Vernon, mayor clash over emergency services plan

Jan 16 2019 | 12:22 PM

VERNON — The Vernon Town Council clashed with Mayor Harry Shortway and his administration Monday night over the mayor's insistence to contract an outside firm to perform an evaluation, and create a 10-year plan for Vernon emergency services, including the fire department and emergency medical services.
The evaluation comes with a $30,000 price tag, and would be performed by The Rodgers Group of Island Heights, Ocean County.
Upon opening discussion on the evaluation, Council President Jean Murphy quickly pointed out that the issue had been discussed with Vernon’s four fire departments, but not with its two EMS departments.
There has been talk to privatize Vernon’s ambulance services, which is currently an all-volunteer organization. Several council members expressed concern that the evaluation is a step towards privatization, and not including the EMS departments in the discussion is wrong.
Township Administrator Charles Voelker stated that the idea to perform the evaluation was first suggested by the volunteers and Fire Chiefs or the fire departments.
“The suggestion, or the request, did not come from anyone else other than our volunteer fire fighters,” Voelker said.
“Did you reach out to either of the ambulance squads to just say they're being included in this,” Murphy questioned.
“No I didn’t,” Voelker stated.
“One of the things that happens is the Emergency services (EMS) immediately thinks you’re trying to shut them down,” Murphy replied.
“Why would they think that,” Voelker said sternly. “The specs are very clear, I have copies of them here.”
“I understand the specs are clear,” Murphy replied. “If you sat down with the chiefs from the fire department, then the ambulance should at least have the courtesy of being involved.”
Voelker did state that he spoke to both EMS services over the past year, but they, “were in disagreement,” Voelker said.
Voelker then asked, regardless of including EMS or not, if doing the evaluation was still in the best interest of the people.
“Does that mean it’s still not a very good idea to do,” Voelker said. “To provide the best services to the residents of this township?”
Council President Murphy and Councilmember Sandra Ooms were not so sure.
“Providing the best service is important,” Murphy said. “But the fact that we’re not out of the woods yet with the bankruptcy (With Mountain Creek), I’m not exactly sure we should be spending money on studies at this time.
“We have open-space studies," Mayor Harry Shortway said. "We have master-plans. I’m all over the Municipal Utilities Authority because they failed to do an asset management plan. We spend millions of dollars on this equipment, from fire trucks to rigs. We need a plan to manage this.”
Shortway gave an example from last year.
“We got blindsided last year with all the SCBA’s (air tanks) expiring, we had to come up with $700,000 to replace them, because there was no plan.”
Ooms argued that any evaluations or plans can be made by the fire chiefs and heads of EMS.
“I think we should be using our own people, instead of paying $30,000,” Ooms said.
Ooms questioned why the fire chiefs couldn’t work with the Sussex County Fire Marshal to create a long-term plan. “Is there another way to get this information without spending $30,000,” Ooms said?
“They (Vernon Fire Chiefs) were in disagreement with the Fire Marshal," Voelker said. "Nobody was listening to him.”
“What makes you think they’ll listen to this (evaluation),” Ooms said.
“Because it’s outside of Vernon,” Voelker replied. “It’s objective.”
The Resolution was tabled, with Murphy, Ooms, and council member Mark Van Tassel voting in favor.
Council Member Dan Kadish voted against tabling the Resolution.
“I believe an outside firm makes unbiased judgements," he said.
Citing that different “cultures” at different fire and EMS houses should be supported.
Council Member John Auberger, a Vernon firefighter, abstained.
Auberger did comment on the Resolution at the end of the meeting.
“I understand why you want to do the study," he said. "If we can’t come to a conclusion amongst ourselves, then we have to go with the outside services (Rodgers Group).”
He did note that EMS services must be included in any discussions.