Tabernacle’s Emergency Services “Plan” Still On The Brink Of Failure

At its December 27, 2018 meeting, the township committee took the first of two big steps backwards in its five-year slog to develop and implement a centralized emergency services plan.

First, it accepted the resignation of Arch Liston, its public safety director. Mr. Liston was a highly experienced, independent administrator who was hired to recommend an effective administrative structure for the oversight and delivery of emergency services. He was also tasked to negotiate a contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS). (That’s right, despite the extraordinary financial and service ties between the TRS and the township, there’s never been a contract.)

Three committee members (Barton, Brown and Franzen) voted to accept the resignation. Mr. Yates voted against it; Mr. Lee was absent. Prior to the December 27, meeting, Mr. Liston formally withdrew his resignation. Apparently, the committee wouldn’t allow it. Committee members Brown and Franzen, longtime supporters of the TRS, appeared visibly pleased. No doubt the TRS, which opposes oversight, was also pleased.

Mayor Joseph Barton who, along with Committeemen Stephen Lee and Joe Yates, was instrumental in creating the public safety department and hiring Mr. Liston, said Liston wouldn’t be replaced.

Mr. Liston was hired on June 4, 2018. He was unanimously selected because of his extensive experience in public safety and public administration. The committee saw his independence as a much needed asset because he was not a resident of Tabernacle and was not seen as an ally of the fire company, the TRS or the township committee.

As Mr. Liston dug into his assignment, it was clear that some committee members didn’t support his work. Neither did the TRS; it refused to negotiate with him.

At the October 2018 township meeting, members of the TRS crowded the meeting room and besieged the committee with comments that the negotiations of a new contract with the township were virtually complete; could be wrapped up quickly and further negotiations were unnecessary. Mr. Liston said that negotiations were going nowhere because the TRS’s attorney refused to meet with him. The TRS didn’t want to meet with Mr. Liston, the independent public safety director. It wanted to meet with Peter Lange, the township attorney.

The committee extended the time beyond what the TRS said was needed to tweak the language that was virtually complete. Despite the extra time, there’s still no contract. Mr. Liston was right; the TRS was wrong.

The committee took the second backward step at the January 2, 2019 township meeting. It dissolved the existing public safety subcommittee. Mayor Barton established a new public safety committee and appointed himself and Mr. Moore to replace Mr. Lee and Mr. Yates.

By releasing Mr. Liston, deciding to leave the public safety director’s position vacant and replacing the members of the first public safety sub-committee, the committee has almost returned to where it was after it dissolved the fire district in 2014. There’s still no plan for centralized management of emergency services, and the committee still seems in the thrall of the TRS.

The committee’s stated goal in dissolving the fire district was to “…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 goal, just like the placement of the fire truck in the emergency services building, remains unplanned and unfulfilled.

The fire district wasn’t perfect, but it was capable and effective. As an elected governmental body, it’s leaders could be removed by the ballot and it was subject to public oversight.

When the committee dissolved the fire district it had no plan to reorganize or improve emergency services. There were no public discussions about how it would achieve the “centralized…professional, efficient, cooperative and effective delivery of all emergency services.”

The committee’s greatest consideration, perhaps its only consideration, seems to have been the takeover of $400,000 from the district’s surplus. It used the money to plug a hole in the township budget.

The fact that TRS members were instrumental in the dissolution of the fire district suggests that the township’s goal of centralized, professional, efficient, etc., for emergency services was merely language intended to conceal the goal of continued and uncontrolled TRS independence.

The low point in the dissolution chapter was Mayor Barton’s false promise (at the January 27, 2014 meeting) that the committee would actually study the merits of dissolution, bring back all of the information and place the issue on the agenda with full public notice. This would’ve given the public the opportunity to comment before the committee decided.

I’m gonna appoint a sub-committee and Committeewoman Kim Brown has agreed to be on the subcommittee along with Deputy Mayor Steven Lee…, and they’re going to take the time necessary, the resources necessary, to get all the facts and information and present it back to the committee, I’m sure they’ll do a good job in calling in whoever they feel necessary they need to interview, whatever information they need to petition so that one day we can put this on the agenda and we can make an intelligent decision about the petition that’s before us. So as far as the petition, we will have it on the agenda, it will be noticed, you’ll see it; and this governing body will take action on the petition that was presented to us [emphasis added].

That’s not what happened. Mayor Barton broke his commitment. The resolution for dissolving the fire district wasn’t listed on the agenda that was routinely published on the Friday before the meeting. Anyone who looked at the agenda on the township’s website wouldn’t know that the committee would address the dissolution of the fire district at its April 28, 2014 meeting.

At the start of the meeting, Mayor Barton simply announced that a resolution was being added to the agenda. He didn’t even say that the added resolution was the resolution to dissolve the fire district.

The subcommittee had no written report and wouldn’t identify who they spoke with, if they spoke with anybody at all. It issued its predetermined recommendation.

Given the importance of emergency services, the committee should have hit-the-ground running with its reorganization plan. But the committee never had a long-term plan. The dissolution of the fire district was just a short-term scheme to fix the township budget; to oust the long-standing Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company; and to reinforce the TRS as an organization that the township wouldn’t control.

Administrator Douglas Cramer was tasked with managing emergency services. The fact that his son, Stephen Cramer, is a captain in the TRS creates the appearance of conflict of interest, if not an actual one. The committee ignored this problem.

Under Administrator Cramer’s management, the TRS reeled off one embarrassing act after another. Almost any one of them should have been a signal that independent oversight was critically needed. Tabernacle’s committee, unfortunately, was content with the status quo and even participated in some of these escapades.

Here’s a list of outrageous TRS behavior that was tolerated or enabled by the committee as it went about “…centraliz[ing]…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.

1. When TRS sought township approval for its insurance billing program at the January 28, 2013 meeting, TRS didn’t present the subject as new business. The committee didn’t list it as new business either. In fact, neither the billing program nor a report by the TRS was listed on the agenda. The billing program was discussed after an executive session after the public had left. It was obvious that the TRS and the committee had prearranged the stealthy discussion because Chief Jackson and President Wood “just happened” to be there and all agenda were completed.

2. When TRS presented its annual billing revenues for the committee’s required review and determination of the taxpayer contribution, it convened private “chalkboard presentations.” These were designed to exclude the public and not leave a paper trail. The committee was fine with this arrangement. Committeewoman Brown even said it was the proper thing to do, otherwise the information would become public record. Committeewoman Brown’s idea that taxation and the expenditure of public funds aren’t public business went out of style in the United States with the Declaration of Independence.

3. In February 2013, TRS transferred its old squad building to the township for $1.00 and moved into the new $4 million Emergency Services Building (ESB). It also secretly negotiated an unwritten promise that the township wouldn’t charge rent for its use of the ESB. Committeewoman Brown, out of loyalty to the TRS and the honor of her word, still wants Tabernacle to abide by this secret, unenforceable, dishonorable promise. The old squad building has been a money pit for Tabernacle taxpayers. I’m sure that the TRS was ecstatic to offload it.

4. The township built the ESB at a centrally-located site which was selected to allow TRS to efficiently serve the entire community. Although the TRS said it was providing 24/7 duty crew coverage from the ESB, it allowed members to take ambulances to their own homes (many of which were NOT centrally located) so they could be on duty (and collect compensation) while enjoying the comforts and conveniences of home. This practice stopped in my area of the township when TTJ brought this practice to light.

5. The TRS refused to publicly provide its roster, even though it was Tabernacle’s official provider and it was receiving substantial township subsidies. TRS President Jamie Wood explained:

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….

Actually, the TRS and the township hid the TRS roster in Tabernacle’s Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) thinking that the EOP was not subject to OPRA. I disagreed, sued and won.

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 services. The arrangement was made without public discussion or formal approval by the Tabernacle committee.

When I brought the Shamong Agreement to the committee’s attention, all of our elected officials expressed shock about the TRS’s unauthorized use of township resources. Administrator Cramer, who was supposed to be managing the TRS also said he was unaware of the Shamong Agreement.

Neither the committee nor Administrator Cramer are credible. The existence of the Shamong Agreement was plainly stated in the TRS’s annual Financial Statement and I had been asking about it for months. Besides, if Administrator Cramer had actually been managing the TRS, he would have known about the Shamong Agreement before the revenues it produced were reported in the TRS’s annual Financial Statement.

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

8. In late 2015, as the committee was beginning its budget process and anticipating a significant tax increase, TRS President Jamie Wood told the committee that previous township contributions of $70,000 annually to the TRS were more than double the amount that TRS actually needed. But, she added, the TRS wouldn’t give any money back because TRS wanted the cash to build its surplus.

We wanted to build up our surplus, build up so that we weren’t going pay-check to pay-check, so to speak.

While TRS was building its surplus at taxpayers’ expense, Tabernacle’s surplus was shrinking to levels that concerned committee members and led to a tax increase. The idea that a private organization of “neighbors helping neighbors” would take twice as much public money as it needed to build up its own private surplus is obscene.

The TRS’s taking more than twice the amount it needed in order to build surplus is not much different from one of the reasons that was given to dissolve the fire district. The Petition to Dissolve, which was signed by many TRS officers and members, said that the fire district had built a surplus by levying more taxes than it needed. If raising more taxes than needed was grounds to dissolve the fire district, then taking more tax dollars than needed should be grounds to replace the TRS. But the committee has always applied a different standard to the TRS.

9. Because the TRS insurance-billing program has been so lucrative, the TRS compensates its members. TRS Chief George Jackson explained this payment program at a township meeting:

Reimbursement to members is for the cost while responding to calls, serving on duty crews or covering standbys, their mileage, their gas, equipment, things they purchase while they’re doing it and their wear and tear.

The TRS’s most recent Financial Statement further explains that reimbursement is based on the number of volunteer hours served. It says that each TRS member affirms:

…that they have incurred reimbursable expenses at least equal to the amount of reimbursement being provided and maintains documentation of said expenses personally.

I don’t know of any organization that reimburses its members without requiring the submission of documentation. Without documentation, an organization can’t be sure that the expenses are real. President Reagan’s advice, “Trust, but verify” is prudent.

The reimbursement process seems more like a way to distribute earnings than a program to reimburse actual expenses. Reimbursement is a repayment for an actual expense. Payment for the time spent responding to calls, serving on duty crews or covering standbys, isn’t reimbursement of an expense. It’s payment for hours worked. An employee gets paid for hours worked. A volunteer, by definition, is “a person who works for an organization without being paid.”

It’s well known that some TRS members are receiving as much as $10,000, and possibly more, for “reimbursement.” It’s hard to believe that actual expenses for mileage and personal equipment are this high. The committee asked TRS President Jamie Wood for more information about the “reimbursement” program. She refused, again insisting that the TRS is a private organization.

The TRS’s reimbursement program should concern the committee because almost all of TRS’s income is attributable to the township’s annual cash payment, the township’s gift of rent-free use of the ESB and the township’s designation of the TRS as official provider, which allows TRS to collect insurance billings.

10. The ESB was largely designed by the TRS. It featured an extra garage bay for the inclusion of a fire truck, which was intended to promote fire safety and reduce residents’ insurance costs. Residents are still paying for this extra garage bay, but no fire truck has ever been placed in the ESB. Instead, the TRS has enjoyed total control of the garage area since it opened in 2012. No committee member has yet challenged the TRS control or required the placement of a fire truck. Not surprisingly, Administrator Cramer hasn’t either.

11. Mayor Barton reported that more than 50% of the TRS’s runs are to other townships. That’s not mutual aid. It’s the expansion of the TRS’s regular service area. The TRS masquerades as a hometown rescue squad while half of its business is outside of Tabernacle. Yet Tabernacle taxpayers pay the full expense of the TRS’s use of the ESB to service other townships.

12. For years, the TRS convinced the township committee that taxpayers should pay for TRS expenses such as fuel, insurance and rent. As TTJ exposed the extraordinary revenues that TRS received from insurance billings, the embarrassment of receiving public subsidies for basic operating expenses became too great for even TRS to bear.

TRS now pays about $7,000 for its fuel and, according to its Financial Statement, $2,284 for insurance. These are the two smallest costs that the TRS could cover, though TRS is now quick to point out that it pays them. The small fuel and insurance costs are dwarfed by the subsidy of free rent that taxpayers still give the TRS. Taxpayers spend over $200,000 annually for the bond on the ESB. The TRS pays $0.

In addition, taxpayers still contribute $30,000 for the TRS balance billing. That amount was reduced from $70,000 after TTJ exposed how the committee was making unwarranted contributions without any public accounting by the TRS. Taxpayers shouldn’t give any money for balance billing. TRS should cover the cost of uncollected bills from the insurance billing revenue, as other townships do.

13. Responsible management requires a review and understanding of current data. But instead of requiring the TRS to provide it’s Financial Statement soon after it’s completed (April 15 after the close of the prior calendar year), the committee lets TRS submit its annual Financial Statement early December. That’s one year after the close of the prior calendar year. Why does the committee let TRS hold its Financial Statement until the data are one year old? Because they have no interest in managing TRS.

When the TRS started raising money from insurance billings, it stopped being the hometown crew and became more like a commercial enterprise. It expanded it’s territory and increased the number of calls to increase the amount of it’s insurance revenue. The committee has never caught up to this change. It still treats TRS as if we are living in 1960.

Some committee members, such as Kim Brown (and former committeeman Rick Franzen), are so passionately and blindly supportive of the TRS that they don’t care what the TRS does. Ms. Brown has said that it’s perfectly fine to hold chalkboard presentations to cleanse the public record and that it’s okay for the township to take over the TRS’s decrepit building in exchange for a secret promise not to charge rent for the ESB. The fact that TRS runs half of its calls (and gets half of its revenue?) outside of Tabernacle while township residents absorb the full costs of the ESB bond doesn’t matter to her.

Ms. Brown’s callous attitude towards taxpayers is not surprising. She’s the person who double-dipped on municipal health insurance, taking health insurance benefits from the township while taking cash-in-lieu of the health insurance benefits she got from the Tabernacle School District.

After years of non-management and uncritical support, the committee could not longer ignore the TRS’s behavior. Some members finally seemed to recognize the need for independent management and oversight.

At the September 28, 2015 meeting, the committee established the first public safety subcommittee. It’s purpose was to:

…investigate and review the current structure and organization of emergency services throughout the Township of Tabernacle.

The subcommittee consisted of Mayor Steven Lee and Deputy Mayor Joe Yates.

This seemed like the first logical step towards a plan for the long promised “…centralize[d]… delivery and management of all emergency services, etc..”

In March 2016, the subcommittee issued its report. It made a number of general observations and recommendations, including that the township enter into a contract with the TRS.

In August 2016, the committee initiated contract negotiations. After initial discussion, the proposed TRS contract was tabled.

On June 4, 2018, Mr. Liston was hired. He was tasked to review the emergency service organizations and their capabilities and to complete contract negotiations.

But with its recent backward steps of December 27, 2018 and January , 2019, the committee still has no plan for emergency services and the TRS still seems to be calling the shots.

I sincerely wish Mayor Barton and Committeeman Moore the best in their renewed negotiations with the TRS. But if an independent professional couldn’t negotiate a fair contract that provides responsible oversight, it seems unlikely that two committee members can do it, especially after five years of the committee’s paralysis on the issue.

The substitution of Mayor Barton on the public safety subcommittee gives me particular concern. He has sometimes spoken responsibly about emergency services, such as when he supported the creation of a department of public safety and when he supported an independent administrator to head that department.

But he has consistently done the opposite when the important votes came up. He jettisoned the independent expert, Mr. Liston, and has no plans to replace him. He assured the public that the committee would do a thorough fact finding before it considered the dissolution of the fire district, but proceeded without a written report. He voted to dissolve the fire district without having a replacement plan. And, most disgracefully, he assured the public that they would be fully notified before the committee officially discussed the dissolution. But he sprung the resolution the night of the meeting without any prior public notice. To be blunt, he lied.

Now that Mayor Barton has installed himself as a new member of the public safety committee, what does he bring to these new negotiations that he hasn’t brought before? How does he now rise above TRS influence when he couldn’t do that before?

Mr. Moore is a fresh voice, but he’s only one of five committee members.

By now the committee should realize that they are unable to negotiate a fair contract with the TRS. The committee is too partisan and, as the release of Arch Liston shows, it’s unable to consider independent advice or act on it. It’s time to advertise for a Request for Proposals for EMS services. This should provide an unbiased, market assessment.

Any plan for “centralized management” that doesn’t meaningfully address oversight, transparency, fiscal accountability and fairness to taxpayers is just a rearrangement of the deck chairs.

The Numbers Don’t Lie.

At the December 27, 2018 meeting, Mayor Barton gave a recap of the Township’s OPRA work, reporting that Tabernacle handled 253 OPRA requests.

His accounting contradicts the township clerk’s official OPRA log, which tracks the status of all OPRA requests. The log shows only 88 OPRA requests; running from 2018-1 to 2018-88.

Why is Mayor Barton’s number almost three times higher than what’s shown on the official OPRA log? It’s unclear what he counted. But he clearly counted differently than the clerk, who is the township official who is statutorily responsible for OPRA requests.

The website of the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey says that one of its objectives is:

…insofar as possible to set up uniform methods of procedures in New Jersey municipalities.

Inflating statistics by using an unconventional counting method, if that’s what Mayor Barton did, surely doesn’t meet the objectives of the Municipal Clerks’ Association.

2019 Reorganization.

At the January 2, 2019 reorganization meeting, Joseph Barton was sworn in as mayor and Kim Brown as deputy mayor.

Mayor Barton announced that when the committee returns to holding two monthly meetings in February, the first meeting of the month will be a workshop and the second will be a regular meeting. He also announced, in response to my question, that the committee will have only one public comment period at the workshop meeting and two public comment periods at the regular meeting.

Other than the label that the clerk puts on the agenda (“workshop” or “regular”) and the number of public comment periods that the committee will allow, what’s the difference between a workshop meeting and a regular meeting? In the past, they were identical except for the dress code; committee members wore casual dress at the workshop meeting and business casual at the regular monthly meeting.

The committee needs to clarify what it will be doing at workshop meetings as opposed to regular meetings. Here are some questions.

  • Will the committee take action at workshop meetings?
  • Will the committee present and adopt the bills at a workshop meeting?
  • Will the public be able to raise questions about agenda items at workshop meetings?
  • Will the public comment period at the workshop meeting be at the beginning or at the end of the meeting?

The committee also changed the meeting time. Meetings will begin at 7pm, not 7:30pm.

The next township meeting will be held Tuesday, January 22, 2018, at 7pm at town hall.

(POST updated January 20, 2019).

Because of technical problems with my video cam, there is no video recording of the December 27, 2018 township meeting and only a partial video recording of the January 2, 2019 meeting. I’ve uploaded the partial video recording to this POST. I also have uploaded the audio recordings of both meetings for interested TTJ readers.

12.27.2018 Meeting, Audio Recording

1.2.2019 Meeting Audio Record (four files)

1.2.19 Re-Org 1.MP3

1.2.19 Re-Org 2.MP3

1.2.19 Re-Org 3.MP3

1.2.19 Re-Org 4.MP3