Election Maplewood South Orange

Fire Department Becomes Central Issue in South Orange Municipal Election; Mailer Sparks Backlash

Updated April 13, 2019 with a response from the SO Forward campaign.

A mailer by the SO Forward campaign — Deborah Davis Ford for Village President and Matt Wonski, Stacey Borden and Ed Grossi for Trustees —  hit doorsteps in South Orange on April 12 and immediately inspired backlash on social media.

Many local residents — as well as elected officials in Maplewood and South Orange — were upset by the mailer, which they said mischaracterized or falsely reported the facts of a planned consolidation of the two towns’ fire departments. The towns have been working on shared services for years and already have merged IT services, municipal courts, senior services and more.

An effort to consolidate the fire departments has been underway for 2-1/2 years, with the towns jointly funding a study in 2016 and accepting the consultants’ recommendations as presented  in 2017 — moves that have been supported in the past by Davis Ford.

The 161-page consolidation study by Manitou Incorporated that was presented to the towns in October 2017 stated, “Our findings are clear — the communities of Maplewood and South Orange would be better served by combining their fire departments into a single entity.” Manitou presented “several options” that it said “will enable savings in personnel, and increase the numbers of personnel and equipment responding to alarms in both communities.”

In 2017, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca told Village Green via email, “Most importantly [the consolidation] will bring more firefighters and apparatus to a fire quicker and with better coordination. There also could be a significant savings for both towns. I think this makes sense as a shared service.”

The summary or recommendations (see p. 155) do not include closing or abandoning buildings. The recommendations mostly focus on a more efficient use of personnel and shift configurations. In fact, facilities are referenced in terms of their ongoing use to ensure rapid response time.

See the full consolidation study below.

The SO Forward flier contained text such as  “Protect South Orange’s Fire Department” and “Vote No on Sheena Collum and her plan to dissolve the Fire Department” that led some residents to question online whether fire houses in South Orange would be shuttered and South Orange would be losing fire department coverage.

“We are all for ways to increase government efficiency and save money for South Orange taxpayers — but not at the expense of our public safety,” reads the flier. “We must protect the good union jobs of the firefighters who live in our neighborhoods. The Collum plan would leave our safety in the hands of fewer firefighters who live elsewhere.”  (See photos of the flier below.)

Village Green has reached out to the Sheena for Village President campaign and the SO Forward campaign for comment. Collum posted a message on her personal Facebook page (see it in full below) saying she would respond more fully tomorrow. The post also read in part, “I like facts, analysis, good public policy, and yes, I’ve enjoyed working with my counterparts in Maplewood on ways that bring our towns closer together in how we deliver more efficient and better services while being mindful of the unbelievable taxes we pay in providing these quality services.”

On April 13, the SO Forward campaign sent a response to Village Green’s request, stating that Village President Sheena Collum has “proposed … the elimination of the South Orange Fire Department, and that, we are certain, would be a disaster for our village,” and provided an excerpt from a draft shared services agreement between South Orange and Maplewood that would make Maplewood the lead agency in the consolidation (something that has been discussed at public meetings — and reported on). In an email early Sunday, SO Forward campaign communications director Moses Oliva said that the study proposed reducing shift levels in South Orange while increasing them in Maplewood.

Oliva asserted that the consolidation study “was done with almost no input from those who know firefighting best- the men and women of the South Orange Fire Department.”

Oliva also wrote in response to a Village Green question about whether of not the campaign was receiving contributions from firefighter unions or political action committees, “Trustee Ford has also  previously addressed the PAC question you list below. Just to be clear again, the South Orange Campaign does not receive PAC money from firefighters or their unions.”

On April 12, Maplewood Township Committeeman and Public Safety Chair Greg Lembrich posted a lengthy rebuttal to the flier on SOMA Lounge NJ Facebook group that read in part:

From the perspective of a Maplewood elected official who has been very close to this issue, I can tell you that these claims are baseless. It is really disappointing and frustrating to see Deborah and her team stoop to such misleading scare tactics. …

As the third-party expert report (linked below) confirms, the consolidation will make the residents of both towns safer AND save taxpayer money. As Chair of the Public Safety Committee in Maplewood, I am constantly having to balance increased safety vs. cost. This consolidation is a rare opportunity to achieve both while sacrificing neither.

https://www.twp.maplewood.nj.us/…/so-m_final_report…

Here are some actual facts:

1. South Orange will not lose its fire department. The two towns will be served by a joint fire department, with Maplewood as the “lead agency”. We already have numerous shared services between our towns that work this way, including our shared municipal court.

2. No current firefighters in either town will lose their jobs as part of this consolidation. All SO firefighters will be hired by the joint department. There will be no outsourcing to firefighters outside of SOMA. (Lembrich later added, “no one will be demoted from their current rank as part of the consolidation. The joint department will hire all members of the SOFD, and Deputy Chiefs will still be DCs, Captains will remain Captains, etc. Rank, seniority, pay levels, and such thus will generally remain the same for the SOFD men and women in the joint department.'”)

3. South Orange will continue to have a fully-staffed firehouse, trucks, equipment, etc. Every elected official from both towns has made it clear that safety remains priority #1, and neither town will move forward if it loses protection in the process.

4. The consolidation will result in more local firefighters showing up to fight a fire in response to a primary alarm, not fewer. Specifically, a consolidated fire department will respond with 14 firefighters, as opposed to 8 currently.

5. Response times to alarms will not increase under consolidation. Again, neither town is willing to sacrifice safety for financial savings.

South Orange Trustee Steve Schnall posted the following comment on SOMA Lounge NJ:

“As a trustee in South Orange I am disappointed in this mailer and the scare tactics being used here. I echo the comments from Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich above and I am saddened to see the election move in this direction. A full report of the joint fire department study is available to any resident of South Orange or Maplewood and it identifies how a consolidated department will produce better fire safety services and save tax payers’ money. Public safety is our top priority and to suggest otherwise is simply wrong.”

Former Trustee Michael Goldberg wrote, “As the former Public Safety Committee chair in South Orange, I am disappointed to see that our Fire Department is being used as a wedge issue with a lot of misinformation in the election campaign.”

From Sheena Collum’s FB page:

Hey South and Maplewood neighbors. Campaigns have highs and lows for any candidate. Today, or rather this afternoon, has been a “low”. I’m sure you’ll check your mail and understand why.

I’m going to take a little time away tonight (just for me) and compose my thoughts on what just occurred and prepare a response but please know that I will absolutely “go high” which I’ve always done. I like facts, analysis, good public policy, and yes, I’ve enjoyed working with my counterparts in Maplewood on ways that bring our towns closer together in how we deliver more efficient and better services while being mindful of the unbelievable taxes we pay in providing these quality services. Our future is working together. It is partnership and collaboration. I believe in #SOMA and #MAPSO.

And lastly, as a reminder, I’m only taking donations for my campaign from family, friends and community members. I hope you will consider a financial investment in me and support making elections in South Orange ones that other towns, the state and country can emulate. It’s only then more candidates will come forward to run and not be turned off with negativity – and I believe that’s our future too.

Enjoy your night and I’ll be back on the campaign trail tomorrow, reenergized and ready for a new day!

On April 13, 2019, the SO Forward sent the following response to Village Green via email:

What Sheena Collum has proposed is the elimination of the South Orange Fire Department, and that, we are certain, would be a disaster for our village.

An unreleased proposal sent from Maplewood to South Orange in 2018, that Collum has stood by yet has refused to make public, demonstrates why we need greater public transparency around this issue.

The Shared Service Agreement Between the Township of Maplewood and the Township of South Orange Village, recently requested by Deborah Davis Ford, clearly outlines that threat:

§4   Governance

§4.1   Respective roles and responsibilities of Maplewood and South Orange

§4.1.1   Maplewood, through its Township Committee, shall have all power, authority and responsibilities a municipality may have pursuant to New Jersey law in order to maintain and operate a paid fire department. Such power, authority and responsibilities specifically relates to the MSOFD and includes the responsibility to budget and pay for all MSOFD operating expenses and capital costs, including the financing of all new equipment regardless where such equipment may be housed. 

Providing for the public safety of residents is among the foremost functions that local government performs.

The South Orange Forward team is committed to protecting public safety and preserving the South Orange Fire Department.

We are also committed to bringing real transparency to issues of public importance and call on Village President Sheena Collum to release the full draft proposal immediately.

Download (PDF, 7.41MB)

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