Op Ed: Proposed Fire Agreement with Glen Ridge is a Bad Deal for Montclair Taxpayers

We have a proposed Shared Services Agreement pending with Glen Ridge that is very concerning to me. The Council is expected to vote on it next Wednesday, Sept. 28th at the regular Council Meeting. If enacted, we would be ignoring the guidance of our own financial experts and locking ourselves into a 10 or possibly 15-year contract (this gives Glen Ridge an option to renew for five years), where we are drastically underpaid for the services that we provide. Given inflation, contracted wage increases, major investments we’ll need in equipment in the coming years and the physical capacity and condition of two of our three fire houses, I think it would be irresponsible both in the short term and especially in the long term, to enter into this agreement.

The prevailing thought now is that receiving any money from Glen Ridge is a good thing because it doesn’t really cost us much to provide the service to them. That is factually incorrect. We know exactly how much it costs us. I respect that some of my colleagues are alarmed by the possibility of losing the revenue that we do get. But the contract was always going to expire at the end of this year, and I’m confident that we have contingencies for that scenario. Spending more money than we should to subsidize these services for Glen Ridge for a decade or more into the future is a much more significant financial burden. In my opinion, it’s already been a financial burden to us. At its inception decades ago, this agreement may have been a good deal. But the fact that we are, almost to the dollar, getting the same amount of money from Glen Ridge in 2022 as we did in 2009 should speak volumes. Is there much in your life that costs you less now than it did in 2009?

According to our own finance team, our total annual costs for fire services for Montclair and Glen Ridge is approximately $17M (“M” = Million Dollars) counting both operating and capital costs. We also know that Glen Ridge represents approximately 10% of our fire department’s service calls. If you wanted to look at this as just a straight proportion, their share would be $1.7M. You could also look at it in terms of population served – how much do fire services cost per resident. The two towns combined have approximately 49,000 people. Glen Ridge’s share of that is about 16% or 7,800 people. Sixteen percent of our total budget would be approximately $2.7M. Or you could look at it in terms of the number of taxable properties. The two towns combined have approximately 13,450 taxable properties with Glen Ridge having a 17% share of those or 2,350. Seventeen percent of our total budget would be approximately $3M.

Our baseline for talks should be $1.7M. But instead, we’re offering them a ten-year deal that starts at $850,000 in 2023 ($76,000 less than they paid this year) and graduates to only $1.4M by 2032. And sometimes it’s easy to just look at next year or the year after that and say it’s not that big of a deal. But what about the cumulative loss over a decade or longer? What have we already accumulated in missed revenue for decades? This is real money.

We also have to consider major investments in the years ahead. We don’t know what an electric fire truck fleet is going to cost us in the future or what the wage increases will be for our firefighters in the next contract or what healthcare, or retirement costs will grow to in the years ahead. I don’t want to compromise being able to give our firefighters what they need and deserve because we’re spending too much money subsidizing service for Glen Ridge. Not only should Glen Ridge be paying the fair cost of services today, but they should also be responsible for the investments we make that they’ll benefit from in the future.

I did not support submitting our bid, and I’m strongly opposed to codifying it now. We should have a symbiotic, meaning mutually beneficial, relationship with Glen Ridge; not a lopsided one. On other matters like water rates and use of athletic fields, I think we’ve been too generous with your money. Property taxes are high enough and as a community we’re looking at making a once-in-a-generation investment to update Montclair Public Schools. We can’t afford to subsidize fire services for Glen Ridge anymore. They need to pay their fair share. I was elected to do what I think is best for the town as a whole and for the long term. I take that very seriously even when it forces me out on a limb.

Peter Yacobellis currently serves at-large on the Montclair Township Council. Peter was elected to office in May of 2020 and is serving his first term through June of 2024. You can learn more about Peter at www.peteryacobellis.com

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27 COMMENTS

  1. Any Councilor who votes to support the Glen Ridge fire contract — will once again be giving away the store here — with Montclair effectively getting even less than what we received in past years. Their vote will confirm for residents that today’s leaders and Town Management are simply fiscally incompetent and reaffirm why this Council was “fired” from managing the finances of our BOE — through the now disbanded Council majority Board of School Estimate.

    A renegotiation with Glen Ridge is required. And a readiness to walk away from the deal made clear to all — without reasonable $ fairness provided.

  2. Are the ambulance services that Glen Ridge provides to Montclair as mutual aid, free of charge for Montclair and the Montclair residents they help, taken into consideration? I’m positive that the Glen Ridge ambulance is happy to give mutual aid assistance to Montclair (and Bloomfield for that matter) but the cost for that service is also taken upon by Glen Ridge. The vehicles, maintenance, equipment, extra training etc, is a cost that should be taken into account when considering the cost/benefit analysis.

  3. Handwritten terms offer? Can we get Mr Stafford a laptop, please.

    Increasing $61,111 every year for 15 years. OK, can anyone explain why it wasn’t just written for $61,000? Or even $61,100? Or, you win, $61,110? What is the phobia to rounding when it is the same amount for 15 years?

    Exhibit D & E don’t match. The reason they don’t match is more interesting.

    Response times? Just wow. No offense to the MFD but I think the only fire dept that could meet theses are serving at runway aprons at EWR.

    We have the U Mtc Station #2. How many people living btwn Park & U Mtc and Alexander to Laurel Pl have had a MFD response time experience of 2 minutes or less? Anyone? You can go back as many years as you want.

    What contract? Or yes, the one I had to go to the Glen Ridge web site to download. I wanted to watch the discussion at Tuesday’s Conference mtg but it was blackedout.

    Montclair taxpayers most certainly deserve this contract.

  4. There is no service charge for mutual aid agreements, fire or ambulance, in Essex County. The contract clause was inserted to show Montclair ambulance service is not being provided. MVA is not part of Municipal government so the Council couldn’t offer the service if we wanted to. MVA couldn’t participate if they wanted to as they would lose their tax exemption.

    Further, both parties went to great lengths to continue under an Independent Contractor (IC) basis . The Township is the IC. We provide a stated service for a stated fee. So why would we share contract negotiation planning info with a customer? I guess gov’t is different.

  5. Frank, in addition to the handwritten numbers, I agree with you that the choice of $61,111 is SUCH a strange choice– both for its seeming randomness, and because most contracts would usually be structured with percent increases, rather than a fixed increase over 15 years. 61K in 15 years will be worth considerably less than 61K is worth today, but costs for almost everything else will have risen. So this is another interesting choice. The original contract in 1990 included a 7% annual increase. Would really, really like to see how these numbers were determined, and how they came up with this magical number. But the way that Glen Ridge forces a “secret” bid so our residents can’t see or process it, is just yet another reason this contract is lopsided in favor of GR.

  6. There is only one question that matters, “Why is each new contract’s year 1 starting payment is less than the last year ending payment of the previous contract?”

    I can guarantee none of the Council will ever disclose why. And most Montclair taxpayers don’t care and most like this Council. So, taxpayers really deserve this contract.

    EB: In the spirt of Hilary Clinton, you & others are just “inconsequentials” to the majority here in town. You’ll get use to it.

  7. Is it really a Bad Deal or Do We Not Know The Real Numbers

    Anyone have the true population of Montclair with all the doctors, businesses, students, hotels, commuters, bars and restaurants. How many people are in and out of town on a daily bases? I would guess the number is more then the resident population. Please correct me if I am wrong the Fire Department must serve them as well. When the Township of Montclair hosts festivals and parades, all the great things that make Montclair an attractive destination come with the responsibility of public safety. With that responsibility of inviting people into town a cost is associated with that event.

    So I ask, with all this number crunching please advise or put into your calculations of how many people are truly here and recompute the numbers. We all know it’s about the money, but to say the Glen Ridge contract is bad for taxpayers without knowing all the facts seems misinformed and irresponsible. The number of train stations and parking decks is an example of the differences between Montclair and Glen Ridge as far as
    safety hazards and pedestrian usage.

    When comparing these two towns they cannot be more opposite so to only count residents for cost
    comparison seems unfair, one sided, irresponsible and simply not the whole picture.

    Let’s look at the whole picture anyone who has driven down Bloomfield Ave lately it sure does not
    look like it did 30, 20, 10 or 5 years ago.

  8. Just for giggles, the 10% of MFD calls are for GR is not true. Not close. It’s more.
    It like Trump repeating something enough and people repeating it and it becomes fact. Scary how the left has the same problem.

    The downright giggly part is the Council just approved an $11,000 bill list item Tuesday for MFD’s proprietary software annual maintenance fee. This software captures activity down to a level of which side of the street Engine 1 parked responding to a fire.

    OPRA requests can’t access databases. An OPRA request can’t ask to create a database report. The Council can.

  9. I rounded down to 16%.

    Also know the Glen Ridge false alarm rate is regularly over 50%; some months as much as 70-80% of calls. This would partially explain the fast response rates. The faster first truck arrives and their clock stops. Still a hilarious clock.

    All of the above is for giggles. Want another giggle? MFD is required to provide additional level of its discounted services to the Glen Ridge Country Club’s & its numerous fireworks displays. FYI, GRCC has more than fair share of false alarms. Maybe 2nd only to the perennial #1, Mountainside Hospital.

  10. Is it really a Bad Deal or Do We Not Know The Real Numbers

    Anyone have the true population of Montclair with all the doctors, businesses, students, hotels, commuters, bars and restaurants. How many people are in and out of town on a daily bases? I would guess the number is more then the resident population. Please correct me if I am wrong the Fire Department must serve them as well. When the Township of Montclair hosts festivals and parades, all the great things that make Montclair an attractive destination come with the responsibility of public safety. With that responsibility of inviting people into town a cost is associated with that event.

    So I ask, with all this number crunching please advise or put into your calculations of how many people are truly here and recompute the numbers. We all know it’s about the money, but to say the Glen Ridge contract is bad for taxpayers without knowing all the facts seems misinformed and irresponsible. The number of train stations and parking decks is an example of the differences between Montclair and Glen Ridge as far as
    safety hazards and pedestrian usage.

    When comparing these two towns they cannot be more opposite so to only count residents for cost
    comparison seems unfair, one sided, irresponsible and simply not the whole picture.

    Let’s look at the whole picture anyone who has driven down Bloomfield Ave lately it sure does not
    look like it did 30, 20, 10 or 5 years ago.

  11. Plodding, but you are making progress! An Either/Or Clause. A silver star.
    A gold star would be yours if you answered with an If/Then clause.
    5 days left!

  12. It’s important to remember the landscape here. A prior Council made the decision to build our fire headquarters at Bay Street and to keep our other two fire stations at Nishuane and Bellevue. That layout makes perfect sense if one assumes that the department’s service area always would include Glen Ridge. Take Glen Ridge away, however, and we have a problem. Either we have to maintain three fire houses with less revenue, two of which are relatively close together, or we have to close one. If we close one, however, and don’t relocate the other, part of Montclair inevitably will have longer response times. In hindsight (although not really hindsight because mayoral candidate Harvey Susswein foresaw it clearly in 2012 when we did the last Glen Ridge deal), we never should have built the headquarters at Bay Street unless we had a long-term commitment from Glen Ridge.

    Given the realities of we are where we are, I think the Council had only two choices when Glen Ridge decided to pressure us by waving the possibility of Bloomfield in our faces. The Council went with the route of getting the best deal they could. The alternative would have been to assume that the whole Bloomfield thing was a bluff because Bloomfield is in no position to make the kind of investments Montclair already made. We could have said “good luck with Bloomfield,” not submitted a bid, and hoped that Glen Ridge would come back to us, hat in hand, when Bloomfield either didn’t bid or tried and failed to provide Montclair’s level of service.

    If it were up to me, I think I would have voted to roll the dice because I think the odds of a Bloomfield success story were low. Honestly, though, I can’t blame the Council for taking the safer path of a new deal. If Bloomfield really did take over, and succeeded at it, the eventual closing of one Montclair fire house—almost certainly Nishuane—would have been inevitable. I don’t think a Glen Ridge-Bloomfield marriage would have worked, but when you’re talking about public safety, I can’t really argue with a low-risk strategy that lets us keep all three fire houses open for the next 10-15 years.

  13. ”It’s important to remember the landscape here.”
    Good advice.

    Maybe open the aperture a couple of f-stops? As BoE member Priscilla Church reminded us this month when thanking local, County & State officials for all their help on the school bonding, “You have to give a favor to get a favor.” This is NJ, Pay To Play. This is Essex County, NJ.

    “Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17-, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.”

    PS: The expiring contract gave GR the option to renew, for another 10 yrs, for $1.3MM less than the new contract their Council just approved. 
(note:the GW Field agreement doesn’t expire for another 3 years.)

  14. It’s important to remember here that a Fire Department is a Public Good. By definition a Public Good is something available to everyone in a community and no one can be excluded. These are typically financed through taxation and not per-use charges or extra fees. Other examples of these are highways, police, library, public schools.

    When people talk about “how much is Glen Ridge costing us?” this is not the right question when it comes to Public Goods. Most people in Montclair “cost” the Fire Department ZERO in any given year. Most people don’t need it. But we must pay for it, like a community insurance policy, because all of us have an ongoing risk of needing it, and even if it is a small risk, it can never be eliminated. So fire departments cannot be financed based on “how much did some group of people cost the fire department” in any given year. That would not work– the costs for “users” would be enormous and unrealistic, and very unpredictable– so instead the cost of a fire department is divided throughout the community, and people pay their “share” through taxes for it regardless of whether they use it or not.

    The Montclair Fire Department has been operating as a Public Good for both Montclair and Glen Ridge for 32 years. Glen Ridge residents have the same access as everyone in Montclair. Montclair taxpayers have financed almost all of it over that time. And it doesn’t matter who is using it– as Frank pointed out– Mountainside Hospital in Glen Ridge needs and uses the Fire Department probably more frequently than any other building in either town. But the hospital is contributing at a lower rate toward the Fire Department than anyone in Montclair, because it is paying “Glen Ridge rates,” which are much lower. In fact, Glen Ridge’s rates have gone down over time, while Montclair’s have escalated a lot. And this was at the same level of staffing– it is just that costs like health insurance and pension, capital costs, etc have increased SO much over the past 30 years. Glen Ridge has not had to absorb any of that increase. They spent the last 10 years paying less than they did in 2011.

    Another example of a Public Good is the public school system. Every tax payer in Glen Ridge is paying into the school system, and it doesn’t matter if you have a child in the system. So senior citizens and people without children are investing in the system at the same rate as families. And it doesn’t matter if you have 1 child or 11. They can all go to the schools. Every child within the community can go to the school, they cannot be excluded. Just like if there is a fire or a false alarm, or a toxic smell, or whatever, everyone has access to a fire department and the service is not excludable.

    But what if I were to say to GR–“So you have these fixed costs and you are paying a lot for teachers and staff and the school buildings. You are paying this anyway, and so for my child to go it won’t cost you that much more. I will pay for the variable costs of my kid’s textbooks and laptop, and I’ll even give you an extra $1000. That is $1000 that your community will save in taxes! So it’s a great deal for you!”
    Do you think there is any chance this could ever happen? Of course not. Everyone would easiiy understand this is unfair. If GR were to let a child from outside the community into the school, they would charge a PREMIUM for it, not charge them less. And this is pretty much true for how every town operates their Public Goods– no other town outside of Montclair charges their own residents more than a neighboring town for access to their Fire Department or other Public Good. No other town submits “secret low ball bids” for access to a valuable community asset.

    It’s time to establish that after 32 years Montclair has the right to a direct negotiation. We should not be saddled with a 15 year deal based on secret, handwritten numbers that no one understands. We should not be pitted against another town without a direct negotiation, and Glen Ridge should not have all of the opt-out clauses with Montclair having none. The state has a specific office designed to help towns negotiate the use and sharing of Public Goods in a fair way. We should use it.

  15. I just read the Mutual Aid law in detail where Essex County towns have agreed to provide Supplemental Fire Assistance to others in an emergency. Some town officials here have been using 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 — when we are actually being financially squeezed — is quite astounding.

  16. Councilman Yacobellis and Eileen B I understand you both seem to have the most knowledgeable in this subject. I understand you feel our services are undervalued in this current bid. I am trying to understand how Montclair would save money by not providing fire services to Glen Ridge?

  17. 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?

  18. Jenn M,

    Montclair goes into the black above $400K, if they stay within their budget and excluding the expansion of the MFD. Glen Ridge will gladly pay 2-3 times that.

    What you and most residents have failed to appreciate is that for the $17MM the MFD currently costs, they can only fight one house fire at a time. The MFD will confirm overlapping incidents happen more than one thinks. But, the MFD will treat them fairly – first call gets their first response. And if you think the 2nd call incident call get a 1 minute response, I want a pair of those rose-colored glasses. No worries. This is what homeowners insurance is for and everyone’s memories are stored in the cloud now.

    The Council is monetizing the Mutual Aid program to our advantage and disadvantage of other responding participants.

    S Orange/Maplewood (SOMA) saw what we were doing and said screw this, we’ll reduce our newly combined FD to 72 headcount and rely on Mutual Aid to backstop capacity. Other towns are getting pissed at us and will cut their staff. Why have excess capacity and they can’t sell it like Montclair does.

    But, I will guarantee you the MFD will be distinctly larger over the next two years when supposedly we have excess capacity now. And they will still only have the capacity to fight one house fire at a time.

  19. Frank
    With the last post of the numbers the 17M appears inaccurate and the real numbers are much lower. It looks to be inflated. The town posted budget has it in the 12M range. I sense this has become political and personal (oh wait that’s right it’s Montclair)

    Latest report show the Glen Ridge contract is a windfall of about $700,000.00 per year over last 4 years. 2.8M for the town. What other department generates that much revenue for the township.

    Why would we give that away for free? It looks like political motivation from a councilman who wants to make the Mayor look bad.

    I understand you want Glen Ridge to pay their fair share but looking at the real numbers Montclair has come out ahead for 30 years.

    Let’s focus on what counts how about bring Pathmark back and get us a supermarket in town. It’s been long enough what’s the holdup.

  20. Jenn M,

    I have been wrong in the past. I don’t know what the CFO’s analysis or others show, but I’m pretty confident in my numbers…and gladly share here:

    S&W: $10.1MM
    FICA/Pension/Health: 4.7
    OE/Work. Comp/Liability: 0.6
    Current. Annual CapEx: 0.8
    Curr. GR Cost: 0.4
    2022 TOTAL ANNUAL: $16.6MM

    I rounded up to $17MM because it I’m looking at double-digit millions.

    Will you share yours?

  21. It is up to you to also consider we paid out $1.3MM total over the last 3 years in Accumulated Absences accrued by MFD personnel and, in round numbers, are carrying currently about a $4.5MM liability on the books for the MFD.

  22. Jenn M,

    I only brought up accumulated absences because you brought up the 30 year timeframe we have served Glen Ridge. Therefore, I’m on pretty solid ground that those accumulated absences were accrued during the period they performed their duties in both Montclair and Glen Ridge. If you want, I can limit the Accumulated Absences component to the 15 years going forward. Your call.