Welcome To “Tabernacle Rescue Squad Township” Where The Squad Gets The Gold Mine And The Residents Get The Shaft

At the January 22, 2018 township meeting, the committee approved a contract with the Tabernacle Rescue Squad (TRS) for EMS services and a new use license agreement for the TRS’s use of the Emergency Services Building (ESB).

The new contract and use license agreement are supposed to fulfill the promise the committee made to the state when it sought approval to dissolve the fire district in 2014. That commitment 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.

The dissolution of the fire district, which was assisted by TRS members, has proven to be an organizational failure ever since.

In March 2016, two years after dissolving the fire district, the committee began to think about how it would centralize the management of emergency services and created a public safety subcommittee to study the idea.

By September 2017, the committee unanimously voted to create a department of public safety and the position of public safety director. The public safety department housed all three of Tabernacle’s emergency units: fire, EMS and the office of emergency management.

The public safety director was made responsible for the coordination and organizational and administrative control of the three emergency service units. The director also was responsible for the regulation of “the control, disposition and discipline” of the people who provide emergency services as well as the regulation of the use and care of emergency equipment.

The committee spent a lot of time and money creating this new administrative structure. It conducted a search for a qualified director and unanimously voted to hire Arch Liston, with great fanfare.

For reasons that it has never explained, the committee didn’t support Mr. Liston in his negotiations with the TRS. It accepted his resignation without considering Mr. Liston’s rescission of his resignation and let him go. The committee has said that it won’t be replacing the public safety director.

When the committee abandoned its idea to centralize emergency services through a public safety director, it not only wasted the time and money it had spent on the idea, it also surrendered to the TRS.

The new contract makes no effort to create a centralized and cooperative structure. It keeps virtually everything the same as it was when the committee dissolved the fire district. The contract gives TRS everything it wants. The TRS also preserves its robust independence.

The TRS keeps all of the billing revenue regardless of the number of calls outside of Tabernacle; Tabernacle pays TRS for the transport costs and expenses that TRS can’t collect from township residents; and the TRS gets to use the ESB for free. The contract also establishes the TRS as the lead agency on rescue services, over the fire company.

The committee’s methodology for “negotiating” the new contract and ramming its approval through was sleazy. It conducted virtually all of its “work” on the new TRS contract behind closed doors in executive session (aka closed session). It never conducted any discussions about the public policy issues that the contract is intended to establish.

The so-called “negotiations” resulted in a version of the contract and use license agreement that almost makes no changes to the township’s relationship with the TRS and makes no reforms to the insurance billing program.

The draft documents were placed on the January 22, 2019 executive session agenda as “Matters relating to contract and negotiation – TRS.” The committee’s intention was to approve the documents immediately and without public review or comment.

Publication of the meeting agenda was delayed so that it wasn’t available until around 12 noon of the day of the meeting. Regular practice is that the meeting agenda is placed on the township website the Friday before a meeting.

At the meeting, after the committee completed its regular agenda, it went into executive session for almost two hours. When it returned, Committeeman Sammy Moore immediately made a motion to approve the contract and use license agreement. It passed 4-0. Committeeman Lee was absent.

The fourth vote was from Committeeman Joe Yates who said, with obvious disgust, “If that’s what the three of them want.” If Mr. Yates didn’t support the contract, he should’ve voted against it.

The process was, as resident Kathy Burger commented later at the meeting, “a disservice to the residents of Tabernacle.” There was no opportunity for public review or public comment on the contract and use license agreement. There was no opportunity for the public to review or comment on the overall policy.

Mayor Barton’s handling of the new TRS contract was as sleazy as his handling of the dissolution of the fire district. There were a few differences, but none that were substantive improvements.

Here are a few differences.

  • When it dissolved the fire district, the committee added the item to regular session and held public comment before the vote. For the TRS contract, the committee discussed the contract privately in executive session and then returned to regular session for an immediate vote. There was no opportunity for public comment before the vote on the contract.
  • When the committee was considering the dissolution of the fire district, Mayor Barton assured the residents that the committee would give notice. He said: “We will have it on the agenda, it will be noticed, you’ll see it” [emphasis added]. This time, Mayor Barton didn’t bother to promise that the TRS contract would be listed on the regular agenda. Instead, the contract was worked out in executive session and approved immediately thereafter at the January 22, 2019 meeting.
  • After waiting 2½ years to make a contract, there was no reason why it couldn’t have been put on a future agenda in the normal course of business. This would have created the opportunity for public review and comment.
  • Another difference is that the committee didn’t wait until all five committee members were present to vote on the TRS contract as it did with the dissolution of the fire district. Waiting for a full committee has been the committee’s longstanding practice. This was true for all matters related to public safety discussions. But the practice changed when the committee rushed to accept Arch Liston’s resignation and failed to consider his letter rescinding it.
  • By abandoning its “full committee” practice, Mayor Barton, Committee woman Brown and Committeeman Moore froze Mr. Lee out of the Arch Liston resignation/rescission at the December 27, 2018 meeting. Mr. Lee who had a planned absence, requested a delay until the January 2, 2019 meeting.

Before the committee voted on the new TRS contract, Mayor Barton shared his thoughts. This was probably to convince us that the new contract was a fair and well thought out step in the implementation of a comprehensive township policy for emergency services. It’s not. Here are some of his thoughts with my comments.

1. Mayor Barton.

We had three options here, either get a contract, take over the billing, or [hire a] third party…I evaluated all three of them. I OPRA’d all of the calls that the squad had over a year period. I analyzed that, looked at that. I talked to a lot of folks in town about how the squad operated.

TTJ Comments.
The Mayor’s private fact-gathering and private analysis are no substitute for public review and discussion. And his information should be made public.

Who did he speak with and what did they tell him? Did he talk with a fair sample of Tabernacle residents, or not? Was his work thorough? Was he open-minded? Did he probe and ask hard questions or did he accept what he was told?

Development of public policy, especially for a subject as fundamental as emergency services, isn’t Mayor Barton’s personal secret. He is a public official conducting public business on a matter of public importance.

Years ago, when the township was struggling with putting a fire engine in the ESB, Mayor Barton conducted private analysis of the purchase of a used fire truck from Moorestown Township. He then discussed the idea publicly with the committee. Perhaps because this idea was roundly criticized, he’s decided that he won’t discuss his ideas publicly again.

2. Mayor Barton.

And when I looked at the different ways, we put some numbers together, started looking at different options, you know, do we want to take over the building? Why take over the building if they [TRS] already know what they are doing [about EMS?]. Do we really want to do that [take over EMS?]?

TTJ Comments.
I’ve asked for those numbers Mayor Barton referred to and all other documents he says he examined. I’ve also asked for Mayor Barton’s analyses. The township hasn’t provided them yet. Who knows if they will?

At the February 11, 2019 meeting, Stuart Brooks asked the committee why the TRS contract didn’t bring any of the insurance billing revenues to the township. These amount to roughly $250,000 to $270,000 per year. Committeeman Sammy Moore, who was designated the chief negotiator after Arch Liston was let go, answered that those decisions had already been made by the time he took office in January.

Because Mr. Moore didn’t negotiate the billing revenue issues, and Mr. Yates and Mr Lee didn’t either (they were kicked off of the Public Safety subcommittee), then Mayor Barton, Deputy Mayor Brown and Township Attorney Peter Lange must have “negotiated” the major parts of the new contract and use license agreement.

Ms. Brown describes herself as a “passionate” supporter of the TRS. And Mayor Barton ran the meeting where the contract was rammed through and highly praised the contract. Neither Mayor Barton nor Ms. Brown answered the question about why the contract doesn’t bring any insurance billing revenues into the township budget.

At the February 11 township meeting, Colonel Lowe said that the TRS’s expenses for fuel, electricity, equipment, insurance, etc., balanced out their insurance billing revenues. No committee member has offered that as an explanation. Nor has any committee member released the actual numbers to show if these expenses balance out, or not. Without this information, the comment that they balance out is pure conjecture masquerading as informed policy.

After almost three years of retreating into executive session to discuss “matters relating to contract and negotiation,” it’s not surprising to learn that the committee wasn’t discussing negotiations; it was discussing public policy.

Mayor Barton explains that committee members were discussing questions like: “Do we want to take over the building?” and “Do we really want to do that?” Surely they asked other policy questions, too. Among all of these questions they should have also asked “Should we get a portion of the billing revenues that come from outside Tabernacle?”

Those are all public questions, not private musings. The “we” in all those questions are citizens of Tabernacle, not just Joseph Barton.

3. Mayor Barton.

We looked at getting a public safety director. Unfortunately, we failed at that.

TTJ Comment.
The committee didn’t fail at getting a public safety director. They actually found a very highly qualified individual, Arch Liston; and they hired him.

The committee failed at negotiating with the TRS. Some committee members undercut Mr. Liston and, essentially, sabotaged his negotiations. The TRS’s attorney refused to speak or meet with him and insisted on negotiating with Township Attorney Peter Lange.

Instead of supporting its public safety director and refusing the TRS’s demand to negotiate with Mr. Lange, TRS’s preferred choice, the committee let Arch Liston go. That’s not negotiation; that’s capitulation.

I expected a stronger negotiation strategy from Mayor Barton who boasted at the meeting:

I negotiated many, many contracts with union labor; and with suppliers [for contracts?] worth hundreds of million of dollars….

4. Mayor Barton.

I looked at going to bid, putting this [EMS services?] out to competitive [bid]…I suspect that a third party would be successful. The third party would probably be a company affiliated with a hospital or facility where patients would go. So it wouldn’t be really a big incentive for them to be in a profit margin. They could just minimize their costs to provide the service and what kind of service would we get for that.

TTJ Comment.
Good data is essential to making good policy. This committee rarely, if ever, makes the effort to get good data. Instead, as Mayor Barton says, they made their decision on what they thought would happen. Actually, it’s clear that they made their decision based on what they wanted to happen and didn’t bother to ask questions because they didn’t want to get answers that wouldn’t support their pre-determined deal with the TRS.

Many surrounding townships have implemented plans for EMS services through various models. Their experiences would have been highly instructive to Tabernacle. But our committee made no effort to get this information.

Also, Tabernacle could have requested proposals from qualified outside EMS vendors. These are the “third parties” that Mayor Barton referred to. Those proposals would have given Tabernacle an accurate picture of what was available. And it wouldn’t have obligated Tabernacle to enter into a third-party contract.

That information would have created a real baseline for a public discussion of what would be in Tabernacle’s best interest.

One of the false justifications for contracting with the TRS is the idea that other EMS providers aren’t as skillful or well trained as thTRS. This is just a ludicrous idea. Their licenses and professionalism are the same.

5. Barton.

And it looks like we have a really good contract.

TTJ Comments.
I’m sure that the TRS agrees. It got everything it wanted on the big issues. It’s keeping all of the billing revenue; it locked in an annual cash contribution from Tabernacle; it’s getting free use of the ESB; and it’s keeping primary control of rescue operations over the Tabernacle Fire Company #1.

For taxpayers, the contract isn’t “really good.” What’s so good about being the only township in the area where the EMS provider gets 100% of the insurance billings? All of the other townships that have insurance billing programs capture some of this revenue for the township budget. Those contracts are the “really good contracts.”

Tabernacle’s contract doesn’t give the township any credit for its in-kind contributions to the TRS. The largest of these contributions is the TRS’s free use of the ESB. Taxpayers will pay over $340,000 on the bond including interest for the building in 2019 and 2020. By 2021, the annual debt service will be over $350,000.

Other townships have found a way to capture the value of in-kind services. Tabernacle’s “negotiators” didn’t. Contracts that capture the value of in-kind services are the “really good contracts.”

The contract establishes that the TRS’s territory is within the township and anywhere else that the township has a mutual aid agreement. Tabernacle subscribes to the county-wide mutual aid program.

No one wants to preclude an EMS provider from giving mutual aid. But this provision fails to address the problem that the majority of TRS’s calls are outside of Tabernacle. Mayor Barton raised this issue in 2018, explaining that TRS’s out-of-township-services were far beyond mutual aid and should be addressed in a shared services agreement.

The problem with the TRS doing the majority of its work outside of Tabernacle is that Shamong, Southampton and other surrounding townships pay nothing for the TRS’s services, while Tabernacle taxpayers pay a substantial part of the expense for the TRS to operate out of the ESB.

Although Mayor Barton raised this problem last year, he now must think its OK for Tabernacle residents to subsidize residents from Shamong, Southampton and elsewhere.

Effective negotiations would have analyzed the costs and revenues of TRS’s out-of-township work. A good contract would have redressed this unfairness.

The new contract requires that Tabernacle pay TRS for any uncollected payments and costs that Tabernacle residents incur. These are the costs that Tabernacle had been paying $70,000 per year for, but which actually cost about $30,000 per year. They largely accrue from people who don’t have insurance to cover ambulance services. These payments are sometimes called Tabernacle’s cash contribution to the TRS.

A contract that found a way to end the taxpayers $30,000 annual payment for uncollected billings (to an EMS company that makes over $250,000 annually from insurance billing and uses a building that taxpayers pay over $340,000 annually for) would be a really good contract.

Other townships either require their EMS provider to write off these costs if, after billing, they are uncollected, or the townships themselves write them off. The amount of revenue collected from insurance companies could easily cover these uncollected billings.

The TRS objects to the write off idea because, they say, their written opinion from the federal Office of Inspector General (OIG) doesn’t address it. This raises three issues:

Issue 1. Why didn’t the TRS address the write off idea when it first approached the committee about creating an insurance billing program? Why didn’t the committee address this idea? This would have been the perfect time to address the write off idea because TRS could have asked the OIG about it.

Answer 1. The committee didn’t initially explore the write off idea because it was merely rubber-stamping what the TRS wanted. It gave little thought to the issue.

When the TRS presented its proposed billing program to the committee it did it after an executive session, without notice on the agenda and with the intention of avoiding public discussion. The TRS wanted it done this way because they see themselves as a private organization with no responsibilities for public disclosure. The committee was happy to oblige.

The billing program would have benefited greatly from a thorough public vetting. But the committee, acceding to the TRS’s wishes, didn’t require it.

As a result of this bungled billing policy, Tabernacle taxpayers initially paid more than a one cent per year in their municipal tax levy to overpay the TRS. The TRS used these over payments to build up its private surplus. Our committee hadn’t made any provisions for the township to pay actual costs or for the TRS to return excess payments.

Even after the $70,000 cash contribution was reduced to actual costs, residents are still paying about half a cent per year in their municipal tax levy to pay for expenses that other townships found a way to write off.

Issue 2. Why didn’t the TRS or the committee ask how other townships handled their insurance billings? Did they just expect Tabernacle taxpayers to suck up this cost?

Answer 2. Yes.

Issue 3. Having thoroughly mismanaged the insurance billing policy at the outset, why didn’t the committee seize the opportunity to set it right in the new contract?

Answer 3. A write off would save taxpayers about 1/2 a penny each year on the municipal tax rate. If other townships can write off the uncollected billings, Tabernacle should be able to write them off too. It wouldn’t take much effort to find out how these other townships do it. But the committee doesn’t care enough to ask.

If it was determined that a new OIG opinion was needed, there’s ample money in the billing revenues to pay for it. The committee didn’t negotiate any provision in the new contract to use billing revenues to pay for a new OIG opinion.

The committee determined that it’s more important that the TRS get all of the insurance billing revenues than for taxpayers to get some tax relief. This reflects the committee’s extreme and unquestioned support for the TRS. This attitude is always wrapped in their statements praising our “volunteers” and the fine work they do.

The new contract, through the use license agreement requires that the ESB will house a fire truck. The old agreement didn’t have such a specific term. But the lack of this term wasn’t an obstacle. The committee always had the authority to put a truck in the ESB. They just didn’t do it.

At the February 11, 2019 meeting, committee members discussed their goals for 2019. One of Deputy Mayor Brown’s goals is to put a fire truck in the ESB. The ESB opened in June 2012 and was built with the intention of having a fire truck there. Where has she and the other committee members been on this issue for the last seven years?

One obstacle to putting the fire truck in the ESB was that neither the TRS nor the township wanted to give access to fire company members. It’s also said that Chief Jackson didn’t want a fire truck in the ESB because he was concerned that it would leak oil on his floor.

Under the new contract, access to the ESB will continue to be controlled solely by Township Administrator Doug Cramer:

The Township Administrator or Public Safety Director shall determine who has and maintains keyed access to the Premises (ESB).

There’s no Public Safety Director because Arch Liston was let go and there are no plans to replace him.

The new contract and the use license agreement re-establish the small details like who pays for utilities, fuel, insurance and repairs; who mows the lawn, who cleans the kitchen, how much notice is required for Tabernacle to revoke the agreement, etc.. Almost all of these obligations remain as they were before, with the exception that the TRS will now pay for internet service and Tabernacle can revoke the Agreement after 90-days notice instead of 6-months notice, as it was before.

Having surrendered to the TRS on all of the major contract provisions, the township’s successful “negotiation” of the payment for internet service and the reduction of the advance notice for revocation look especially small, almost meaningless.

Fair contracts respect both parties. As I’ve said above, on the big issues, the contract doesn’t respect taxpayers. But even on the small terms, the contract shows more respect for the TRS than for taxpayers.

Terms that require the township to perform tend to be certain, precise and beyond question. Terms that require the TRS to perform tend to be loose, unspecific and imply “trust me.”

For example, in Item 13, “Medical Billing,” Tabernacle agrees to pay the TRS annually for uncollected billings. “Such payment shall be made by the end of January…” That’s payment by January 31 every year.

But in Item 10, “Insurance,” where the Squad agrees to reimburse the Township for insurance costs, there is no payment date. When will the TRS reimburse Tabernacle? Whenever.

I don’t expect that the TRS or the Township will have any difficulties making these payments. But why does Tabernacle have to pay on a date certain, while the Squad can pay on ”trust me”?

In item 17, “Membership,” the TRS is required to verify that it’s current members aren’t on a particular “excluded list.” When is the verification due? “Trust me.”

Another example is the requirement of Item 6, “Reports.” The TRS isn’t required to provide any report about uncollected billings. Yet it will bill the township “in the normal course” for the amount of uncollected billings and the township agrees to pay that bill in a lump sum. This allows as little as one invoice that merely says: “2019 Uncollected Billings $30,000.” By the way, payment is due by January 31.

6. Mayor Barton.

Boy, that felt good to get that behind us.

TTJ Comment.
The joy, I’m afraid, will not last long because the new contract doesn’t address the problems that were caused by the committee’s dissolution of the fire district in 2014 and commitment to centralizing the management of emergency services.

It took almost two years for the committee to realize that its commitment to centralized management required the development of policy and township action. That’s probably because the committee’s real goal was to take the money from the fire district and plug a hole in its own budget. Management of emergency services was an afterthought.

In the last three years, the committee seized on the idea of managing emergency services through a public safety director and getting a contract with the TRS. It enacted ordinances to create a new department, conducted an extensive search for a director, had multiple interviews with candidates and then hired one. Within six months, the hand-picked public safety director was gone.

Within the past two months, the committee produced the new contract and and tweaked the old use license agreement. There’s still no overall management plan. And the new contract and use license agreement don’t substantively change anything.

The relationship between the TRS and the township is essentially the same as it was before. The obligations between the TRS and the township are also essentially unchanged. Except for minor changes, such as who pays for the internet, most everything else stays the same.

Because nothing has really changed, the important issues still remain in front of us, not behind.

It’s no secret that the strength and morale of the fire company diminished significantly after the committee (with the help of TRS members) dissolved the fire district and brought the fire company directly under township control. Not only did the fire company lose independence, it also split up and reformed into a smaller part of what it had been.

I don’t expect the committee to bring fire and EMS personnel together in singing Kumbaya. There are always squabbles between fire companies and EMS. I do expect the committee to establish an administrative structure that respects both organizations, provides a rational way to set policy and resolve problems and insists on cooperative, professional performance.

Besides being lopsided in favor of the TRS and against taxpayers, the new contract doesn’t establish a new administrative structure. It defaults Tabernacle to the same administrative structure that existed when the fire district was dissolved except for one very, very minor exception.

That small exception is the committee’s designation of Committeeman Moore as liaison to public safety. There is no written description of the liaison’s duties. The only statement is by Mayor Barton who said that Mr. Moore was appointed to work with Township Attorney Peter Lange:

…to resolve the contract we’re negotiating and resolve the rescue issue, to resolve getting a fire truck… in the public safety building and bring those organizations closer together.

Now that the contract has been adopted, Mr. Moore’s role seems to have ended. At any rate, as Mr. Moore explained at the February 11 meeting, the major issues of the contract were decided before he took office and his role in contract negotiations had already been decided.

Having a liaison for a month doesn’t establish centralized management of emergency services.

The actual duty for the management of fire and EMS falls again to Administrator Doug Cramer, as it was when the fire district was dissolved. His performance in this role hasn’t been strong. Mr. Cramer has not been an independent voice because his son, Steve Cramer, is TRS captain.

The TRS did its Shamong Agreement while under Administrator Cramer’s lax management. When the agreement and its unfairness to taxpayers were brought to light (it appeared in the TRS’s Financial Statement, but no one from the township had read it), Mr. Cramer said he had no idea that it had happened.

In fire company matters, Mr. Cramer’s management has also been deficient. At the January 22, 2019 meeting, a member of the fire company publicly criticized Tabernacle Fire Company #1, gave documentation about his complaint to the committee and explained the reasons for his resignation from TFC#1. I can’t speak to the merits of his grievances.

Mayor Barton replied that this was a “personnel matter” for the fire company and was uncomfortable spending committee time on this problem. Under the Public Safety Director ordinance that the committee abandoned, this issue would have fallen squarely within the duties of the public safety director.

Obviously, effective administrative procedures for handling this within the fire company or at the township administrator level still haven’t been established, five years after the dissolution of the fire district. The firefighter felt he had no recourse but to address the township committee.

Subsequent public comments by others reminded committee members that they had previously been told about similar problems. These too, apparently, haven’t been addressed by Administrator Cramer.

The new contract also doesn’t put tax issues behind us. Because the contract doesn’t bring any billing revenue into the township budget, and provides no relief from the $30,000 annual taxpayer contribution, taxpayers will see its consequences in every quarterly tax payment they make.

Committee members will have to deal with the tax consequences every year when they make up the budget. By the way, the proposed 2019 budget tentatively calls for a municipal tax increase of 3.8 cents.

Committee members should be condemned for adopting such a lopsided, pro-TRS/anti-taxpayer contract and being so spineless towards the TRS’s demands; and for the utter mismanagement of dissolving the fire district without any plan for the future; and for their wasteful spending of taxpayer money in creating a public safety department, hiring a public safety director and then abandoning all that work.

 

The next township meeting is Monday, February 25th, at 7PM at town hall.