Op Ed: Keeping Montclair Safe and Financially Sustainable, Montclair – Glen Ridge Fire Agreement is a Win-Win

Montclair Fire Department Pine Street. Photo: Montclair Firefighters

As Mayor, I prioritize public safety as one of the most fundamental responsibilities of government. In Montclair we’re fortunate to have a team of excellent professionals serving our community, responding to emergencies, and keeping residents safe. Montclair residents can rest assured that our professional Montclair Fire Department stands ready at a moment’s notice, whether they are extinguishing house fires, resolving dangerous gas leaks, or helping residents during natural disasters and floods. Our firefighters can be counted on to answer the call and save lives. I know we all share a deep sense of appreciation for all our professionals do every day.

Another core priority has been to ensure the financial sustainability of our township. Since 2011, we have cut the debt by about $78 Million dollars and moved up to the highest bond rating (AAA). That has saved residents millions per year in debt service, which we use to make unprecedented investments in paving roads, replacing sewer lines, and other infrastructure improvements. In addition, we’re always focused on finding innovative, cost effective solutions to deliver the highest quality services to residents.

Our agreement to provide firefighting services to our neighboring township of Glen Ridge helps achieve both objectives – keeping Montclair safe and bringing in revenue to benefit Montclair taxpayers.

After working with Glen Ridge for a number of years, we know exactly what our annual costs are to provide fire service and protection. By engaging in a shared services agreement, Montclair receives dollars that far exceed our incremental cost associated with providing fire services to Glen Ridge. Our lone costs are fuel, maintenance, and vehicle depreciation; not one additional firefighter is employed to service Glen Ridge. Therefore, the net gain for Montclair taxpayers is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, every single year of our agreement. This revenue reduces costs to Montclair residents, promotes public safety and enhances the long-term financial sustainability of our township.

By achieving a multi-year agreement, Montclair is able to maintain long-term cost and service certainty. Subjecting our finances and service infrastructure to the whims of a yearly bidding process could result in Montclair being the winning bidder in one year, and undercut the next, putting our finances and firefighting capacity in a constant state of unpredictability.

For our neighbors in Glen Ridge, this agreement provides the protection, and peace of mind for residents that the first-rate, professional Montclair Fire Department affords.

We must also consider that in the absence of an agreement with Glen Ridge, the costs of maintaining our professional fire department would not be meaningfully reduced. Again, only a small savings on fuel, maintenance, and vehicle depreciation would be realized. However, without an agreement, we would not receive any dollars — dollars that are well above and beyond the costs we incur. Absent winning the bid, Montclair taxpayers would see items cut from the budget or have to make up those dollars with tax increases.

It is critical to realize that county mutual aid protocols dictate that without an agreement, the Montclair Fire Department would still be responsible for responding to emergencies in Glen Ridge. Montclair residents would bear the entirety of the cost, providing the service to Glen Ridge, for free.

In a competitive closed bidding environment, we measure the success of an agreement not just by money in hand today, but by the long term predictability this kind of agreement provides. We balance the overall value of the financial agreements with the practical and financial realities the absence of those agreements would create.

The fire agreement we have reached with Glen Ridge is a win-win for public safety and financial sustainability. As Mayor, I am proud of this agreement as it achieves our responsibilities to the residents of Montclair.

— Sean Spiller, Mayor of Montclair

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18 COMMENTS

  1. The Mayor doesn’t get it. We shouldn’t have even been in a bid situation. When you’ve been providing government services for 30 years and the neighboring community “partner” continues to pick your pocket, it’s time to get insulted, be ready to walk and offer no cooperation across the board anywhere else. That’s how to negotiate when you’re being played. Instead, we act like roll-over chumps.

    Perhaps, if both Mayor Spiller and the Manager didn’t keep our own CFO away from the financial offer preparation, and then, even suppress her clearly negative fiscal analysis afterward – not showing it to some other Councilors or to the public — in contrast to this rosie take-away of support, then his position might have a bit more standing.

  2. I appreciate the Mayor actually responding publicly and promptly to a town issue—that’s indeed a rarity. But:

    1) Who is saying this should be an annual bid? Absolutely nobody.
    2) It is false that without a contract we would be obligated to provide services for free. Please read the actual law. https://ecode360.com/9562224
    3) You say “we know what the costs are,” then please detail them for us. Is $850K the sum of fuel, maintenance & depreciation? Or is it less and we’re adding some extra for the servicing? GR costs don’t include insurance even though they are named on our policy? And these sums will increase only by $61,111 per year for the next 15 years?
    4) If 10% of calls are for GR (and are they really?), then without that 10% we should be able to cut hours and positions or at the very least firefighter overtime.
    5) Why are you ignoring the counsel of your own CFO who says this is a bad fiscal deal?

    Because we have serviced them for 30 years, GR now functions pretty much as a Montclair neighborhood, and it’s more appropriate to see them paying proportional rather than marginal costs. What are the costs of servicing Upper Montclair vs. the Business District? If they’re less for Upper Montclair, maybe I should pay less taxes towards the FD than a downtown resident. Oh, that’s not how it works…?

    Exactly. THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS.

    Maybe we should pass a law that GR residents dining at Montclair restaurants should only have to pay the portion of their check that is the wholesale cost of the food. After all, the waiters still need to be there, the lights, insurance, and rent still need to be paid for, so it’s really inappropriate to ask GR diners to chip in on those items. Oh, that’s not how it works?

  3. Somebody might want to ask the Fire Chief directly…just for kicks & giggles. I’ve been giggling all weekend.

    Ask the Fire Chief whether it will cost $2 or 3MM to upgrade the Cedar St. house…including the new engine & 105’ ladder truck. Ask the Fire Chief with all the other, late model equipment, the Council had to pass additional funding – b4 inflation was a topic – this year for the annual, not to exceed, maintenance contracts. But, ask the Chief his thoughts on manning levels and 16 more headcount in 2023-24. I’m so appreciative of the Jackson Council approving all those union contracts before they left.

    Personally, Montclair taxpayers deserve this contract. I am proud our little town can serve Glen Ridge. They need our money more than we do.

    I’m still waiting for someone to answer my big question or at least follow the If/Then bread crumbs.

  4. I’m also giggling because Council has to come onto Baristanet to communicate to constituents…even though they have Council mtgs to do so…but, they don’t want to stream.

    And of course, we cant ask questions and make comments like here, remotely. No, that would mean all the Councilors and the viewing public could hear same.

    But no, they would rather do the stupid thing and now they just look stupid writing op-Ed’s…no offense to this sandbox.

    Whatever the next career move is for you two, can you please expedite?

  5. Correct Nolan Hiams. I just read the Mutual Aid law in detail where Essex County towns have agreed to provide Supplemental Fire Assistance to other Townships in an emergency.

    Some officials here have used this law to substantiate support for the new contract agreement because we supposedly still HAVE to provide fire services in an emergency to Glen Ridge regardless – even if not being paid. (https://ecode360.com/9562224)

    Of course, that’s not true. 54-1 #3 lets us discontinue such aid to anyone at our discretion. With no recourse by that municipality. And so, I say again. If Glen Ridge does not act reasonable, treats us unfairly and wants to continue to play hardball as they’ve been doing — the answer is “see ya.” With their residents now at actual risk.

    How do you think that’s going to play in their press when their people are told Montclair will no longer respond anymore to their fires? When there is no quick fire response next door guaranteed?

    The incompetence and warped thinking of our people who are unable to seemingly use the leverage they have to negotiate — when we are actually being financially squeezed — is quite astounding. There’s a reason we have well over $100 million in debt — and about to take much more on, while Glen Ridge has very little.

  6. Montclair has a full-time, fully staffed FD with all the latest bells & whistles, including advanced training. It clearly has excess firefighting capacity we are selling, as an independent contractor, to Glen Ridge.

    So why do we need aid from 5 other Essex County municipalities to fight, objectively speaking, a manageable house fire that the MFD responded to within 1 minute?

    Every time Montclair (or Glen Ridge) has a house fire, we need aid…even though we have excess capacity. Just read any of the media coverage. This town and that town came to our aid.

    And still, we have excess firefighting capacity beyond that to send excess units to aid other towns. And we have to bring our own water.

  7. Now Councilor Russo is bailing on his own pet project contract? What is this world coming to?
    I just don’t understand why they have to release statements to inform us. Oh, right. They stopped streaming their mtgs and hearing remote public comments. The old ‘if a tree falls in the woods’, then dude, you have to issue a statement if you want to be heard.

    Brilliant. Just brilliant.

  8. If there is a loss of revenue to the town and Councilman Yacobellis says No Reduction in future staffing. Where will the makeup money come from ?
    Do we just throw away $850,000.00

    And question if Councilman Yacobellis had this on his radar for 2 years. Why did he wait until the eleventh hour to make such a display?

  9. Updated numbers out. Looks like it’s a windfall for the town. I’m sure no other department is bringing that kind of revenue for the town.

    Why walk away from $700,000.00 per Year and who is going to Make up that. Cuts to services or tax increase.

    So the real numbers that Councilmen Yacobellis and Russo had full knowledge of, don’t match up with the CFO report they are using for their talking points. The numbers are inflated compared to the town budget on record they just don’t match up.

    Seems like that report was for a special narrative for a “secret” agenda where this is all discussed behind a Facebook curtain.

    Not the Montclair I remember.

  10. Martin,

    Not sure why you linked to East Orange ordinance as language different from Montclair’s ordinance, §40-1. Check out §40-1.11 and keep in mind our agreement with GR is as an independent contractor, not as a shared service.

  11. Mr. Rubacky, I’d like to address your comments, “So why do we need aid from 5 other Essex County municipalities to fight, objectively speaking, a manageable house fire that the MFD responded to within 1 minute?

    Every time Montclair (or Glen Ridge) has a house fire, we need aid…even though we have excess capacity. Just read any of the media coverage. This town and that town came to our aid.”

    Montclair operates five pieces of apparatus with three men each per shift. Including a deputy chief that is 16 firefighters. That barely meets the NFPA 1710 standard of 15 firefighters on a first alarm assignment for a working structure fire. Assuming two apparatus arrive at the same time, that equates to five firefighters to begin searching for victims, suppression, venting, getting a water supply, running hose, setting up ladders, and more. The NFPA also has a standard of 2 in 2 out, meaning teams of two have to enter a structure. So, now you have one pump operator, two searching for victims, 2 on suppression and one outside to do the rest until more personnel arrive. That’s where mutual aid comes in.

    If Montclair commits all of its firefighting resources to a structure fire, who is left to cover the town? If 15 is the minimum personnel required on scene for a first alarm, who takes their place when they need a rest or the air in the SCBA runs out (which only last 15-20 minutes)? Mutual Aid. The department can recall all off-duty firefighters, but how long will that take until there is enough staffing to help?

    What if there is a specialty rescue? Trench collapse? Cedar Grove is the closest trench rescue team. HazMat? Nutley. High Angle? Newark. Confined Space? Newark.

    With an average response time under 2.5 minutes, Montclair is 3.5 minutes faster than the national average. For volunteer departments that average is over 10 minutes. In fact the fire this past weekend had Cedar Grove respond for station coverage well over 10 minutes after being called.

    You see, Montclair is a top department but they can’t do it all themselves.

    Is the GR contract a bad deal for Montclair? Depends on whom you trust, the statistics, and the details. Montclair did get a new fire headquarters out of the deal a number of years ago and absorbed some of the GR firefighters when their department was disbanded. Personally, I don’t believe the 10% statistic, I think it is lower, but I don’t think it is relevant. The only question Montclair should ask is what is the value of our services to GR? No matter what happens with this contract, GR is going to win. If Montclair doesn’t sign them and get the revenue, Bloomfield is happy to do so.

  12. OK, we can get into the weeds. I’m just a layperson, but Ill do my best. I agree the standard is 16 for a Level 1 incident. Our table of organization shows we have 17/shift available, but that includes a supervisory officer on each apparatus. Note: An engine only has 2 assigned non-officer firefighters. Ladders have 3. So, we have enough to suppress only a Level 1 hazard. A Mountainside Hospital is almost always at least a Level 2. I think the standard there is 28, but I’m too lazy to look it up. Regardless, you make my point that we will almost certainly have to expand the ranks to maintain our rating…and the staffing only allows us to fight one fire at a time. If we are at a GR incident and have a simultaneous incident in Mtc, we have to rely on outside assistance to fight the second fire…while we collect revenue from GR for fighting their fire.

    As an aside, watch the Zoning Board mtg for 192 Bellevue and the Chair’s request to move the access driveway away from 188 Bellevue…which effectively negates, in foreseeable circumstances, of employing a 105′ ladder truck. A fire at 188 Bellevue would automatically be a Level 2 hazard. Oops. One hand not working with the other.

    Montclair’s first choice was further up the avenue at the old fire house, but Mr Choice set the sale price too high. (He wasn’t wrong not to gift his property to the Township).

    Bloomfield still relies on volunteers to augment it manning levels and I don’t think, considering all their recent redevelopment, they could be considered a serious choice.

    As far as statical data, that is a non-starter because both of our big public safety functions refuse to disclose any data publicly. And we do have our trust issues in this town…and nationally…where just because someone says something that is not verifiable, we should just accept it. I have verifiable information not from (sadly) my township. but from Glen Ridge. It is generated out of MFD’s NFIR database which taxpayers pay for.

    I agree the MFD is a highly professional, well-trained and well equipped department. If Glen Ridge wants to buy into that and be a partner, good. If we want to sell it on a cost+ basis, also good.

    I have said before and will say again, Glen Ridge needs our money more than we do.

  13. I am a former Bloomfield resident and volunteer firefighter in Bloomfield. Right now they are begging for volunteers and have had quite a few incidents where only one or two responded. During the time I was volunteering, if we had ten guys show up it was a lot, and only 4-5 would actually work on the fire while others filled air bottles and picked-up hose.

    Bloomfield isn’t just a serious choice but has all four firehouses located to better serve GR, and since they have four houses running three firefighters per apparatus, they can throw more firefighters at a fire on a first alarm. But GR doesn’t want Bloomfield.

    GR doesn’t need Montclair, they want Montclair. Last time the contract was negotiated they used Bloomfield to drive the negotiations and price down.

  14. srosen,

    Thank you for adding your particular knowledge and insight. Your last sentence left me wondering.

    Montclair once again set the opening annual fee well below the last year of the last contract. Do you have any thoughts on IF we had no competitor this round, THEN could there be an amicus curiae with an equivalent leverage (advisory, of course) over determining Montclair’s offer?

  15. srosen,

    Your comment is sobering. From it, it seems like the Spiller/Stafford tandem could get Montclair a better deal but they failed to analyze the situation and negotiate from strength. Yet another dropped ball. Sigh.

    Is Spiller planning to accomplish ANYTHING during his term other than cutting ribbons and bad deals? All those great things he congratulates himself for in second paragraph (debt reduction, AAA bond rating, infrastructure overhaul) were done BEFORE he became Mayor in 2020. Does he have amnesia or is he deliberately taking credit for work done by Mayor Jackson? I find it supremely unattractive.

  16. Can someone tell me why FEMA rates are being used to calculate costs for Glen Ridge? FEMA rates are for acute major disasters and states of emergencies, not for 32 year relationships between two towns. So basically the scenario here is that Montclair is investing heavily in a Fire Department, ensuring fair compensation, health insurance, pension, disability insurance, to the professional fire fighters that serve them. They of course are paid for their entire shift, no matter how many calls they go on. So based on all of these (mostly) personnel costs, cost per response is about $8500-9000 K for Montclair. (this is a broad estimation)

    But meanwhile, Glen Ridge after 32 years isn’t expected to contribute at all except when they actually have a call, at which time low FEMA rates are calculated. So they are only expected to pay the FFs when they respond to calls? So with FEMA rates, Glen Ridge costs are calculated to be about $250/call. That’s quite a difference from Montclair’s costs.

    It’s for these reasons the math goes like this: 244 calls =$66K but 1800 calls=$17 million. Doesn’t really add up, unless you’re just not going to fully compensate Fire Fighters.

    If everyone in Montclair got to pay the “FEMA rate” only when they had an incident, instead of supporting it through taxes, the Montclair FD would get less than $1 million per year. You can’t finance a fire department that way.

    It appears the CFO was attempting to restore some balance, closer to the terms of the original agreement, and having GR contribute more to the true personnel costs– not just for their time when they show up at a fire. FEMA rates don’t feed families.

  17. S Rosen, thanks for your comments and that information. I was also of the impression that Bloomfield would not bid. According to their 2021 annual report they go on over 4K calls, and are budgeted for 72 FF. They also recently signed an automatic aid agreement with Nutley and Belleville. To me it does not seem like Bloomfield would be prepared to take GR on.
    That is why I had hoped that we would negotiate from strength– certainly not decrease the rate– since we are already behind what they paid in 1991.
    I think we deserved a direct negotiation, like we used to do, and should have insisted on that, rather than participate in a race to the bottom. More modern shared service contracts are structured so that one party always has the upper hand.

  18. Bloomfield used to have about 2500-3000 runs and then they became first-responder where a FD apparatus will respond on medical calls before an ambulance arrives or to assist. The number of runs naturally increased.

    As for mutual aid agreements, Bloomfield regularly aids Belleville, Nutley, East Orange, Orange and until recently Montclair (the last 3-4 fires didn’t have Bloomfield respond that I’m aware of). All Essex County departments aid one another when called (including Irvington and Millburn).

    MFD does a great job that GR has been benefiting from on the cheap.

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