Fire dept. merger moves ahead

Two towns plan to have combined fire department ready to serve by Jan. 1

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — South Orange Village President Sheena Collum shared an update about the planned merger for the South Orange and Maplewood fire departments at the July 22 Board of Trustees meeting, saying she hopes to have the merger completed by Jan. 1, 2020. According to Collum, the Maplewood Township Committee has agreed to move forward with the process of combining the two towns’ fire departments.

“The one holdup was the civil service department,” Collum said at the meeting, reiterating that South Orange did not want to give up its fire department’s civil service designation in favor of Maplewood’s non-civil service department. “We’re dealing with two totally different types of structures for our fire department.”

According to Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca at the July 16 Maplewood Township Committee meeting, Maplewood will consider a resolution Aug. 6 that will solidify where the town is in the process and affirm Maplewood’s acquiescence to becoming a civil service department. The merged departments will be governed by a joint meeting, a board with representatives from both towns, to ensure that Maplewood and South Orange are equally represented.

“What we were doing before is that you either have a lead agency or you create a joint meeting,” Collum said. “Through the provisions that we have now, particularly that we’re not absorbing more administrative costs and creating more bureaucracy, we can handle this joint meeting internally but get the benefit of retaining civil service.”

On July 16, DeLuca explained how the joint meeting will work; it will include three entities, one from South Orange, one from Maplewood and one independent party.

“We wanted to make this as simple at an administrative level as possible,” DeLuca said. “We would not have an executive director of the joint meeting. What we would do is, Maplewood would handle administration and finance, South Orange would handle personnel and human resources, and our township administrator would be the appropriate authority for the fire chief.”

While researching a potential merger during the last few years, DeLuca said the towns looked at a few volunteer departments in the state that have merged, as well as the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue department, which serves Guttenberg, North Bergen, Union City, West New York and Weehawken.

Collum said that retaining a civil service department in South Orange and converting Maplewood to a civil service department comes with its own set of challenges, but it is one compromise that has been made.

“If it takes moving to civil service and these compromises to get this done and up and running by Jan. 1, then it is in our best interest to move forward in that direction,” she said. “We want to have the joint meeting up and running no later than November so we can make a very quick transition.”

There will be training for the firefighters of both departments in the next few months, and Collum said that South Orange fire Chief Daniel Sullivan and Maplewood fire Chief Michael Dingelstedt are looking at best practices for standard operating procedures. She added that she and DeLuca are working on a tentative preliminary budget of the expenses they expect to incur during the transition. The towns are also hoping to receive money from the state. DeLuca discussed potential state funding at the July 16 meeting, referring to the state budget of $10 million for shared services.

“We have to put new logos and emblems on fire trucks and hats and new firehouse signs,” he said. “We’re going to make a push to get some of that new money that’s there for shared services to see if they will help us with the transition.”

Collum reiterated that point at the South Orange meeting, saying she believes other fire departments around New Jersey will merge as well, following South Orange and Maplewood’s example.

“We will be going for a pool of money to make sure we reap the pots, because there’s no doubt in my mind that if South Orange and Maplewood are successful in this consolidation that the dominoes will fall and others will follow our lead,” she said.

According to DeLuca, while more discussion is still required, the towns are moving ahead to the benefit of all SOMA residents.

“We now have a 19-person planning committee made up of elected officials, business administrators, attorneys, union representatives and state officials,” DeLuca told the News-Record in a July 28 email. “There is still plenty more to discuss and there are critical decisions that have to be made by various state departments to protect the rights of our current firefighters as well as the two towns.”