Sunday, March 24, 2013

Aah, the joys, oops, downers of living in a small town

Most of the time, living in a town as small as Newfield is a joy.  Sometimes, however, it is not.  One of those times is playing out right now and it concerns how the Mayor and Council Members interact with the volunteer organizations that provide services that benefit the residents without a large tax burden.

Newfield's 1.7 square miles and less than 2000 persons are nestled in the southeasternmost corner of Gloucester County in New Jersey.  People having been living in the area and considering it a town since the mid-1800's, as it was a depot for the railroad where local farmers and manufacturers of items such as baskets brought their goods to be shipped.  I don't know when it reached sufficient size to get a federal post office of its own but by 1908 it was large enough for a volunteer fire company to be formed.

Unincorporated population centers in a NJ county were often assigned to the nearest township.  For Newfield that was Franklin Township, which still exists today.  By 1924, the residents of Newfield were very unhappy with the services being provided them through Franklin Township in exchange for local real estate taxes so they petitioned to become a NJ Borough with an elected mayor and six member council, and the state government granted that request.

The residents of Newfield, which had its own bank, school, fire company, grocery stores, carnegie library, etc, felt least government was best.  I smile and think of them as Libertarians long before such a movement existed.  This was, of course, a bargain the town was making with itself to provide public services with minimal taxes through promotion of volunteerism.

This attitude and tradition has worked well.  The School Board, the Ambulance Corps, the Cemetery Board, the Library Board, and the fire company are all staffed with unpaid volunteers.  For the essential services of EMS and fire-fighting, these unpaid volunteers also undergo many hours of training to remain certified.  In consequence, those essential service organizations are backups for other EMS and fire-fighting services in surrounding towns.

Some of the volunteer organizations use Borough-owned resources - the Library building, the fire trucks - and may also get tax payer funding.  However, all of these organizations also raise operating expenses through donations and fund raising events such as chicken bbqs and chocolate festivals.  Businesses such as Newfield National Bank and Bondy Oil permit their employees to respond immediately to emergency calls, which is another valuable form of donation since the number of able-bodied persons in town on work days is very small.

This tradition had had its ups and downs and certainly the path from 1924 to today was rarely smooth.  Personal feelings and widely divergent opinions always provided bumps in the road.  Compromises were reached, however, behind the scenes through long into the night discussions, sometimes over cards and beers, sometimes not.  Some of the "heads" were cooler than others and talked and eased ruffled egos.   Everyone, in the end, wanted to do what was best for the town, and they did, even if that meant they had to give up their favorite idea or find a different way to make it happen that didn't involve taxpayers.  The Newfield Swim Club, which has provided a members-only outdoor swimming pool since the 1950's polio scares, is but one example.

But, as our congress critters seem to also believe, compromise has become a dirty word.  Also, I feel the end goal of doing what is best for the town has been forgotten.  Interpersonal feelings and desire for control have pushed up a huge bump in the road between the volunteer fire company and the town council/mayor.

What started out as an useful ordinance for the Council to pass - an ordinance to recognize the volunteer fire company as providing the essential fire fighting service for the Borough of Newfield - got perverted along the way with extra clauses that state the Mayor and Council gets to choose the company's (unpaid) fire chief and, oh, by the way, please provide monthly reports of fire calls.  So, from 1924 to December of 2011, it was quite alright for the company to choose its own chief, but not now.  For Mayor and Council to pick the police chief makes sense since the Police Department is a paid position.  But for a volunteer organization to cede its right to choose its own head - especially a fire company where on a fire call, the chief has to have to confidence of each fireman - is ludicrous.  Besides, at least here in NJ, even volunteer fire chiefs undergo extra training.

Now, let's chat about the monthly reports.  The fire company makes yearly and monthly reports about more than fire calls to the appropriate state and county agencies as required by state law.  These include information about who drives the fire trucks, do they have the valid CDLs, what training courses have the members taken, what certifications have been achieved and when, timing and results for testing of equipments, etc.  Everything necessary, in other words.  (Other volunteer organizations in town do the same as law requires.)  The fire company has  put up a web site and lo and behold, it lists the fire call activity.  So, if the Council requires a monthly report of activity and results, all they have to do is 'click' and if they don't know how, or don't have internet access, the Newfield Library staff can assist them. 

The ordinance requests they also report the number of runs other than to a fire.  As you will see from the fire company web site, they do other emergency services for the town such as assisting the EMTs, pumping water out of flooded basements etc.  They also take the fire trucks to parades, funerals to honor former volunteers, and other town activities such as the local "Night Out". 

Unfortunately, one of the firemen who opened a local restaurant and named it in honor of the fire company, took the fire truck and photographed it in front of his restaurant, which is at most two blocks from where the fire trucks are garaged.  He further made the mistake of putting the photograph in the local daily paper.  Some people in town were incensed that he used town equipment to promote his restaurant.  Please note before you judge, this was not a continuing advertisement but a one time deal to say the restaurant was open.  Did he use poor judgement? Yes.  Is he proud of the fire company? Yes.  Did this little jaunt jeopardize any person or property? No.  Are fire trucks routinely run out to ensure they are in working order? Yes. 

It always amused me to see the fire truck idling at the local grocery store in my Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle while the firemen shopped for the firehouse kitchen.  Was this an endorsement of that grocery store? No.  Did this influence me to shop at that particular grocery store? No.  Did they need to run the fire truck out to test it? Yes. 

It was reported in two local papers by the town lawyer that repeated attempts to get the report were ignored and that other information "required" was not provided by the fire company.  I contacted the lawyer myself to find out what information was requested.  I asked for a copy of the requests and if that was not legally available to me, would he please reply with what types of information was being requested.  The lawyer never responded but at the open town meeting last Thursday again said the monthly report was not provided nor were the driving records for the fire truck operators.  The driving records were to be provided for insurance purposes.  [A snide aside: The web site for the fire company is kept current while the web site for the Borough is not as you will  notice it lists information for 2010.]

I can see an insurance company asking for the names and license ids for the drivers of the fire trucks so they can run whatever further information they want and is legal for them to obtain.  But asking for copies of driving records, particularly when the state has okay'ed the drivers sounds beyond the scope of what an insurance company would ask.

Further, on this issue of not responding to request for information that the lawyer went into a great length at the town meeting, it turns out the majority of the requests were sent by a Council member from his business email account and ended up caught by a spam filter and never seen by the intended recipient.  Is it unreasonable to call when you don't get an answer and make sure the email got there if it so important?  I would but I'm not the Council member.

These are all bumps in the road that in the past would have been smoothed out by personal communication and discussion.  Instead, the Mayor and Council had a town meeting where they amended the fire department ordinance to stand up an Advisory Board to help them establish a different fire company.  At the open forum before this vote,  town residents gave from the heart personal testimony about the effectiveness and caring acts of the current Fire Company.  It was clear that the residents didn't want a different one.  The Mayor and Council voted it in anyway.  Further, a Council member motioned that the current fire company be "locked out" from that moment on, with coverage to come from surrounding towns, which would have put the response time from less than 5 minutes to more likely 25 minutes.   At first, that motion passed!  One brave Council member asked for a recount and it was ultimately defeated.  Whew!

All I can think about is that this mess marks the passing of the two important groups - those responsible for the original Borough bargain of lower taxes thru volunteerism and the Great Generation that Ever Was.  Political/social decision making has passed into the hands of the baby boomers and we are not prioritizing the welfare of the town, state, nation, world above our own petty egos.  This is not the legacy past generations wanted us to embrace.

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