South River’s proposed outsource agreement causes borough uproar

 

By VASHTI HARRIS
Staff Writer

SOUTH RIVER — Met with questions and opposition to South River’s latest proposed Shared Services Agreement (SSA), borough officials faced hostility from the South River Volunteer Fire Department and its residents due to the proposal’s aim to begin outsourcing the town’s Fire Prevention Department’s services to Middlesex County.

During the Borough’s Council meeting on Feb. 13, South River Fire Chief Scott Wolf, along with several fire officials and residents, voiced their disapproval toward the council’s proposed agreement, emphasizing that if the employees of the Fire Prevention Bureau lose their jobs, it will provide the borough with no real savings and the county would charge higher fees for their services.

The agreement was first presented by Council President Shawn Haussermann on Jan. 23 during a council meeting, but the agreement is still currently being discussed, according to Borough Administrator Frederick Carr.

“We have been looking for an [agreement] such as this since 2013, but due to the previous administration we were unable to do [so],” Haussermann said.

During the meeting, Wolf expressed several reasons why he disapproved of the proposed agreement and presented a petition signed by the members of the fire department.

“As I stated at the Feb. 13 meeting, Council President Shawn Haussermann stated during the Jan. 23 meeting as part of his council comments that he was not looking to fire or get rid of someone to save money. As part of this new [agreement], they will be laying off four employees, relocating one employee and dissolving an entire self-sustaining department known as Fire Prevention,” Wolf said.

If the agreement is approved it will be implemented on April 1, according to Carr.

The Middlesex County Fire Marshal’s Office would provide the following services for the Borough of South River at no cost: non-life hazard use inspections, life hazard inspections, fire permits, fire investigations of all fires to determine cause and origin, fire prevention education for South River’s public schools and perform state-mandated smoke detector and carbon monoxide alarm inspection when a residential property is being sold and/or rented, according to the agreement.

Currently, the borough’s Fire Prevention Department already provides these services for the town.

Beside possibly replacing the entire Fire Prevention Department with officials from the Middlesex Fire Marshal’s Office, another issue fire officials and residents had in regards to the council’s proposed agreement was that outsourcing the department would not save taxpayers money.

The Fire Prevention Department is paid by the borough and is considered a self-sustaining department; however, outsourcing the department would provide no cost savings to the borough, according to Carr.

“Last year the department made about $97,000 from inspection fees, permit fees and fines which go into a general fund. About $59,000 goes towards paying their salaries,” Carr said.

However, Haussermann believes that the SSA will save the borough money in the long term.

“I think it’s a good idea because it will help bring long-term savings to the borough. We are looking to bring in new revenue to the borough in every way possible. The governor promoted shared services agreements to help small towns such as ours develop better relationships with the county, and I think that this agreement would be a great start,” Haussermann said.

When asked about the possibility that the Fire Prevention Department would be outsourced, Fire Inspector Arthur Londensky emphasized the strong ties each inspector has with the borough due the fact that the inspectors are residents of South River as well.

“Our department is based on service, and the services we already provide is as good as it gets. We are all residents [so] people know who we are, and we are more business friendly. We are self-sufficient due to the fees we collect from the services we provide,” Londensky said.

Even though all of the fire inspectors are listed as part-time employees, some are actually putting in full-time hours, according to Londensky.

“Currently, the borough has four part-time inspectors, but the fire official and his assistant are here every day putting in full-time hours. This comes at no cost to the borough, as they only get paid for part-time hours due to pension restrictions. This means that two inspectors donate extra time at no cost,” Wolf said. “This is a concern expressed by many when it comes to the commitment of the inspectors of the county. Is this continued support going to come with the agreement of a contract of shared services? Our current inspectors have established working relationships, and excellent ones, with those of the borough.”

This is not the borough’s first time outsourcing services. In 2007, South River entered into a four-year SSA with Old Bridge for building services. However, due to continuous complaints the agreement was terminated, according to information reported in the Sentinel in 2010

Fee increases are another concern that fire officials and residents brought up during the meeting, fearing that the county increases will ultimately affect business owners and residents.

Non-life hazard inspections are performed at local businesses in town, according to Londensky. Currently, the bureau charges $50 per inspection every three years, but the county will charge possibly $200 every year, according to Londensky.

According to Wolf, these types of increases will ultimately affect everyone in South River.

“In fact, the agreement submitted by the council contains seven out of 17 pages that pertain to fees alone. Several officers of the Fire Department reviewed the document and we cannot find a single fee that is less than what is currently charged by our local bureau. We feel this will be an enormous hardship for the residents, civic organizations businesses and the school board in the borough.”

For more information about the proposed SSA, visit www.southrivernj.org/council_agendas.html.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@gmnews.com.