South Orange firefighters, through their union, have entered the fray in a local political race, posting a statement last week weighing in on the proposed fire department merger with Maplewood.
The statement, written by the FMBA [Firemen’s Benevolent Association] Local 40 and 240 of South Orange, criticized current Village President Sheena Collum as “resisting requests” for meetings and pushing a consolidation plan that would understaff the South Orange firehouse and compromise public safety. The FMBA thanked Collum’s challenger, Trustee Deborah Davis Ford, “for bringing this issue to the forefront.”
The issue of the South Orange/Maplewood fire department merger had been moving along quietly over the past 2-1/2 years with seemingly widespread community support. For decades, elected officials in both towns — including Davis Ford and Collum— have run on platforms of shared services in an effort to thwart the continued tax impact of rising health, salary and pension costs. Many have talked about an ultimate goal of uniting the two towns, which have shared a school district for a century and, more recently, a municipal court.
As the merger has moved forward, officials in both towns have discussed it in terms of balancing fiscal responsibility with public safety. Davis Ford began voicing her objections during Board of Trustees meetings last fall. In an interview last week, Davis Ford told Village Green that she told Collum last summer she would “fight” her over local control of the fire department as well as civil service status for firefighters.
Davis Ford and the SO Forward slate sent a mailer to households on April 12 that charged that a proposed “Collum Consolidation Plan” would “kill” the South Orange Fire Department and hinder public safety. The flier elicited backlash online and elsewhere in the community for its negative tone and pushback from elected officials in both towns who said that claims in the flier were misleading or false. Davis Ford, conversely, has said she has seen positive response from the flier with people telling her, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.'”
On April 18, the South Orange FMBA weighed in, posting a guest column/op-ed on TAPintoSOMa. In the statement, the FMBA claimed that proposed staffing levels for the South Orange firehouse on Sloan Street would compromise public safety and that Collum had not sufficiently solicited firefighters’ feedback in the process.
In response to multiple Village Green requests for comment, the FMBA sent a copy of the statement on Friday, April 19 (see the statement in full below).
Similar to the SO Forward flier, the op-ed refers to the “Collum Consolidation Plan.” The FMBA claims, “That plan clearly states that in order to achieve the more than $1 million in savings the number of firefighters stationed in South Orange will be reduced to three.”
“This means that there will not be an appropriate amount of firefighters, based on federal safety standards, to respond appropriately to working fires,” the statement continues. “To put it bluntly, if a resident is trapped in their burning home, our members will be hindered in their efforts to undertake a rescue safely.”
However, multiple sources have told Village Green that South Orange rejected that minimum of 3 as a “non-starter” and that the plan as negotiated is a minimum of 6 per shift in the South Orange firehouse. In an interview last week, Collum said that Davis Ford was aware of the negotiated staffing minimum of 6 firefighters for Sloan Street. Village Green has emailed the SO FMBA rep to ask if the FMBA was aware of this negotiated minimum and will update the story when we receive a response.
The FMBA statement also asserts, “Under the Collum Consolidation Plan, by her own admission, the authority to manage the finances and operations of the Fire Department will be with the Maplewood Town Council. While there will be an advisory board established to review decisions, there will be no recourse available if South Orange residents are not satisfied with the manner in which their tax dollars are being spent on this endeavor. All hiring and promotion decisions related to the new department will also be left in the hands of Maplewood, a township that does not use civil service, which is a set of NJ State standards of ensuring that such important decisions are made without the undue influence of politics, nepotism, or favoritism.”
However, at the March 25 Board of Trustees meeting, Collum reported that South Orange was recommending a joint meeting structure to Maplewood as well as civil service, stating, “The recommendation from this governing body will be to pursue moving forward with the joint meeting with civil service.” Although Maplewood would be the lead agency in running the consolidated department, a joint meeting structure would give South Orange and Maplewood equal power in governance of the consolidated department (similar to the Joint Meeting of Essex & Union Counties sewer authority that both towns belong to) as well as the freedom for the joint meeting to use civil service if it so chooses. (Watch the exchange between Collum and Davis Ford here at 2:47:58.) In an interview on April 15, Davis Ford also stated that a joint meeting is her preferred method of governance for a consolidated department, although she said she preferred a regional model.
(Updated to add: In a statement posted on social media, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca indicated, “Both South Orange and Maplewood firefighters are concerned about the loss of current job protections, retention of ranks and salaries, and the future appointment process. These are real and justifiable concerns that the Joint Exploratory Committee has discussed and is prepared to discuss in more detail with the firefighters.” In an interview after DeLuca posted his statement, Maplewood FMBA Local 25 representative Capt. Chris Ariemma has told Village Green that Maplewood firefighters are open to civil service as long as there is parity in preserving rank, etc.)
Besides public safety and control, the South Orange FMBA claims that the consolidation study commissioned by Maplewood and South Orange was “developed largely without the input of our firefighters” and that the lack of inclusion continued after the report was delivered: “After resisting our requests for a meeting in the summer of 2018, and making it clear that she had no intention of discussing the matter with us directly, Village President Collum was finally cajoled into a meeting that included union leadership from both Maplewood and South Orange, our statewide union leadership, and Governor Phil Murphy’s Shared Service Czars.”
In a phone call last week, Collum rejected this characterization and said that she had invited South Orange firefighters to put all suggestions, comments and feedback in writing and submit them to officials. Collum offered an update of the March 18 shared service czars meeting at the March 25 South Orange Board of Trustees meeting during the Village President’s Report.
The South Orange FMBA statement concludes: “To be very clear, we believe under the right scenarios consolidating the South Orange and Maplewood Fire Departments can work, and, in fact, believe that by employing a greater vision even more savings can be realized. However, this is not a plan that deserves to be debated under the microscope of a political campaign. It deserves thoughtful discussion and analysis, transparency, and, most important, constructive input from all involved.”