Tabernacle’s Contract With The Tabernacle Rescue Squad. Lots Of Motion; No Progress. Part 1.

Hamster WheelThis is Part 1 of a two-part post that analyzes and comments on the proposed contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad. Part 1 is an overview of the proposed contract. Part 2 presents the detailed analysis.

The contract is listed under “Old Business” on the Committee’s meeting agenda for this Monday, August 22. The Committee should allow an extended public comment period and consider the contract at a future meeting. I would hope that the Committee doesn’t treat this contract like the contract with the Fire Company when the public gave a lot of comments and positive suggestions. The Committee ignored most of them and approved the contract.

Overview

From this point on, I’ll call the proposed contract the “Agreement” because that’s what the Committee calls it. Committeeman Barton specifically told the public that the Committee was working on an “Agreement,” not a contract. The Committee has named it: “Agreement For The Provision Of Emergency Medical and Rescue Responder Services Between Tabernacle Township And Tabernacle Rescue Squad Inc.”

In June 2014, when the Committee applied to the State for approval to dissolve the Fire District, it said it would:

centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services in order to promote the professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services in the Township.

That didn’t happen with fire services and it’s not happening in this TRS Agreement.

After it dissolved the Fire District, Tabernacle Township took over management of  fire services. The Committee dumped the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company (MFVFC), which had proudly and effectively served Tabernacle for more than 75 years and made the Tabernacle Fire Company #1 (TFC#1) the provider of fire services. Many of MFVFC’s younger interior firefighters went to other companies.

TFC#1’s firefighters believe they are underfunded, undervalued and underutilized. The Township’s promised cost savings haven’t materialized and Tabernacle’s fire fighting capabilities are less than they were under the supervision and control of the Fire District.

After its poor result with the management of fire services, and after the revelation that the TRS had “secretly” entered into a private contract with Shamong Township to provide free transports to Shamong residents (see October 12, 2015 Post), the Committee led the public to believe that it would change its process for contracting with emergency service providers.

It formed the Public Safety Subcommittee (composed of Mayor Steven Lee and Deptuy Mayor Joe Yates) to review the structure and organization of emergency services in Tabernacle. The Subcommittee met with a lot of people. It made liberal use of  Township Attorney Peter Lange, at a cost of about $8,500. It publicly released its report in March 2016.

The Agreement, which should be based on the report, basically keeps things as they are. When the Committee dissolved the Fire District, it was roundly and properly  criticized for not conducting a thorough investigation and not producing a written report. The Public Safety Subcommittee solved this problem by producing an expensive report. But the Committee ignores its report to preserve the status quo. The Agreement keeps the TRS as the Township’s preferred and well-funded service provider.

The Agreement does address some minor issues.

  • It clarifies some terms that should have been made clear in the Fire Company contract, but weren’t.
  • It tepidly addresses a few management issues by requiring regular meetings between the TRS and the Township.
  • It requires the TRS to pay for its fuel, which is worth about $7,500 annually. That’s a great return for the TRS, which, according to the Subcommittee report, earns about $225,000 annually from insurance billings.

But the Agreement doesn’t address the big issues regarding the structure and organization of Tabernacle’s emergency services.

  • It doesn’t address many, if any, of the Public Safety report’s findings or concerns.
  • It doesn’t “centralize the delivery and management of all emergency services.”
  • It doesn’t require meaningful reports on the TRS’s insurance revenue programs that directly impact tax relief and funding for the fire company.
  • It doesn’t require reports on TRS’s compensation program, which has been siphoning off volunteers from the Fire Company (more on this below).
  • It doesn’t address the systemic conflicts between the TFC#1 and the TRS. Because these issues aren’t addressed, the conflicts between the TFC#1 and the TRS will continue.

As for the insurance billings, the Agreement doesn’t address this at all. By its silence, the Committee will allow TRS to keep all of the insurance revenues, as they currently do.

The TRS has long claimed that they are a private volunteer organization and they should be able to keep the money without telling anyone how much they make.

That’s not the whole truth. It ignores the fact that the public gives huge subsidies to the TRS.

The TRS can only operate in Tabernacle because the Township Committee designated it as the sole authorized provider of rescue services (Ordinance 2011-3). The Committee enforced this exclusivity by having its attorney Peter Lange, send a warning letter to neighboring townships. The letter says that the Fire Company, which used to provide rescue services, can’t do that anymore because that might be operating outside of it’s charter and outside of the Township’s insurance. Mr. Lange copied the Fire Company to be sure it got the message. This caused the Fire Company to stop providing rescue services, and left TRS as the sole provider. Just as the Township Committee set up the TRS as the sole provider, it could easily restructure that relationship and reorganize the insurance billing program if it wanted to.

Also, the fact that TRS receives payment for its services makes it a non-volunteer emergency medical services provider by state law (N.J.S.A. 27: 5(f)). The law distinguishes volunteer squads from nonvolunteer squads based on whether they are paid. The law states:

Nonvolunteer first aid, rescue and ambulance squad means a first aid rescue and ambulance squad which provides emergency medical services on a paid basis [emphasis added].

There’s also an opinion from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office that says the same thing.

Letting the TRS keep all of the insurance revenues and other income isn’t in the interests of Tabernacle residents. And not requiring the TRS to provide current and specific revenue information is poor management.

When the TRS keeps all of the revenues, it denies Tabernacle’s taxpayers any tax relief. The Committee’s refusal to use insurance revenues forces township residents to fill the budget shortfalls through tax increases, the use of budget surpluses and other measures, which is what happened in the 2016 budget.

Property owners are now paying an additional two cents in their municipal taxes to help cover a $400,000 revenue shortfall. Committee members had to raise taxes about $125,000, take $105,000 from surplus and defer $160,000 in school taxes to cover the shortfall. Insurance revenues of $225,000 would have made that tax increase unnecessary. Other municipalities use insurance revenues for tax relief and to support all emergency service providers. Why won’t our elected officials?

Letting the TRS keep the revenues undermines the Fire Company and allows existing conflicts to fester. The Public Safety Subcommittee report says that there’s:

dissatisfaction associated with fire company volunteers. [They] in part, believe that their services are under-utilized and that the Township assigns a greater amount of responsibility and resources to the TRS (emphasis added, p.4).

The late Tabernacle Fire Company #1 President, Len Rovinsky, also said at the June 13 meeting that the Fire Company had to spend substantially more than the Township’s $90,000 annual contribution. Neither Township Administrator Doug Cramer nor any Committee members monitor the Fire Company’s expenditures, so the scope of this problem is completely unknown.

Any contract that requires Township funding should be based on a full and public understanding of the financials. This hasn’t happened yet and it’s not happening with this Agreement.

There’s no doubt that the Township already gives abundant resources to the TRS. The Subcommittee described the TRS funding as a “high level of funding.” But the Township hasn’t broken out that information; residents can’t know the exact number.

As far as I can tell, Tabernacle spends approximately $400,00 to $500,000 annually on the TRS. This includes the bond payments for the building ($220,000) JIF insurance (unknown), heat (unknown), the annual cash contribution ($70,000 through 2015), fuel ($7,500) and other expenses such as the copier, generator repairs, heating system repairs, trash service, major building repairs, phone lines, some utilities and mowing.

The amount of Township funding is so high that, according to TRS president Jamie Wood, TRS has built its own private surplus. In contrast, Tabernacle Township had to withdraw $105,000 from its surplus to balance the 2016 budget.

The “high level of funding” allows a compensation program that is so rich that, again, according to TRS President Jamie Wood, it draws volunteers away from our fire company and from other townships. I have heard that TRS members, including the leadership, are earning between $10,000 and $12,000 annually. The TRS refuses to provide information and the Committee, which surely has access to this information, is silent.

The Subcommittee Report confirms that TRS membership “has grown tremendously” while “firefighting services has experienced a substantial decrease in membership.” The decline in firefighters, especially young firefighters, who can fight interior fires, is a huge unaddressed problem.

Because the Agreement does nothing to develop information about revenue, compensation or membership, the Committee perpetuates its inability to address the big problems facing emergency services. Instead, the Committee has chosen the easy path of letting things stay as they are. This exacerbates the disparity between the Fire Company and the TRS. It reinforces the TFC#1’s belief that it’s underfunded and getting the short end of the stick. 

Everyone understands that emergency services cost money, and residents don’t want to be cheap with public safety. Finding the right level of funding requires an open, honest and informed discussion. The regular and timely release of revenue information, including insurance billing reports, is essential for understanding the rationale of Township funding.

The absence of a requirement to provide financial information continues the practice of hiding it from the public and preventing an honest discussion of how much funding the TRS needs or what the TRS’s costs are relative to other providers. The Committee has never undertaken a comparison to determine what would serve Tabernacle best. Instead, its focus continues to be the interests of the TRS.

The public has never seen any complete documentation that shows what the TRS’s revenues are. The TRS refuses to provide it and the Committee keeps it hidden from the public. In the past, the Committee was satisfied to receive a vague and unsupported email from TRS President Wood as a financial report. The Agreement would allow the continuation of loose and unprofessional practices like these.

I expect that the Committee will point to the requirement that the TRS must produce an annual financial statement by August of the following year. That’s not current information; it’s 18 months old. It doesn’t break out individual programs. It also doesn’t show the standard information that’s usually in insurance billing reports. Those reports, by the way, can be produced at any interval. Other townships get them monthly or quarterly.

The proposed Agreement looks like overfunding. As stated above, Tabernacle spends approximately $400,000 to $500,000 annually on the TRS. The precise amount is unknown because the Township makes it very difficult to break out the information. Again, without showing the public the financial information, the Committee can’t have an honest discussion about a contract with the TRS.

The generous terms of the Agreement show the extent to which the TRS continues to influence the Committee. The TRS has never wanted to disclose its financials and has always opposed centralized management. This Agreement is the Committee’s latest accommodation. After voters resoundingly defeated the TRS’s candidates  in the last primary election (Jason Litowitz and Tina Coolidge), it should be clear to committee members that Tabernacle residents want a better policy rather than one that caters to the TRS.

This Agreement is just the latest version of the Committee doing the TRS’s bidding. TTJ readers will remember how the Township accepted the TRS’s outrageous process of presenting financial information at “chalkboard presentations.” Presentations were scheduled so that there wouldn’t be a quorum of elected officials which would require a public meeting (see June 30, 2015 Post). The TRS held multiple chalkboard presentations so that Committee members would get the financial information, but the public never would. Former Mayor Kim Brown openly admitted that they did this so that there wouldn’t be a public record of the billing revenues. (Video, August 10, 2015 Meeting).

TTJ readers will also remember that the Committee’s dissolution of the Fire District was spearheaded by TRS leaders including Captain Sean Vena and family, TRS Chief Jackson and family, TRS President Jamie Wood and family and TRS past President Jim Jones and family. The Township Committee dissolved the District after saying they did a report (they didn’t) and saying the dissolution would be listed on the agenda so everyone could see it (it wasn’t).

Readers should also remember the Committee’s inexplicable ignorance about  about the TRS’s agreement with Shamong Township. Committee members said that they never knew about the Shamong Agreement; even though the Township’s auditor identified the Shamong Agreement in the TRS’s financial statement that was submitted to the Township.

Administrator Doug Cramer also said he didn’t know about the Shamong Agreement even though he’s the Township’s primary contact with the TRS and he previously said that the statement in the auditor’s report was a typo. I had been asking questions about the Shamong Agreement at public meetings for a year, yet Committee members still said they were shocked to learn about it. (see October 12, 2015 Post; September 28, 2015 video).

Other local townships, which don’t have such a dependent relationship with their rescue squad, run their emergency services differently. Typically fire and rescue are unified. Townships put the billing revenues into their general fund and use them to support both fire and emergency medical services and to provide tax relief. Revenues, such as insurance billings, are regularly tracked.

When you boil down this proposed Agreement, it lets the TRS keep, at least, $225,000 in billings with almost no accounting in exchange for $7,500 worth of gasoline. In addition, the Township will pay approximately $200,000 more to support the TRS. This is a great deal for the TRS, a horrible deal for township taxpayers; and it certainly isn’t anything like centralized management, which the Committee promised the state it would do.

The Township meeting will be held August 22, 7:30pm, at town hall. The video of the July 18 meeting was posted July 20.