The five members of Maplewood’s governing body indicated on July 16 that there was majority support for a joint meeting structure with civil service to combine fire departments with South Orange.
The two towns have been exploring merging fire departments for years, commissioning a study in 2016 that recommended the move. Although the towns had first indicated that Maplewood would be the lead agency in a shared services agreement, South Orange leaders ultimately expressed discomfort with that scenario and requested the more equitable joint meeting structure with civil service in March.
The topic of the fire department merger was a hot button issue in the South Orange municipal election this spring. Voters overwhelmingly re-elected Village President Sheena Collum, who has been an aggressive proponent of merging the departments. The two local South Orange firefighter’s mutual benevolent associations (FMBAs) as well as the NJ FMBA supported Collum’s challenger, former Trustee Deborah Davis Ford. Davis Ford and the unions also said they supported a merger — but only if joint meeting/civil service and that they preferred a regional model.
In voicing his support for the joint meeting structure and civil service, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said that the New Jersey State Shared Services “Czars” and the Department of Community Affairs were working to help ameliorate any difficulties or costs that such a structure could have incurred.
DeLuca said that the joint department would consist of 70 firefighters, a number which includes one Chief and 4 Deputy Chiefs. The three existing firehouses — one in South Orange and two in Maplewood — would be maintained as well as all the existing fire apparatus.
“What we decided was that in a normal case a joint meeting is able to own property, enter into contracts and tax members,” said DeLuca. “We wanted to make this as simple at the administrative level as possible,” said DeLuca; therefore, he reported, the state is allowing for the joint meeting structure without making the towns hire an executive director or any additional administrative staff. DeLuca said that administration of the joint meeting would be split between the two towns using existing staff and would be overseen by a three-entity board, with one representative from each town and one independent representative.
DeLuca said he had spoken with South Orange Village President Collum and the two town leaders agreed that they’d like to “put forth a resolution similar for both towns moving in the direction of establishing a joint meeting.” DeLuca said that they would be looking to establish the joint meeting in October or November and “have it functioning” by Jan. 1, 2020.
Some of the waivers needed from the shared services czars include one-year protections for new recruits or promoted employees moving over to civil service. “You have to be vested one year for protection,” said DeLuca. “We need a waiver from the Governor’s office. … The czars are working on it.”
DeLuca said that the DCA was “helping with legal assistance to do contracts and bylaws” for the joint meeting. He said that the towns were also looking some funding to be allocated from a state shared services fund.
“We’re looking for some funding from there,” said DeLuca. The mayor said that funds were needed for cross training as well as re-branding: “New logos and emblems and hats and signs and things like that,” said DeLuca. He added that the towns “might have some buy-outs of firefighters” as well.
DeLuca said that he believed the FMBAs “will be supportive of this direction” and that Maplewood firefighters had responded positively to a recent presentation by civil service.
“We think we can put all the parties together and make this happen,” said DeLuca.
Township Committee member Nancy Adams asked about when cost savings would be known — or if there was the possibility that there would not be savings.
“I think … early on we would have some sense of what the numbers are,” said DeLuca. He told Adams that he felt confident that there would be both short-term savings and long-term savings: “We don’t have to have two of everything.”
Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee added that there would be savings related not just to staffing but to equipment and operations. In addition, said McGehee, “Also who’s to say that this won’t grow?” indicating that other towns will want to join the joint meeting.
DeLuca stressed that the move was not just about cost savings.
“We will now have more firefighters deployed than we do now [and we won’t have to] wait for mutual aid.”
DeLuca acknowledged that the structure for merging the MFD EMT/ambulance services with South Orange — which does not provide such services and has a separate volunteer rescue squad — still needed to be worked out.
“That’s one of the hardest things,” said DeLuca. “We do bring in $350,000 in ambulance fees a year.” He added, “But we’re going to continue to work that out.” DeLuca assured Committee member Dean Dafis that maintaining the ambulance service was “non-negotiable.”
Committee member Greg Lembrich said that although he had a “strong preference” for the shared services structure with Maplewood as lead agency, he would support a joint meeting. Nonetheless, Lembrich did express his disappointment with going civil service. “I’ve had many people from civil service municipalities say that they are jealous that Maplewood is not civil service. But again the political reality is that if we want to combine … I think the pros still outweigh the cons.”
DeLuca said he would work with Township counsel to draw up a resolution in support of joint meeting/civil service for the next TC meeting.