At the February 13th Business Meeting, the topic of exploring a shared service agreement with Middlesex County for Fire Prevention was discussed at length. At the meeting Council President Shawn Haussermann explained that the borough had the opportunity to utilize the County’s resources for Fire Inspections in an effort to save the borough money. He explained that several other towns are already using the shared service with much success. At the meeting, the Council listened to concerns of and answered questions to various members of the Fire Department.
After listening to another hour-and-a-half of questions and concerns from the Fire Department at the February 27th meeting, in his council comments, Haussermann introduced a resolution accepting the County Ordinance and contracting with the County to perform fire prevention services within the borough. The Resolution passed 4 – 2 on a party line vote.
After the meeting, Councilman Haussermann explained, “After listening to nearly 3 hours of concerns from the Fire Department over the past two meetings and addressing each concern raised, I proposed a resolution that would adopt the County Ordinance. While there are critics, I believe this is going to be a good thing for the borough.”
Opponents of the measure raised a number of concerns. One of the most repeated criticisms was that because the department runs “break-even,” essentially, that the department raises as much as it spends, it would not lead to any savings. Councilman Jones doesn’t think this argument makes sense. As he explained, “It’s plain wrong to say there will be no savings when resources within this department include four vehicles, equipment, and office space. Other departments are already asking for these items, which means we can redeploy them for first responder purposes and avoids us having to go to the taxpayer for these items.”
Jones also added, “The other side of this is enforcement. Local governments around the country have tasked enforcement bodies with finding revenue to make budgets whole. That can lead to perverse results that fall on taxpayers and businesses. This agreement also fixes that, since the county doesn’t keep the fines but gives half of it back to us.
Another criticism expressed by opponents surrounded the procedure taken for passing this resolution. The Mayor called it a “surprise party.” Haussermann explained their motive, “The opposition party’s job is to speak out against our progress. I am repeatedly on record stating that I planned to proceed on this issue, so I’m not quite sure how anyone can say I was aiming to deceive. We were elected to develop creative ways to improve services at lower cost and I’m not going to allow my opponents to delay or prevent these efforts. We sat and listened to several hours of concerns. Change can be scary so there are a lot of ‘what ifs’. We’ll be looking closely at this to ensure that the worries expressed don’t come true.”
Councilwoman Julie Meira added, “To most residents this change will be nearly invisible. Some commercial fees will increase a few bucks but resident fees will stay the same or decrease slightly (for instance, the cost of emergency inspections). Additionally, a large amount of fires occur in commercial properties, and a result of this will be the county’s ability to provide additional inspections that I hope reduces the number of fires within the borough.”
Another issue of concern for council members was something the Borough CFO highlighted—that $25k of the fire prevention budget was earmarked for salaries. This is a practice the State does not condone, but has yet to be enforced. This raised a red flag for Democrats on the council and needed to be addressed.
On April 1st the county assumed fire prevention responsibilities which has resulted in a number of additional benefits as well. You can now pay by credit card at the inspection site or over the phone. And perhaps most convenient, instead of a four-hour inspection window, the county provides a half-hour window for inspection arrival, so you don’t need to take the day off anymore.
“We understand our political opponents’ are going to criticize anything we do, but we think that once people use this service, it’s going to be something people appreciate,” Councilman Haussermann concluded.