2013 | Letter to the residents of Hanover Township…
The Whippany Fire Department Commissioners (Township of Hanover Fire District #2) have been working on several projects, and we would like to take a few minutes of your time to shed some light on these initiatives. We are going to touch on the following:
- The 2004 and 2011 Consultant Studies which the fire department had completed.
- Is the Whippany Fire Department going to merge with another fire department?
- The relocation and building of the new Whippany Fire House by the Whippany Fire Company.
- Plans moving forward.
To begin: how have the Whippany Fire Commissioners maintained fiscal responsibility while continuing to provide the best possible service to the residents of Whippany?
The strong partnership (between fire company and fire commissioners) have been one of the keys to the Whippany Fire Commissioners success and continued history of fiscal responsibility.
What, exactly, is the relationship and difference between the Whippany Fire Company and Whippany Fire Commissioners? The Fire Company is the self-sufficient self-funded volunteer entity that maintains the Whippany Fire House. The Fire Commissioners are the fire prevention side of the fire department, funded by the taxpayers, responsible for the maintenance and support of fire suppression, equipment, i.e. fire apparatus, fire turnout gear and the career staff of the department. The Company also provides the volunteers who respond to emergencies alongside the paid personnel. The distinctions that are important to note between the Fire Company and the Fire Commissioners are: a) The Fire Company maintains the firehouse, is entirely self-funded, and is comprised of the volunteers, while b) The Fire Commissioners maintain fire suppression / equipment and is reliant upon tax payers for funding.
The Fire Commissioners work closely with the residents of Whippany to ensure we keep our costs down; this is one of the driving reasons why we’ve been able to keep our fire tax rate low (currently at $.040 for 2012), and have never asked our voters to bond any capital improvements or fire truck purchases. With this in mind, we regularly seek out the advice of experts to ensure that we are moving in the right direction and providing our residents with the best service.
In 2004, we hired internationally known municipal fire protection consultant Dr. Harry R. Carter, MIFireE, CFO to review our operations and offer suggestions on how we could improve our organization. We used this study and the recommendations as a tool to improve our efficiencies and also followed its recommendations to continue our work with the Fire Company’s relocation committee to find a new location for the Whippany Fire House due to its flood prone location, age of the structure and traffic safety concerns of the current location. The report stated that the ideal location to relocate the fire house would be on the corner of Troy Hills Road and Route 10 which would be high enough out of the flood zone, provide safe access to enter and exit from Troy Hills Road, and be located in a centralized spot with multiple roadways to utilize.
In 2011, the Hanover Township Fire Prevention Bureau made up of the Boards of Fire Commissioners from the Whippany Fire Department and the Cedar Knolls Fire District # 3 agreed to fund a Consolidation Study, which was led by William M. Kramer, Ph.D. The study noted that currently, Hanover Township was an anomaly to the current trend of fire departments because we have a steady source of volunteers and stated “the volunteer fire service is viable in Hanover Township.” The study found that “the two departments already work well together” and that our “residents are enjoying bargain protection.”
The report made the recommendation that both fire departments should merge and that the 2011 taxation rate in Whippany ($0.067) [H1] be brought to the same level as in Cedar Knolls ($.122) along with the building of one centralized firehouse with a substation located in Whippany at the cost of approximately $6.5 million dollars—which would have to be bonded by the residents of Hanover. The merging of fire departments would allegedly result in a larger pool of paid personnel from which to work, better allocation of resources, and various cost savings. However, unless the district hires more personal — at the needless sacrifice of residents’ current low tax rate—the merging of districts would not translate into a larger pool of paid personnel. The career staffs already work closely together — a merger is not necessary to increase this cooperation. Resource allocation is optimal as it currently stands—maintaining a substation in Whippany would mean the same placement of apparatus that is currently employed, and a double dispatch between the two districts ensures that needed equipment arrives on scene no matter in which district the call originates. The various cost savings mentioned in the study seem to be contradicted in other pages of the same study: whether or not a merger takes place, the necessity—or superfluity—of purchasing equipment remains the same. Mr. Kramer, on the other hand, emphasized the eventuality of transforming the districts’ current volunteer structure into an entirely paid staff—at the increase of taxes, not the decrease. In fact, his study tended to indicate an increase in expenditure—not an increase in savings.
As with the 2004 consultant study, the Whippany Fire Commissioners are going to leverage the 2011 consultant study as a strategic tool and is eager to implement many of the recommendations. The report highlighted how well-run and efficient both fire departments currently are, and after much discussion and research, we do not feel that it is fiscally responsible to fully follow the recommendation to consolidate fire departments at this time: it will raise the fire tax on Whippany residents when we can realize the same benefits by working with the resources we currently have and improving our coordination and communication with our surrounding fire departments.
Consolidation of the two fire districts on the surface seems like is a tantalizing money saving scenario. Make no mistake there will be NO tax savings if Kramer’s ultimate recommendation is implemented. This has been stated by every expert with whom we have spoken. What it will do is raise Whippany’s current fire tax rate to the current Cedar Knolls level. Currently the Cedar Knolls fire tax rate is higher than Whippany’s for two reasons: Whippany has more ratables and, more importantly, Cedar Knolls has fewer households over which to spread the taxes.
Additionally, the 2011 study recommends a scenario with a single, centralized firehouse, which is not the best plan for residents of Hanover Township or our surrounding communities. A firehouse located on Jefferson Road, as the report recommends, has several flaws. First, rush hour traffic on Jefferson Road can become a severe hindrance to members responding to the station and for emergency vehicles leaving the firehouse in response to an emergency. Second, a Jefferson Road firehouse would be moving the firehouse away from the people—not just from Whippany, but further from Cedar Knolls as well. Third, according to the 2011 study a single firehouse works best with a 24 / 7 full time paid fire staff. This will cost Millions of dollars and increase our tax dollars for staff and firehouse exponentially. Finally and possibly most important, when there is a natural disaster (flood or hurricane) half of the town is cut off by the Whippany River or the inability to cross Route 10 safely.
The study opened up many more questions about cost savings and emergency services to the community and we reached out to various experts for more advice on how we should move forward. We again contacted Harry Carter who performed the 2004 study and he questioned the recommendation to merge departments by stating that in his experience with consolidations, the cost savings have never been realized. We also spoke with an attorney who specializes in fire department mergers and studied the examples he provided, which ultimately led to ligation at first, followed by an increased career department which led to an inevitable increase in taxes. In addition, we reached out to a representative from the Division of Fire Safety for the State of New Jersey who said the state was pushing for departments to merge, though could not guarantee in writing that the contracts that we currently have in place be upheld with a new board of fire commissioners which could in turn jeopardize the relocation of the Whippany Fire House and the security of our career staff.
In order to secure our future for the next 100 years, we will continue to work with the Whippany Fire Company relocation committee to realize the building of a new firehouse on Troy Hills Road. The firehouse is used to house our equipment, has served as a meeting hall for the town, and was the home of our library for many years. Yet, despite additions and improvements, as well as adverse environmental conditions such as the flooding we saw during Hurricane Irene, we continue to outgrow our 11,000 square foot facility.
For the past fifteen years the Whippany Fire House Relocation Committee has been assessing the need for a new facility. During that time, a team of volunteer firefighters, Fire Commissioners and development professionals has worked tirelessly to determine the best way to move forward while providing the best fire protection for our town. This active committee of dedicated professionals has been reviewing alternatives for a new fire station since the existing facility can no longer be retrofitted or expanded in an economical or logical way.
It was through the hard work of the relocation committee that the need for a new fire station was determined. This committee looked at the costs associated with repairs; lost man-hours from preparing for flood activity; the number of near accidents while entering the highway; and other challenges. In the end, it was determined that the only choice for the Whippany Fire Company was to relocate the existing facility to a site better suited for a fire station. The committee formally noted its recommendation approximately seven years ago, but has not been able to pursue it due to financial concerns and a lack of construction revenue. The most desirable option that is currently being considered by the committee would have no impact on our community. The committee is aggressively moving forward and to date have incurred over $250,000 worth of costs associated with the relocation project all funded by the Fire Company: NOT the taxpayers’ money.
In 2008, the voters of Whippany approved moving money from a fund that the Whippany Fire Commissioners have created to replace a fire truck to be reallocated to the outfitting of a new firehouse along with proceeds from the sale of the Whippany Fire Commissioners real estate. We performed a complete audit of our fire trucks and equipment and determined that transferring this money to outfit the new fire station would benefit our community more. The Whippany Fire Commissioners currently have an agreement with the Whippany Fire Company to lease space in the firehouse at a substantial lower cost than commercial space from the Whippany Fire Company and this will continue with the new fire station. It is true that the lease being paid to the Whippany Fire Company comes from tax dollars. However, it is an expense that must be incurred regardless of whether the firehouse moves or stays where it currently is. Additionally, the Whippany Fire Commissioners are continually striving to maintain a balanced budget and save taxpayer’s money, even making personal sacrifices when necessary.
Originally, the Whippany Fire Company was working with developer of the land surrounding the current firehouse; however, after a stalemate in negotiations, the Fire Company decided it would no longer be a feasible and fiscally responsible avenue to take. Fortunately, a better site presented itself, and the Whippany Fire Company is currently in the process of purchasing it instead.
The Whippany Fire Commissioners are proud of their reputation and service to our community. Our members volunteered over 7500 hours of service in 2011, which saved our residents millions of dollars in manpower. There is still room for improvement and the Whippany Fire Department plans to continue working closely with the Cedar Knolls Fire Department in mutual aid responses and other areas and put into place many of the improvements the 2011 report highlights.
When it comes to fire service in Hanover Twp, it is an anomaly in the state of NJ. As testified by William Kramer, we enjoy excellent service and a low tax rate. We are well respected by all the neighboring towns and our response times are very good. The key to our whole system is the volunteers. No matter what our decisions are in the future, they will all be centered around one goal: serving the community. Ensuring that our residents have the best fire protection and emergency services possible is first and foremost among our priorities, and whatever needs to be done to ensure that we continue to serve the community in a safe, effective, and fiscally responsible manner will be done. At this point, a merger of the two districts does not appear as a viable, cost effective means to improve service, though we are continually searching and analyzing other options available.
The Whippany Fire District #2 Board of Fire Commissioners
Ron Barz | Robert Cobane | Henry Hansch III | Julie Mihalko | Mike Mihalko