • EMT’s responding to a scene
  • EMT’s transporting (driving the ambulance)
  • EMT’s on duty crew
  • Chief’s time spent on TRS business.
  • Administrator’s time spent on TRS business
  • President’s time spent on TRS business

These aren’t reimbursements of expenses. These are payments for the work that members volunteered to do.

Then there’s the fundamental problem of how a volunteer, someone who freely offers to work without the expectation of payment, gets paid at all. Because the payments are for the performance of the basic squad duties, it seems that the reimbursement is earned income and could trigger income tax obligations and minimum wage law requirements.

The whole program is attributable to the revenues that the TRS has been collecting from insurance billings.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s good to pay volunteers to perform rescue services; that we should overlook the inconsistency of a “paid volunteer” and we should ignore minimum wage laws because the TRS provides a public service. For the same reasons you may also be thinking that it’s good to give TRS free rent, free fuel and free insurance and enable the TRS to draw personnel away from other fire and emergency squads, because, somehow, it better protects Tabernacle.

That kind of thinking has been the basis for Tabernacle’s long-standing policy. But since the flood of insurance billing revenues, everything has changed. The TRS is self-funded, overfunded and answers to no one. It’s clear that the old approach is not good policy.

It’s certainly not the only policy. Most local townships that authorize insurance billings, capture the revenues for their general fund, so that they benefit all taxpayers, not just the rescue squad.

When local townships contract with private rescue squads, the cost is largely covered by the amount of the insurance billings and maybe the use of a garage. The extra expenses that Tabernacle pays (free fuel, free rent, free insurance, the balance billing contribution – $35,000 in 2016 and $70,000 prior to 2016 –  are over and above what other townships pay.

The significance of these extra expenses hit our wallets last year when Tabernacle raised taxes by 2 cents. If the subsidies were eliminated or if the insurance billing revenues came to the Township, as they should have been, no tax increase would have been required. The preliminary 2017 budget calls for another 2-cent tax increase (see budget comment below).

Though I respect the TRS’s technical skills and the work that they do, it has been a source of too much drama for far too long. It’s leadership carried on a corrosive relationship with the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company; it was active in the wrong-minded dissolution of the Fire District; and it even ran its own candidates in the recent election (Jason Litowitz and Tina Marie Coolidge), after the Township formed a subcommittee that promised to study fire, rescue and emergency medical services.

Despite the large measure of public support that Tabernacle gives to the TRS, the TRS is neither open nor transparent with Tabernacle. Here are a few recent examples that were previously discussed in the TTJ.

  • The TRS entered into an agreement to provide free services to Shamong residents using Tabernacle equipment and kept it hidden (see October 12, 2015 POST).
  • It took $70,000 annually from Tabernacle to cover about $35,000 in costs so it could build its own surplus, while the Township was depleting its surplus to balance its budget (see December 17, 2016 POST).
  • It held “chalkboard presentations” of its finances so that there wouldn’t be any public record of the insurance billing program and the money the TRS is accumulating in surplus (see September 22, 2015 POST).
  • It has refused to discuss details about its reimbursement program or to disclose it’s roster (see January 17, 2016 POST).

This drama is unbecoming of the Township’s official provider of rescue services.

So far, the Committee has spent over $8,000 to produce the emergency services report to resolve the chaos of emergency services in Tabernacle. It’s time to finish that job. It’s time for the Committee to develop a comprehensive plan for the organization of fire, rescue and emergency medical services. This should be presented publicly and thoroughly discussed.

At the February 13 meeting, Mayor Lee asked Township Administrator Doug Cramer to find money in the 2017 budget for a public safety director. The Committee also talked about this in 2015, and paid Township Attorney Peter Lange to prepare an ordinance, which it hasn’t acted on. The scope and responsibilities of a public safety director have yet to be thought through or established.

As for rescue and emergency medical services, the Committee and the public must understand how much Tabernacle currently pays. This requires an itemized analysis, which also accounts for the insurance billing revenues. The Committee should then issue a well thought out Request for Proposals (RFP) for rescue and emergency services and bid out the job. Only then can it rationally enter into a fair and proper contract with an emergency services provider.

The Committee must stop being enablers of TRS and should establish good emergency services policy with effective and transparent administration.


Responses To Public Comment At Committee Meetings

In past POSTS, I’ve written about this Committee’s lack of response when residents make comments or ask questions. While it’s legally permissible for committee members to sit as mute as stones, it’s wrong. The New Jersey Herald, which I’ve quoted before, explains why a public official’s silence isn’t golden.

The citizens appearing before you are voicing opinions and seeking answers. Listen to them and answer their questions.

Answers to comments and questions were absent at the February 13 meeting.

At the first public comment session (the one for comment on agenda items only) resident Mark Trosino rose and began speaking about a police raid in his neighborhood. Mayor Lee politely reminded him that comment was limited to agenda items only but that he would have a chance to comment about anything at the end of the meeting.

Mr. Trosino waited patiently through the long meeting until the second public comment period. He was again recognized by Mayor Lee. He again rose and spoke about the police raid in his neighborhood that happened as kids were going to school, the arrest of a murder suspect and the problem with property maintenance. His comments were very moving. “What can be done?” he asked.

The Committee sat in total silence; the Mayor thanked him for his comments and then they moved on to the next citizen. It was pitiful.

The committee members should have given him, and everyone else in the room, information about the property maintenance code. They could have drawn on their working relationship with the State police. But they said and did nothing.

I raised a question, which I directed to Township Attorney Peter Lange, about public notice on an ordinance that was adopted at the meeting. It was a simple, straightforward question that Mr. Lange could’ve easily and quickly answered.

Instead of allowing him to answer the question, Mayor Lee closed the discussion and said Mr. Lange would answer it after the meeting.

That’s a double problem. First, this is a public meeting. Questions are asked in public; answers should be given in public. Second, when answers are given in private, no one else hears them. This eliminates the opportunity for people to learn how government works and what’s going on in their township. As was the case with Mr. Trosino, it shows people that their elected officials aren’t actually listening.

The Committee was also asked what happened to all of the “Tabernacle” pens that were bought for Wellness day in the past two years (see January 1, 2017 POST). Tabernacle bought 500 in total, but no more than 80 people attended the event each year. Mathematically, there should be at least 340 left. Have they become leftover office supplies? Trash? Stocking stuffers? Gifts to legislators? The Committee refused to answer this question as well.

When Committee members don’t respond, which is usually the case, they disrespect residents who have invested their time to attend the meeting and speak out.

It’s as bad as when the Committee deliberates in private, doesn’t discuss township business in public and takes a vote just to formalize what they’ve already decided. The Tabernacle Athletic Association contract, which was adopted without any public discussion, is one recent example of this (see January 18, 2017 POST).

It seems that the Committee doesn’t want to be transparent or accountable.

Preliminary Budget Discussion

Administrator Doug Cramer presented the 2017 preliminary budget that he and Terry Henry, Tabernacle’s financial officer, prepared. Further discussions and changes will likely follow.

Last year’s budget called for a 2-cent tax increase, the deferral of $160,000 of school taxes and the use of $105,000 surplus funds to close a budget gap of $450,000 to $500,000.

This year’s preliminary budget again calls for a 2-cent tax increase. It doesn’t call for the deferral of school taxes or the use of surplus funds.

New Public Works Facility Or Municipal Complex?

Mayor Lee also mentioned at the meeting that the “Space Committee” is discussing the construction of a new public works facility. He said that the Township is looking at property on Tabernacle Road owned by the Grovatt family.

The Space Committee is chaired by Committeeman Rick Franzen. Is it possible that it will also recommend building a new municipal complex?

Resolution Opposing The South Jersey Gas Pipeline

In the February 17, 2017 TTJ POST, I commented on the Committee’s sneaky move to put a resolution on the agenda at the last minute. The resolution was a form letter that offered support for South Jersey Gas’s controversial gas pipeline from Maurice River Township to the B.L. England Generating Station at Beesleys Point in Upper Township, Cape May County.

It was a sneaky move because residents previously came before the Committee to oppose the pipeline and the Committee knew that these residents would want to oppose the resolution that they passed at the last meeting. By not listing it on the agenda, the public couldn’t know that the Mayor and Committee were considering it.

It was no surprise that residents showed up at the February 13 meeting and submitted a draft resolution to the Committee opposing the South Jersey Gas pipeline. Mayor Lee briefly mentioned it at the end of the meeting and gave it no credence. He’s been showering his mayoral support on the pipeline for years, despite the fact that it’s not a township issue and SJGas’s poor performance in Tabernacle doesn’t merit our support for its corporate projects.

Better to work on Tabernacle’s problems than to be a proxy for others.

More Trouble With Agendas

The Township Committee’s agenda for the upcoming meeting, Monday, February 27, still hasn’t been posted on the official website. This is the fourth consecutive time that the Clerk hasn’t posted a meeting agenda by the Friday before the meeting.

Posting the agenda on the Friday before the meeting used to be regular practice. That practice didn’t seem burdensome and everybody benefitted from it. Now, in strict compliance with the Township’s policy, agendas are typically posted by noon on Monday, 7 ½ hours before the meeting.

At the February 13 meeting, Jason Litowitz commented about the Committee’s shift from posting the agenda on Friday. He pointed out that posting the agenda by Monday noon gives virtually no notice to anyone, especially for people who are at work and can’t check the Township’s official website. The practice of late posting was reducing effective notice and transparency.

I’ve also commented that posting the agenda late and changing it at the last minute obstructs transparency (see February 7, 2017 POST).

Posting the agenda on Monday is a step backwards from the progress the Committee had made. When Committeewoman Brown was Mayor, she prohibited public comment on ordinances at first reading. This made no sense. Comments on proposed ordinances are highly relevant. And, if a citizen wanted too use their three minutes to speak about it, why shouldn’t they?

Mayor Brown also wrongly re-organized the second public comment session where citizens can discuss any issue. She put it before Committee Reports. This prevented the public from commenting on topics raised by these reports. Mayor Brown’s reorganization created the place on the agenda where public comments went to die. It created chaos at the meetings.

Fortunately, Mayor Lee returned the agenda organization to its original format. It now allows public comment on ordinances at first reading and public comment after committee reports.

As he did before, Mayor Lee should again return to a better practice. The Clerk should post the meeting agenda on Friday, except when there’s a real emergency.

The next township meeting is February 27, 2017, at 7:30 PM at town hall.