Tabernacle Rescue Squad To Tabernacle Fire Company: “Stay Home”

UnwantedThe April 10, 2017 meeting was routine until Andrew Cunard informed the committee that the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) had arranged for the Evesham Fire-Rescue, not the Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC#1), to cover the Township while the TRS was busy with its awards banquet.

The TRS’s choice of an outside company was news to Deputy Mayor Yates. He said he was “baffled” that the TRS didn’t discuss coverage with the TFC#1. Mr. Yates also said that asking TFC#1 to provide coverage would’ve been the courteous thing to do and would’ve soothed some of the past animosities that existed between the two organizations. No other committee member spoke up.

TRS Chief George Jackson offered no explanation for not talking with the TFC#1, except to say, “It’s our responsibility and we’re covering it.” That’s not too different from saying “We’re handling this; mind your own business.”

Chief Jackson refused to discuss it further at the public meeting saying that discussion would be “inappropriate.” He told Deputy Mayor Yates that he would discuss it with him after the meeting.

Apparently, phone calls were made sometime later and the TRS was pressured to replace the Evesham Fire-Rescue with the TFC#1.

This episode is the latest example of the TRS’s lack of respect for other organizations in the township, particularly, the TFC#1 and the township committee. The answers to the question Deputy Mayor Yates asked, and the other questions which TRS’s behavior raises, explain why the committee must radically reform emergency services.

Deputy Mayor Yates asked why the TRS didn’t discuss coverage with the TFC#1. After all, TRS and the TFC#1 previously provided rescue services jointly. Both organizations used the rescue truck, which Tabernacle Township bought to provide rescue services. The township gave the TRS control of this specialized truck in 2011 (more on that below). And, most importantly, both organizations exist to serve Tabernacle.

It seems logical that the TRS would cooperate with the TFC#1, but it isn’t logical anymore.

The TRS and the fire company used to be on a more equal footing than they are now. Ordinance 2011-3, which named the TRS as Tabernacle’s official medical and rescue service, put a positive spin on their rocky relationship and looked to a more positive future. It said:

Whereas the Tabernacle Rescue Squad and the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company through the Tabernacle Rescue Squad have performed joint rescue services for many years and wish to continue and grow this relationship and cooperation;

The adoption of Ordinance 2011-3, accelerated the unraveling of the relationship between fire and EMS, instead of leading to the more positive and cooperative future that the Ordinance spoke of. The TRS’s gain was a significant loss for the fire company. It further damaged the relationship between the two organizations. The committee’s subsequent dissolution of the fire district, and other related actions, virtually destroyed it.

Traditionally, and in most townships in Burlington County and the state, rescue services are provided by fire companies and emergency medical services are part of fire services. Evesham Fire-Rescue is a typical example. So is the organization in Medford Township.

Ordinance 2011-3, turned the usual order upside down. Our fire company can only provide rescue services under the direction of the TRS. When TRS made its recent arrangements with Evesham Fire-Rescue, it left the TFC#1 unable to perform services that almost every other fire company performs on its own. It was outrageously disrespectful.

In 2014, the committee dissolved the fire district. The fire district was independent of the township and had the authority to levy taxes to support fire services. The district operated through five publicly-elected fire commissioners. The commissioners were usually members of the fire company because they are the ones who volunteered. They had extensive fire experience and knew what they were doing.

When the township committee dissolved the fire district, the fire company lost its independent source of funding and its independent management. It also lost a lot of its younger, interior firefighters, who strongly disagreed with the dissolution and told the committee that they would leave if the district was dissolved. And they did.

The old fire company also was dissolved. A new fire company (Tabernacle Fire Company#1) was created. It’s funded through the township budget and operates under contract with the township.

While the committee was taking rescue services away from the fire company, dissolving the fire district and causing firefighters to leave, it was enabling the TRS. The committee named TRS its official emergency rescue provider; allowed it to bill insurance companies and keep all of the revenues; and gave TRS additional public funding and subsidies.

When the committee vested more authority in the TRS at the expense of the fire company and greatly increased the amount of money flowing into the TRS, it chose not to exercise effective oversight or management over the squad.

In addition to naming the TRS the sole provider, as described above, the committee enabled TRS by giving it huge amounts of funding. Tabernacle allows the emergency squad to keep all of the insurance billings (approximately $250,000 per year). This is very unusual. Most townships that have insurance billing keep the insurance revenues for the general benefit of all taxpayers, rather than allowing its rescue squad to become a profit center.

Tabernacle also gives the TRS the free use of the $4 million dollar Emergency Services Building. TRS pays no rent while taxpayers spend over $250,000 annually to pay off the bond that funded the ESB’s construction.

The committee also gives the TRS free fuel and free insurance. Tabernacle also pays TRS $35,000 annually to cover the cost of uncollected billings. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, Tabernacle gave TRS $70,000 per year for uncollected billings, which was twice the actual cost. The committee allowed the TRS to keep the overpayments.

The TRS’s funding is so large that it built a cash surplus while our local tax rate had to be increased.

The TRS’s funding is also so large that it offers a compensation plan to its “volunteers.” It paid the “volunteers” $78,000 in 2015. Not surprisingly, the TRS’s compensation draws EMS personnel away from other townships.

The designation of the TRS as the sole and official provider, the allowance of TRS to keep all of the insurance billings and the donation of additional public funding and subsidies, occurred by direct action of the committee and solidified the TRS’s independence.

The TRS operates without any contract. It’s self-managed, it’s self-funded and has almost no township oversight. It can do almost whatever it choses to do without the approval or involvement of any other township organization, including the committee. Because of its extreme independence, bad things have happened. Here are a few examples.

  • In 2013, the TRS submitted a proposal to Southampton Township to become its emergency medical provider. Obviously, that could impact the services that TRS provides to Tabernacle. But the TRS didn’t bother to discuss it publicly with the committee. Nor did the committee, which knew about the proposal, publicly ask. The TRS’s proposal was rejected by Southampton Township.
  • In 2014, the TRS made an agreement with Shamong Township to provide free ambulance service to all Shamong residents in exchange for the ability to bill the insurance companies of covered Shamong residents. The Agreement involved the use of Tabernacle resources. It also resulted in Tabernacle residents subsidizing charity care for Shamong residents. It’s hard to imagine that committee members didn’t know about this. But they said that neither the TRS nor Administrator Cramer told them about it. (see October 12, 2015 TTJ POST).
  • In 2015, the TRS refused to publicly discuss its insurance billing revenues. Instead, it provided the information only to individual committee members in rolling “chalkboard” presentations. Committeewoman Brown said this was done to avoid convening a quorum and creating a public record (see August 10, 2015 TTJ POST). The TRS may still be holding these rolling chalkboard presentations.
  • In November 2015, Fire Chief Dave Smith appeared before the committee and said that the joint delivery of emergency services isn’t working and people’s lives are in jeopardy (see November 7, 2015 POST).
  • In December 2015, when the committee asked the TRS for information about its compensation program, TRS refused (see January 17, 2016 POST).
  • In December 2015, at the same meeting, the TRS also refused to publicly release its roster.

So, to answer Deputy Mayor Yates’s questions about why the TRS didn’t discuss coverage with the Tabernacle Fire Company: why should they?! The TRS has everything and they answer to no one. They’re far beyond the pretext of Ordinance 2011-3, which spoke of wanting to grow relationships and increase cooperation. I’ve even heard a rumor that the TRS wants to operate its own fire company. As yet, that rumor is unverified.

Why was Deputy Mayor Yates baffled by the TRS’s refusal to ask TFC#1 to provide coverage during the awards dinner? He shouldn’t be baffled. The TRS’s behavior was no different from its behavior over the past few years.

Mr. Yates deserves credit for speaking out against what the TRS did. Perhaps, he’s frustrated because he, along with Mayor Lee (who was absent), has been tasked to address the problems with emergency services. Unfortunately, no other committee member said anything.

Why didn’t the committee know about the TRS’s plans to have Evesham Fire-Rescue provide coverage instead of the Tabernacle Fire Company? After all, it’s the committee’s responsibility to assure that there’s emergency medical coverage. It should have been involved, to the extent needed, to make sure that a suitable coverage plan was in place.

Part of the answer was given above: TRS doesn’t cooperate because it doesn’t have to. The TRS knew for a long time that it needed coverage for its awards dinner. It scheduled the dinner far in advance because it’s a big event which required lots of planning. It just didn’t think it was important to inform the committee.

The other reason why the committee didn’t know that the TRS made arrangements with Evesham Fire-Rescue rather than with the TFC#1, is that its oversight of the TRS is so weak.

Administrator Doug Cramer is the committee’s point person to the TRS. He knew when the awards dinner was. He attended it! He’s responsible to inform the committee about the need for alternate coverage. But he didn’t.

Mr. Cramer’s management style is to let the TRS make its own decisions without any public announcements or discussions before the committee.

In 2015, after the TRS’s agreement with Shamong Township was finally revealed in public, to the embarrassment of the township committee, Administrator Cramer was asked if he knew about it. He answered that he knew that the TRS had discussed the Agreement, but didn’t know that the TRS actually signed it.

If Mr. Cramer didn’t know that the TRS signed the Shamong Agreement, he’s a weak administrator. The Agreement was mentioned in the TRS’s annual Financial Statement (that’s how I learned about it.) According to the 2015 Financial Statement, which is the most current, the Shamong Agreement is still in place.

Mr. Cramer, as administrator, should’ve read the Financial Statement and seen the reference. In addition, I had been publicly asking about the Shamong Agreement for 10 months. Apparently, Mr. Cramer never bothered to ask the TRS if the Agreement had been signed.

Mr. Cramer is not that bad an administrator. It’s more likely that he knew the TRS signed the Shamong Agreement. The problem is that he just let the TRS continue the Agreement without asking any questions or bringing it to the committee in public.

When the dust of the Shamong Agreement debacle settled, Chief Jackson and Administrator Cramer pledged to work more closely together and to keep the committee informed. It’s been an empty pledge.

As the arrangement with the Evesham Fire-Rescue shows, Mr. Cramer is still allowing the TRS to make decisions that affect the public safety of Tabernacle and the working relationship between its emergency service providers, without the public involvement of the township committee.

The permissiveness that Administrator Cramer shows to the TRS contrasts markedly with the purpose and resolve that he exercises with the Department of Public Works. Administrator Cramer routinely discusses public works issues with the committee and routinely gets the committee’s input before making decisions.

The difference in his treatment of the TRS seems easily explained by the fact that his son, Steven Cramer, is an EMS Captain at the TRS. The family relationship and business relationship are in conflict.

In this case, the township’s interests were to assure that coverage was provided during the TRS awards dinner and that the working relationship between emergency providers was respected. Administrator Cramer’s duty was to promote the township’s interests. This would’ve been done by informing the committee that there needed to be alternate coverage during the TRS awards dinner and asking the committee for direction. But Administrator Cramer’s duty conflicted with his son’s interest in obtaining coverage from the Evesham Fire-Rescue, rather than TFC#1.

This conflict exists in every other issue where the TRS’s interests and the township’s interests might differ.

Although, Steven Cramer, and 10 other members of the TRS are also joint members of the TFC#1, their allegiances are to the TRS, not the fire company. These individuals rarely, if ever, participate in firematic operations. Practically speaking, they’re “social” members of the TFC#1, not operational members.

There’s no positive relationship or increased cooperation between fire and EMS. That horse left the barn a long time ago. By now, after years of TRS’s divisive behavior, the committee should realize that the TRS can’t change. Indeed, after Mayor Lee and Deputy Mayor Yates were tasked to examine emergency services and propose changes, the TRS ran its own slate of candidates to oppose them in the June primary election. Voters soundly re-elected Lee and Yates over Jason Litowitz and Tina Marie Coolidge.

Emergency services can’t continue under the current conditions. The establishment of a public safety director, which is one of the changes that’s been discussed, won’t fix the problem. The severe inequality between fire and EMS is already baked into the township’s organizational structure. And it would be difficult to find an experienced person who’s unaligned with fire or EMS.

The township committee should accept the obvious reality, bid out EMS services and establish management that’s responsible from the top down and the bottom up.

2017 Budget: The 2017 Budget Hearing will be held at the April 24, 2017 township meeting at 7:30 PM, at town hall.