Township Committee Still In The Thrall Of The Tabernacle Rescue Squad

In a tranceWhy Is There Still No Fire Truck In The Emergency Services Building?

The Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) seems to hold a special power over the township committee, which prevents it from keeping its promise to place a fire truck in the Emergency Services Building (ESB). Until committee members snap out of the trance, the township won’t be able to improve fire safety and reduce insurance premiums for residents on the east side of Tabernacle, which the committee has promised since 2010.

The commitment to create a fire sub-station at the ESB was made in February 2010, when the committee approved a $4,000,000 bond to construct the building. The Township had purchased the 2.4 acre property in 2007.

The idea of the ESB started years before that. In part, it developed from Chief Jackson’s desire to have taxpayers build the TRS a new home to replace the Squad’s 60-year old building on Hawkin Road. The Squad’s building didn’t meet DEP standards and its property didn’t conform to Pinelands standards. Expansion by the TRS was physically and financially impossible.

For many years, there also had been discussion about creating a fire substation on the east side of Tabernacle. The fire sub-station became an essential component of the ESB. Here’s how the TRS’s promotional flier from the 2010 referendum (more on that below) described it.

The new site was selected so that the greatest number of Tabernacle homeowners would be within 5 miles of a fire station. This creates an insurance rating that allows most homeowners to get a reduced annual premium. Insurance rates vary, but Chief Welling [Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company] indicates that the reduction is typically between $150 and $500 per year. Approximately, 99% of our residents would be within 5 miles.

In order to justify the public construction of this building, the ESB was pitched as a shared-use facility. It was supposed to house all of the township’s emergency providers: the TRS, Office of Emergency Management, CERT and the fire sub-station.

The ESB would be equipped with a shower for decontamination of personnel and separate washer/dryers for decontamination of equipment. It also included facilities that could be jointly used by fire and emergency personnel, such as an oxygen containment system for re-filling oxygen bottles. It also included a vehicle wash station that could be used by fire, EMS and public works. The idea that other entities would make use of the wash station, and Tabernacle would charge for its use, was also promoted. But little has come from this.

After the committee adopted the $4,000,000 bond ordinance in February 2010, citizens filed a petition to place the ESB on the November ballot as a referendum. They cited the high cost of the building. Public debate was filled with comments as to whether the proposed ESB was a luxury or a need.

I campaigned in favor of the ESB because I thought it was a necessary and beneficial public investment. The five committee members, who approved the bond ordinance (Baranowski, Brown, Franzen, McNaughton and Yates) were silent about it during the November election.

Voters narrowly approved the ESB and the township moved forward with the project. The building opened June 10, 2012. Tabernacle residents now pay about $200,000 per year for the bond.

It’s almost eight years since the committee approved the bond. All present and past committee members have stated countless times that they want a fire truck in the ESB. Because there’s still no fire truck there, the building is essentially the home of the TRS.

At the November 27, 2017 committee meeting, Mayor Lee was again asked what was delaying the placement of the fire truck in the ESB. He said this:

I worked very hard more than once to get a truck in the building. I thought we had it in the building at one point. It didn’t work out that way. At the very least, we’re in the process of putting the pieces in place to get a truck in that building.

This statement doesn’t answer the question: Why is there still no fire truck in the ESB?

As someone who worked very hard to get the ESB approved, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that TRS Chief Jackson has blocked the fire truck and the township committee is more interested in backing Chief Jackson than fulfilling its promise.

On its homepage, the TRS proudly displays all of its vehicles outside and in front of the magnificent ESB, It’s an impressive picture. The ESB stands head and shoulders above the usual rescue squad buildings that you see in nearby townships. Committee members actually used to call the ESB the “Emergency Rescue Squad Building” before they trained themselves not to.

A September 21, 2017 photo in the Pine Barrens Tribune shows the spacious interior of the ESB occupied totally by the TRS

These two pictures show that the TRS controls virtually the entire site and all of the vehicle bays. It’s easy to understand why the TRS thinks it owns the ESB and doesn’t want to share it. The mistake, of course, is that the TRS doesn’t own the ESB. The building is owned by the township and was always designed to be a joint fire and EMS facility.

Because the fire sub-station was integral to the concept of the ESB, there should’ve been a plan to make it happen from the start. Such a plan would’ve had the fire district designate the fire truck that could be moved over; it would’ve designated a vehicle bay in the ESB for the truck; it would’ve provided the equipment and gear for the fire truck; and it would’ve had accommodations for the firefighters who would man the truck.

The single unsuccessful attempt in 2013 to put a fire truck in the ESB suggests that there never was a plan or the plan was changed after the TRS took occupancy in June 2012.

Here’s how the 2013 effort went down.

On October 15, 2013, according to the township committee’s official minutes and meeting recording, John Burger, Chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners (the fire district), appeared at the committee meeting and said that fire engine 4311 would be placed in the ESB at 7:30 PM the next day. He welcomed the entire committee to attend. No committee member responded.

On October 16, 2013, as promised, engine 4311 was driven to the ESB. It was expected that firefighters would be given electronic keys (“key  fobs”) so they could access the building and man the truck. Chief Jackson was there. There was a list of firefighters who would get keyfobs. Some firefighters were not on the list. Without access to the ESB, the fire truck couldn’t be manned. Engine 4311 returned to the main fire house on Hawkin Road.

On October 17, 2013, at the Board of Fire Commissioner’s meeting, the official minutes report that the Board “…attempted to place a fire truck in the ESB. However the township did not have enough key fobs available for the firemen.”

Mayor Lee, Committeeman Barton and Committeewoman Brown attended the Board’s October 17 meeting. The official minutes also report that Mayor Lee expressed his appreciation for the Board’s efforts to place a truck in the ESB. He asked if there was anything that needed to be done regarding gear or equipment. Chairman Burger replied that they were working with both Chiefs to address this.

No delivery of Engine 4311, or any other fire truck, was ever rescheduled.

Here are five logical steps that should’ve been taken to solve the key fob problem, but weren’t.

1. Township Administrator Cramer should’ve asked the fire district, well in advance, how many key fobs it needed.

2. Township Administrator Cramer should’ve asked Chairman Burger at the October 16 meeting how many key fobs the fire district needed.

3. Somebody from the township should’ve accepted Chairman Burger’s invitation to attend the fire truck delivery on October 16, at 7:30PM. When the key fob shortage occurred, he or she should’ve asked Chairman Burger how many key fobs were needed.

4. The morning after the key fob problem occurred, Mayor Lee should’ve directed Administrator Cramer to find out how many key fobs were needed and to get them ASAP.

5. At the fire district meeting, Mayor Lee should’ve assured the Board of Fire Commissioners that, although a mistake had been made, additional key fobs would be obtained immediately for all firefighters and that he would work with the Board to reschedule the delivery of the truck and the key fobs at the earliest opportunity.

None of these obvious steps were taken. There was no follow-up on re-delivery of the fire truck by the committee.

Because the key fob problem could’ve easily been solved, and no effort was ever made to solve it, it’s obvious that the quantity of the key fobs was never the reason for the failure to put a truck in the ESB.

On December 8, 2014, fifteen months after the key fob problem, the township committee dissolved the fire district. At that point, the township had complete responsibility and authority over everything related to fire safety in Tabernacle. It owned the ESB, the fire station and the fire trucks. It controlled the fire company.

Nothing prevented the committee from placing a fire truck in the ESB. But it still did nothing.

In January 2015, when the committee voted to purchase a new fire engine, it was anticipated that, upon delivery, another engine would be placed in the ESB. The new Rescue Engine 4312 was housed at the main fire station on January 2017. At that time, the fire company was ready, willing and able to deliver an engine to the ESB.

Committee members continued to say how important it was to put a truck there. But now, almost one year after delivery of Rescue Engine 4312, there’s still no truck at the ESB.

When Tabernacle built the ESB, it gave TRS everything it asked for and more. The committee even agreed not to charge TRS rent for the new building, leaving residents alone to pay off the $4,000,000 bond. In exchange for free rent, the TRS gave the Township its decrepit, 60-year old building on Hawkin Road.

The free-rent swap for this property was so unseemly that it wasn’t publicly discussed. According to Committeewoman Brown at a recent township meeting, it was done in private.

After substantial repairs, the old squad building is now used for meetings by civic groups, such as the boy scouts and seniors. That use could be better and more cheaply met at Tabernacle’s schools. Efforts to integrate this stand-alone property into a public works facility have not been successful.

Later, the Committee gave the TRS free insurance, free fuel, annual cash contributions, which exceeded TRS’s needs, and the right to keep at least $250,000 annually in insurance billings.

In contrast to the TRS, residents on the east side of Tabernacle haven’t received the safety benefit of being closer to a fire station. Nor have they received the insurance premium reduction. But they do pay extra taxes every year for the bond on the ESB.

Because the TRS has near exclusive control of the ESB and is the only organization that hasn’t called for the long-promised placement of the fire truck there, I conclude that the TRS is blocking the truck. (I’ve been told that Chief Jackson doesn’t want any oil on his floor.)

Because the committee didn’t solve the key fob problem; and didn’t move a truck after it dissolved the fire district; and didn’t move a truck after Rescue Engine 4312 was delivered, I also conclude that committee members are still under the control of TRS Chief Jackson. They don’t have the will to cross him.

At the November 27, 2017 meeting, Colonel Lowe, Tabernacle’s Emergency Management Coordinator, presented his proposal to convert a surplus truck into an emergency management vehicle and store it in the ESB.

Wisely, Committeeman Joe Barton said he wouldn’t consider the idea until after a fire truck is placed there. Committeeman Barton said:

Before a truck goes in that building, I’d like to see a fire truck in that building. We built that facility with the understanding that there was going to be a fire truck. There’s still no fire truck many, many years later. After a fire truck is in that building, I’d be happy to discuss putting another vehicle in that building. I understand [Col Lowe’s] need, I understand it’s surplus. But, I think there’s something more important to be done, and that is a fire truck on this side of town.

That’s the right decision. It was surprising that no other committee member supported his idea. The fire truck is long, long overdue. The committee should place a fire truck in the ESB immediately, regardless of any objections by the TRS.

PuppeteerThe Automatic Re-Hiring Of The TRS

The favored position of TRS was also highlighted by a comment that Mayor Lee made at the November 27 meeting regarding professional services. In essence, the Mayor implied that it didn’t matter who applied to be the township’s emergency services provider, how qualified they were or what their costs were, because the township was going to re-hire the TRS regardless.

The Mayor’s comments were made in response to Committeeman Barton’s comment that Administrator Cramer put together a Request for Proposals (RFP) for emergency services, as he had done for the annual appointments of other township professionals.

Here’s what was actually said.

Committeeman Barton:

The other old business I have is that we don’t have a contract for emergency services and I would suggest that we also have the administrator put together a request for proposals for emergency services and put it out there.

Mayor Lee:

He [Administrator Cramer] has the RFP’s for all the professionals. I think to formalize the agreement that we’re going to have, we’re going to potentially have, with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad, I think it’s probably [best] to have an RFP to at least say we did our RFP. We like Pete [Township Attorney Peter Lange] and everything. But we still make Pete submit an RFP. But we still need an RFP as an appointment.

The Mayor initially caught the slip of his tongue and corrected his reference from “the agreement we’re going to have with the TRS” to the contract “we’re going to potentially have with the TRS” (emphasis added). But his true thought spilled out when he added “I think it’s probably [best] to have an RFP to at least say we did our RFP.”

That’s wrong. RFP’s aren’t solicited to provide cover for the committee’s selection of the person it wants instead of the person who is best qualified. Tabernacle’s public notice says:

All proposals are being solicited through a fair and open process in accordance with Tabernacle Ordinance 2005-17.

The Mayor’s comments say that the process regarding the TRS is neither fair nor open.

The TRS’s actions over the last few years show that it’s not a strong candidate to be the township’s official provider because it values its own independence and financial gain more than it values being part of a centralized and cooperative emergency services program. When the committee dissolved the fire district in 2014, it said there was a “compelling public safety interest” to:

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

The committee, for its part, has treated the TRS as its favorite son, and has looked the other way when the TRS has resisted being part of a centralized, township-managed, cooperative service. The committee has allowed the TRS to do as it pleases and operate in private. Here are some examples.

• The committee gave TRS the exclusive franchise to insurance billings. It did this surreptitiously, off agenda, after an executive session.

• The committee allowed TRS to hide its insurance revenues from the public by accepting private “chalkboard presentations” from the TRS in order for the committee to perform its legally required financial review of the billings.

• Although the TRS insists that it’s a private organization, the committee gives it cash contributions, free rent, free fuel, free insurance, etc..

• The committee looked the other way when questions were repeatedly asked about the TRS’s contract with Shamong to provide free ambulance service for Shamong residents.

• The committee ignored the TRS’s bid to provide service to Southampton Township and never questioned how it would impact service in Tabernacle.

• The committee hasn’t required the TRS to explain or to provide any information on the TRS’s compensation plan, even though Mayor Lee requested it.

• The committee doesn’t require the TRS to provide its roster as it does the fire company, Community Emergency Response Team and Local Emergency Planning Committee. But the committee allows the TRS to hide its roster in the township’s Emergency Operations Plan.

Until the committee breaks out of the TRS trance, it won’t be able to put a truck in the ESB or create the centralized emergency services. The hiring of a public safety director, which the committee says it’s moving forward on, won’t solve this fundamental problem. If the TRS continues to control the committee, no public safety director will change this relationship.

Based on Mayor Lee’s comments at the November 27, 2017 meeting, it’s likely that the TRS and the status quo will remain.

The next township meeting will be held December 28, 2017, at 7:30 PM, at town hall.