What’s Happening With Emergency Services In Tabernacle? Part 2

Fire:EMS 2 BPart 2 of “What’s Happening With Emergency Services In Tabernacle” is about Ordinance 2015-11. The Ordinance contains two agreements. The first is a contract between the Township and the Tabernacle Fire Company #1 for the provision of firefighting services. The second is a License for the TFC#1‘s use of the Township-owned fire station.

The Ordinance was listed on the September 28, 2015 meeting agenda and was adopted at first reading. TTJ posted about it October 25, 2015. The Committee said little about it at first reading. The public couldn’t participate until the public hearing on October 26, 2015 and was subject to the three-minute rule.

As it typically does, the Committee made its major decisions in private negotiations. Both the contract and the License were drafted through meetings between Committeeman Lee and members of the Tabernacle Fire Company #1. Mr. Lee said that he met with about 15 members of the TFC#1 who made suggestions on the first draft. They met again; additional comments were made and the Ordinance was formalized.

The Problems With The Process.

The problem with the process is that the Committee thinks that public comment is an annoyance that interferes with its work. They think that they can get it right by themselves. For this Ordinance, the Committee’s work was to draft two agreements with the fire company. Mr. Lee, who negotiated the documents, proudly reported that these were detailed A½greements, implying that they were ready to be adopted.

In actuality, the Agreements weren’t ready to be adopted. The hearing droned on for 1½ hours as the Committee wrestled with issues that should have been publicly discussed at earlier meetings. For example, in the middle of public comment, Committeeman Yates said that the Ordinance should be tabled and a subcommittee formed to explore the formation of a single emergency services organization. That idea changed everything. It should have been raised at the September 28, 2015 meeting before the Ordinance was introduced and adopted at first reading. The Ordinance should’ve never gone to public hearing if the Township intended to explore the development of a new emergency services organization

Many townships allow public comment when the idea of an ordinance is being discussed, and at first reading when the ordinance is formally introduced. This allows the Committee to shape the ordinance as it proceeds along the adoption process. By the time the public hearing takes place, the major kinks have been worked out, the scope of the ordinance is complete and the language has been clarified.

Tabernacle only allows public comment at second reading. By then, the Committee is generally locked into the proposed ordinance. If it were to make substantial changes, the Township would have to re-advertise the amended ordinance. This predisposes our Committee to only consider minor changes. For ordinance 2015-11, this meant that the major kinks had to be straightened out at the marathon public hearing. The scope of the Ordinance only went as far as Committeeman Lee and the Fire Company negotiated. And the language of the Ordinance has ambiguities.

This public hearing was typical in that Committee members asked few questions about the actual provisions. Most of the substantive comments were made by the public. In just nine minutes of comment, the public raised a number of issues that Mr. Lee and the Fire Company had never considered such as the various details about the chief’s report, the need for the Township to have a current roster and firefighter certifications and the need to clarify LOSAP reports and the manner of their approval. Due to the three-minute rule, there were many other questions and suggestions that couldn’t be raised.

The Committee decided the following about the public comments:

•The Chief’s report will provide a written summary of his report.

•The Fire Company will give the Township it’s current roster whenever it changes.

•The roster will include firefighter qualifications and certifications.

The only issue raised by the Committee was about the length of the Agreements. Initially, the term was three years. But the Committee decided to make the Agreement perpetual subject to the Township’s right to terminate it after 90-days notice. The difference between a three-year Agreement and a perpetual Agreement seems like a substantial change that would require re-advertisement. But the Committee adopted the Ordinance without re-advertisement.

The following are notes and questions that I put together after reviewing the Ordinance when it was introduced for first reading. Some of the notes are stylistic, some are substantive. Few of the issues were addressed by the Committee. There wasn’t time to raise them all.

I’m not posting this to say that the Committee should’ve drafted the Ordinance to my liking. I’m posting it to show that this Committee leaves a lot of meat on the bone when it bites into an ordinance. The contractual relationship with the fire company is very important and warrants a more thorough process than the Committee provided.

My notes are shown in regular type. The Committee’s decisions, public comments and TTJ’s comments are shown in bold and italics within brackets. I’ve also attached the video from the meeting for readers who are interested in reviewing the public hearing. It begins at minute 13:04 and ends at 1:49.13.

COMMENTS AND NOTES ON ORDINANCE 2015-11.

PROVISION FOR FIREFIGHTING SERVICES.

Whereas Clause Section.

The Whereas section of the Agreement should reference the statute N.J.S.A. 40A:14-68a, which establishes that the Fire Company is an instrumentality of the Township and that the Township shall exercise control and supervision of the fire company? This legal relationship shouldn’t be buried in Item 4. “Duties” because the relationship exists irrespective of any duties that may be established by the contract.

ITEM 1. TERM.

The Agreement for the provision of firefighting services terminates on September 20, 2018. This three-year term is excessive. All previous contracts with the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company were one-year contracts. A one-year contract allows for modifying terms for the benefit of the township residents, as changes occur. The public good isn’t served by locking terms in for three years where a beneficial change is warranted. It would be better to begin with a 12-month agreement.

[Committee: Due to concerns about the possible reorganization of emergency services under a Public Safety Director or through merger, the Committee adopted these Agreements with no end date, but can terminate them on 90-days notice.]

ITEM 2. CONSIDERATION.

The consideration of $90,000 is 3.6 times (360%) greater than the payment by the Fire District to the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company. In March 2014, the TFC#1 proposed a $15,000 contract with the Fire District. The proposed $90,000 payment is 60 times greater than $15,000 proposed by TFC#1. If the annual payment is truly for incidental expenses (which is what the Agreement says), and incidental expenses have historically been $24,900, and TFC#1 said it only needed $15,000, then the $90,000 payment is excessive. Why does the TFC#1 need $90,000 now when they only needed $15,000 in 2014?

The Agreement allows a broad and undefined range of expenditures, which can occur outside of Township oversight. It provides that money be used “for customary expenses that are incidental to performance.” This is vague. The fire company, in one form or another, has been in existence for 60 years and it has been under public control for decades. By now, there is ample experience on both sides that would allow this over-broad term to be clarified and defined.

The Township review and approval of expenditures is a responsible activity and has become a regular part of Township practice for the TFC#1. For example, we already pay for equipment, repairs, signage, gear, utilities and the like. Requiring Township approval of other expenses, which the Agreement would authorize the TFC#1 to make, is not an administrative burden.

The Agreement does not specify or determine which expenditures are more appropriately brought to the Township for payment through the ordinary bill-payment process. Why doesn’t the Agreement require that the TFC#1 send the Township a montly report of its expenditures from the $90,000, just as it sends its bills to the Township for the Committee’s approval and payment at a public meeting?

And, in Item 11, the Agreement requires the Township to make payment of $90,000 in almost every circumstance without any review of the expenditures. The Committee is satisfied with receiving an annual financial statement.

[Committee: The Committee didn’t address any of these financial management issues at the public hearing.

TTJ: Readers see how well the Committee is managing the money it gives the Tabernacle Rescue Squad. The TRS still hasn’t submitted its 2014 Financial Statement to the Township and Committee hasn’t demanded it. Neither wants residents to know how much insurance billing revenues the TRS has collected since February 2013.

The Committee also didn’t talk about the total amount of money that was transferred from the Medford Farms Volunteer Fire Company to the Tabernacle Fire Company #1, when Medford Farms was dissolved. The decision to allocate $90,000 should have taken into account these funds.]

ITEM 4. DUTIES.

A. Timing of the Submission of Reports to Committee.

The Agreement allows quarterly reporting. This means that information will be brought to the Township four times in a year, and may well be stale by the time Committee sees it. Also, trends would be easier to spot with monthly reporting. Because firefighting is an essential public safety function, monthly reports should be required as had been the practice of the Fire District. The Agreement didn’t contain contain language that specified whether reports would be written or oral.

[Public Comment: Residents suggested that a written report be presented monthly and placed on the agenda.

Committee: The Committee decided to maintain the quarterly reporting. The Committee also decided to require a “written summary” of the Chief’s report. The Chief’s report won’t be on the agenda.

TTJ: The contents of the Chief’s report wasn’t discussed. Because public comment now precedes Township Committee reports, residents won’t be able to ask the Chief any questions.]

B. Type and Content of Reports.

The Agreement doesn’t specify which reports must be kept or sent to the Township and what information should be contained in them. Below are the reports that, at a minimum, should be required by the Township.

1. LOSAP reports (see Item 9.).

2. Sign-in sheets for each incident or event that TFC#1 members participate in. The sign-in sheet should include a notice that individuals must sign-in personally and that they can’t sign in for another volunteer. Sign-in sheets should also indicate the driver of the vehicle.

3. Summary incident reports, which include the following information: a) total number of calls specifying Tabernacle and mutual aid; b) response time identifying time of dispatch and time of arrival on scene; c) number of response times over the established safety threshold in minutes; d) total number of responders for each incident, interior and non-interior firefighters; and e) identification of responding trucks.

4. Department of Transportation, CDL physical certification.

5. Criminal background check for all fire company officers and members. The Committee needs to know whether any officer or member has a criminal record to ensure that public investments are protected. Volunteers are human (see story about a treasurer of a volunteer fire department in Monroe Township, NJ who embezzled at least $89,000).

6. Investigation reports that include the description of any investigations by the state Division of Fire Safety or any other police or regulatory agency. Recently, there have been or currently are fire safety investigations in Tabernacle by the state Division of Fire Safety. None of these investigations has been presented to or discussed by the Committee.

7. All current certifications pertaining to firefighting training or incident command system for all members of TFC#1.

[Public Comment: A resident pointed out that the Township should know the qualifications and certifications of all TFC#1 members. Also, the Committee should have a roster that reflects every change instead of an annual roster.

Committee: The Committee decided to require a roster that reflects each change and to require documentation of qualifications and certifications.

TTJ: Administrator Doug Cramer said during discussion that it would be helpful to have this information for insurance purposes. Shouldn’t the Township have a roster for the Tabernacle Rescue Squad, which the Township also covers through the Joint Insurance Fund?]

ITEM 5. TERRITORY.

Agreement refers to mutual aid agreements that are approved by the Township or other contracts that are made by the Township. This shows that the TRS’s agreement with Shamong Township or any other township falls outside normal and accepted practices because it was neither entered into nor approved by Tabernacle Township. The Shamong Agreement wasn’t even formally presented to Tabernacle Township Committee.

[TTJ: The Committee didn’t discuss that there should be a similar requirement for the TRS.]

ITEM 9. LOSAP.

On July 7, 2015, the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) issued a report on LOSAP (the Length of Service Award Program) finding that “poor administration and oversight have compromised a program created to attract and reward emergency service volunteers.” The New Jersey State Comptroller is a watchdog. Among other things, it investigates misconduct, waste and abuse at all levels of government. 

Tabernacle hasn’t taken the Comptroller’s report seriously, even though TTJ discussed it and Tabernacle’s program in the July 27, 2015 Post. Tabernacle’s LOSAP program is poorly run, poorly documented and entirely funded by taxpayers. TFC#1 LOSAP reports contain codes for activities, but the Township doesn’t have these codes. The Township automatically approves the reports without knowing what the codes are or whether the activities are eligible for LOSAP. The Township doesn’t seek documentation that volunteers actually participate in the activities. It doesn’t even randomly check the reports and supporting documentation.

The Township has approved LOSAP credits for attendance at Township meetings, which Administrator Doug Cramer says it’s not an eligible activity (see March 2015, page 2; May 2015, page 5; June 2015, page 2). The idea of getting LOSAP credit for attendance at Township meetings seems inappropriate because there’s nothing fire-related about attending a public meeting.

The Agreement does not address the existing LOSAP problems. It requires that the Township Administrator approve payment upon confirmation by the Chief. This prevents the Administrator from making reasonable inquiries into participation records and makes the Administrator completely dependent on confirmation from a person who has a direct financial interest in the LOSAP payment.

LOSAP reports should be submitted monthly, along with the summary incident report and the sign-in sheets to enable a timely comparison of these reports. They should include explanations of all codes that are used. If they are not included, then the effect of the Agreement is to require the Administrator to approve payment for activities whose eligibility for compensation can’t be determined.

Monthly LOSAP reports should designate all current and active members and their certifications to ensure that LOSAP recipients are legally eligible to receive it.

[Committee: The Committee decided that it was their intention that theTownship Administrator could withhold approval until he was satisfied with the LOSAP reports and that the language in the Agreement was sufficient. The committee also decided that the LOSAP reports would be in a form satisfactory to the Administrator.

TTJ: The Committee didn’t go far enough in setting up a LOSAP program with checks and balances. It didn’t establish any requirements for the TFC#1 and made everything at the discretion of the LOSAP Administrator. Because LOSAP is a taxpayer-funded program, there should be clear rules for what’s required in order to get paid. Given the current and undocumented practice of paying volunteers to attend public meetings, the Committee missed the opportunity to implement a solid LOSAP program. The Committee didn’t discuss if LOSAP reports are to be submitted monthly or quarterly.]

ITEM 10. Annual Accounting.

This requirement is unclear. The appropriate TFC#1 officer and the Chief should be required to certify that all public monies are properly expended in accordance with the requirements of the Agreement. What type of accounting is this, a Financial Statement by a certified accountant; an Audit by a certified accountant?

[Committee: The Committee established a submission date of August 1 for the annual accounting.]

ITEM 11. Agreement Subject to Municipal Budget.

A. The Agreement allows a reduction of the $90,000 payment only if the Township annual budget is reduced in that year. This prevents the Committee from making budget decisions that are based on actual circumstances. Township budget decisions, including payment to the fire company, should always be subject to the Committee’s annual budget deliberations. In any given year, conditions within the township or within the fire company may not warrant the $90,000 contribution.

[TTJ: The Committee didn’t discuss this at the public hearing.]

ITEM 14. ADDITIONAL PROVISIONS.

The Agreement to reimburse loss for “any” damage of personal property is too broad. Firefighters should not be reimbursed, for example, if their loss is caused by their own negligence.

[TTJ: The Committee didn’t discuss this at the public hearing.]

FACILITY USE/LICENSE AGREEMENT.

Only one question was asked about the Facility Use/License Agreement. There was no time to discuss it. Because the TFC#1 is authorized to serve alcohol in the fire station, the TTJ’s principal concern has long been that the Township is sufficiently insured against liquor liability. The Committee clarified that the TFC#1 could not use the building for its own regular “happy hour.” It’s not clear that the Township would withhold it’s approval of the social affairs permit until all required insurance is obtained.

There wasn’t any time to discuss the issue of the fire hall rental and the additional income that the TFC#1 receives from it. The TFC#1 receives a guaranteed, perpetual $90,000. If all hall rental revenues go to TFC#1, then these proceeds should be considered part of the annual allocation. Under the Ordinance, the $90,000 does not consider the hall rental income.

CONCLUSION.

As I said at the beginning of this Post, there’s a lot more that the Committee should’ve done to protect taxpayers and provide them with an effective and efficient emergency services program.

The Township has cancelled the November 23, 2015 meeting “due to lack of business.”