Towns pass merger resolutions

Fire dept. personnel get fired up over current staffing plans for joint FD

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Maplewood Township Committee approved at its Aug. 6 meeting a resolution that supports creating a joint meeting to merge the Maplewood and South Orange fire departments, allowing the towns to take another step forward in combining the two departments. The resolution passed unanimously; Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee was absent. The South Orange Board of Trustees also unanimously passed a similar resolution at its Aug. 12 meeting. At the Maplewood meeting, firefighters told committee members they have concerns about the staffing levels of the combined department.

“I’m not opposed to the idea of the merger,” MFD Chief Michael Dingelstedt said at the meeting, mentioning the independent report the towns received about the merger two years ago. “It’s my recommendation that many of the proposals in the Manitou report aim to achieve the goal of operational efficiency, not safety.”

The resolution says the departments will operate with 17-person platoons with a minimum of 14 on duty at a time. Currently, the platoons are made up of eight firefighters in Maplewood and six in South Orange, which Dingelstedt said is worse than the merger proposal, but he would still like to see more staff.

“Between vacation and sick time and other contractually obligated duties, there will never be a time when a platoon is going to be fully staffed, leading to overtime work that both departments currently find themselves in,” he said.

Dingelstedt also expressed concerns that the proposed staffing numbers do not take into account fire-prevention drills, and that the first meeting with SOFD Chief Daniel Sullivan did not take place until this summer. He asked the committee to table the resolution until an agreement could be made.

Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said at the meeting that the resolutions do not complete the merger — they are to create the joint meeting structure that will govern the fire department. The merger will be completed by an ordinance in each town, which South Orange Village President Sheena Collum echoed in a phone interview with the News-Record on Aug. 9. 

New Jersey Firefighters’ Mutual Benevolent Association President Eddie Donnelly told the committee at the meeting that members should only pass the resolution if they first removed the staffing numbers from it.

But Committeeman Greg Lembrich took the union president to task for his behavior in the spring South Orange Village president election, during which the FMBA ran a campaign against the merger and against Collum.

“Your organization ran a vicious, baseless and conscienceless campaign in our community,” Lembrich told Donnelly. “You suggested we were indifferent to the health and safety of our residents. South Orange rejected your efforts by an overwhelming number. So the trust is not there. No, I’m not going to vote to take those two sentences out.”

Donnelly countered that FMBA members never went to Maplewood during the election, telling Lembrich to “worry about your own town.”

“Political campaigns are tough, not easy,” Donnelly said. “You have to play the game. She won, we lost. Please think about removing those two sentences. If you don’t, we’re going to wind up in South Orange next week doing the same. They’re going to follow suit. Where’s that going to get us? We’re going to get a block. I’m telling you, we have grave concerns about staffing.”

Before the committee voted, DeLuca explained the resolution’s intent.

“We looked at the Manitou report, we looked at the current staffing and we agreed that we would maintain the minimum of 14,” he said. “The minimum of 12 doesn’t change in either town. We went from 18 people to 17, and we thought that was a reasonable goal to put out there.”

DeLuca said information about the staffing numbers has been public for almost a year, and recently officials in both towns have heard from the unions about the 70-person table of organization and platoon numbers.

“We’re not going to negotiate in public or in the press, but I will say that at our last planning meeting we said that’s the framework we are entering these conversations with and anything that gets put on the table we’ll discuss,” DeLuca said. “If they come back and present something, we’ll discuss it. The important thing in this resolution is the ‘be it resolved.’ That’s the action item.”

The resolution also states that no firehouses will be closed, no major apparatus will be removed and there will be no layoffs. Any reduction in personnel will be achieved through attrition.

Collum said the number of firefighters could change in the future, as the resolutions do not lock the department into 17 per platoon forever.

“All of those things have to be done through an ordinance,” she said. “The resolutions are the sentiments that we are moving forward.”

DeLuca said at the meeting that the firefighters’ concerns are warranted, but don’t have to be addressed immediately.

“The concern about staffing is justified, but it is still a bit premature,” he said. “We have more conversations to have and before we get to the ordinances that all will be handled. It may still be 70; it may be a different number.”