By VASHTI HARRIS
SOUTH RIVER — Council President Shawn Haussermann’s “unexpected” introduction of a resolution led to an approval by the council to outsource fire prevention services.
Councilmen John Sapata and James Gurchensky voted against four other council members who approved a Shared Services Agreement (SSA) with the Middlesex County Fire Marshal’s Office during the Borough Council meeting on Feb. 27.
Haussermann introduced the resolution during his council comments. Mayor John Krenzel and each council member were given a written version of the resolution for the first time by Borough Attorney James Nolan.
“The SSA was not changed from its original form. Apparently, the county uses the same form for all participating municipalities. The issues that I raised were discussed openly by the council and resolved to the satisfaction of most,” Nolan said.
However, Krenzel and Sapata said they were surprised by Haussermann’s introduction of the resolution.
“I did not know that Council President Shawn Haussermann was going to introduce the resolution for the SSA on Feb. 27. The SSA was discussed during the business meeting on Feb. 13. During the Feb. 13 meeting, many firemen and residents voiced their displeasure and concerns with Shawn Haussermann’s plan to enter into a SSA,” Sapata said. “It was my understanding that initially the agenda for the Feb. 27 meeting included the first reading of an ordinance that would have replaced the current borough Fire Prevention ordinance with the SSA.
“That ordinance was removed from the agenda, and it was my belief that it was being tabled for a later date. The agenda that was distributed and published did not include an ordinance for an SSA nor did it include a resolution to enter into an SSA,” he said.
Sapata said he believed that the firemen were told that an ordinance for the SSA would not be voted on during that meeting and stated that the resolution was given to him for the first time before the council vote.
“At the conclusion of the meeting during council comments, after all agenda items had been addressed, after the firemen had all left to respond to a structure fire and after Haussermann had told the firemen that there would be no vote on the SSA ordinance, Haussermann made a motion to accept a resolution to enter into an SSA.
“The resolution had been prepared in advance of the meeting by the borough attorney, and it was given to me for the first time before the vote. Haussermann’s resolution was voted upon with no opportunity to review the document, with no prior notice to me, and more importantly with no prior notice to the public,” Sapata said.
Before the council officially voted on the resolution, Krenzel, who is Republican, called Haussermann’s unanticipated introduction a “surprise party.”
“[Haussermann] presented the resolution during the last 15 minutes of the meeting. He basically introduced it out of the clear, blue sky,” Krenzel said.
In response, emphasizing the financial condition of the borough, Haussermann explained that the borough was left in a bad monetary state by the previous administration and that the council is trying to put the taxpayers first.
“We have been left with the borough in [terrible] financial condition from the previous administration. The previous two years’ tax increases of almost 10 percent will be followed up with another 5 percent or more this year due to our opponents’ excessive spending. The firehouse alone will cost almost a half million [dollars] a year for the next 30 years. And we are finding out that more bonding may be needed to complete it. In light of these challenges, we are moving ahead with decisions that put taxpayer relief ahead of anything else,” Haussermann said.
He also said that during the meeting he stated that the council would be taking the next step pertaining to the SSA and stated that the council felt that the concerns brought up by the fire department were already addressed.
“[During the Feb. 27] meeting, members of the fire department brought forward the same concerns that were addressed at the previous meeting. One of the first questions I was asked was whether we were still planning on going ahead with the SSA. My answer was that I believed we were going ahead with [the] agreement, plain and simple,” Haussermann said. “The fact that the firemen went out on a call had no bearing on the process. After more than three hours of discussion, over two meetings, we felt that all the issues were addressed. Four other towns use this service and have found it beneficial to their residents.”
Haussermann believes that the council’s decision to accept the SSA will be appreciated after it has been implemented.
“It is my firm belief that, once in place, our residents and businesses will agree. There has been a lot of misinformation passed around, and that is sad. After April 1, I am sure that the decision of the council will be appreciated,” Haussermann said.
Councilman Ryan Jones also expressed that he was not surprised when Haussermann introduced the resolution, citing the previous meetings where the council discussed the SSA.
“Discussions of this issue at two different meetings, totaling nearly three hours, can hardly be described as a surprise,” he said.
Jones further expressed that he believes that SSA will help save the borough money.
“I voted in favor of sharing services with the county because it’s going to save taxpayers money and for a vast majority of residents, the change will be invisible,” he said. “We get to redeploy four vehicles and other resources such as office space instead of asking taxpayers to pay to inevitably buy those things. Residential fees will be the same for inspections, emergency inspection fees will be lower and commercial inspections will fall in line with our neighboring boroughs and meet the state’s goal of preventing fires.”
Originally, fire prevention services were provided by the South River Bureau of Fire Prevention.
“What this means is that effective April 1, the Middlesex County Office of Fire Prevention will conduct all inspections and associated tasks previously done by South River,” Borough Administrator Frederick Carr said.
Four municipalities currently use an SSA with the county to outsource fire prevention: Highland Park, Dunellen, Middlesex Borough and Milltown. Effective April 1, South River and South Amboy will be added to that list.
However, the South River Fire Department (SRPD), along with residents, had expressed their opposition towards the borough entering into an SSA over the past month. During the Feb. 13 meeting, Fire Chief Scott Wolf had presented a petition signed by members of the fire department to show their collective objection.
One of the primary concerns was that it would cause the employees of the Bureau of Fire Prevention to lose their jobs.
During the Feb. 27 regular meeting, members of the SRFD continued to voice their opposition. During the public comments portion of the meeting, fire officials once more articulated their concerns and primarily addressed their questions to Haussermann.
Wolf expressed concerns such as location. He said if a business owner or resident wanted to settle a dispute in person, instead of over the phone, he or she would no longer be able to go downtown but instead would have to go to Sayreville where the county department is located.
According to a spokesperson for Middlesex County, county fire marshals are available to meet with any resident or business owner by setting up an appointment. A fire marshal will then meet the resident at either the resident’s home, business or at town hall. All forms and permit applications reside on the county’s website, at the fire marshal’s office or will be available at the South River Municipal Building.
Another concern Wolf expressed involved the current fire inspectors’ promptness and how he fears that any new inspectors, since they may not be borough residents, could experience delays.
Fire marshals reside throughout the county and are equipped to respond in rapid fashion to any shared service town emergency, according to Middlesex County officials.
Officials said the response time for the Middlesex County Fire Marshal’s Office is normally within 15 minutes. In addition, South River will have a fire marshal assigned to the borough five days a week. During nights, weekends and holidays, there are two fire marshals on call. In the event the need arises after hours, the borough dispatch would call county dispatch to request a fire marshal. The number of fire marshals required to respond will be determined based on the event. This is a routine notification that exists throughout all emergency services, according to Middlesex County officials.
The county already met with all three South River fire chiefs on Feb. 8 to discuss the agreement. A second meeting is being scheduled for this month, according to the county spokesperson.
Now that the SSA has been accepted, the borough will notify the public of the changes by posting a letter on its website and also provide an information sheet to residents in the coming weeks, according to Carr.
For more information about the SSA, visit www.southrivernj.org/council_agendas.html and click on the Feb. 13 business meeting agenda link.
Contact Vashti Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org.