Letters to the Editor for the week of Jan. 5

Fire district changes

have safety in mind
To the editor:
In recent news accounts and letters, firefighters have criticized my decision to form a committee to examine whether our current fire district is the most effective way to deliver protection to our community. Even the suggestion that a job might be eliminated or services coordinated with our police is met with an accusation that public safety will be compromised.
   Residents should ask this question: What does the firefighters union fear? If the current setup is best, then the committee’s work will reveal it.
   My involvement with fire district finances began when the fire commissioners asked whether the district might join the township in changing health insurance providers. (The township’s switch will save taxpayers $167,000 next year.) I was eager to cooperate, for I campaigned on controlling taxes in part through fostering cooperation among the township, the fire district and the school district. As CEO of the township, I have an obligation to deliver the best services in the most cost-effective way, no matter how they have been provided in the past.
   The health care discussions, which involved no job cuts or schedule changes, set off a series of personal attacks. So, when the fire commissioners sought my help in forecasting their budget picture for the next few years, I was not surprised that a broader discussion of district finances brought with it a wave of accusations that any change in the status quo will threaten public safety.
   Here are the facts: The fire district budget has exploded, rising 400 percent in five years. At about $3 million, it now represents roughly a quarter of what is spent on all township services, including police protection, garbage pickup, park and field maintenance, and our municipal court.
   Paid firefighters have fared well while the volunteer ranks are dwindling. Each union member costs taxpayers roughly $70,000 a year, and raises have averaged 20 percent a year. Has your paycheck climbed that fast? I suspect not, especially if you are a senior citizen.
   Washington spends more on fire protection than every town in Mercer County except Trenton and Hamilton, which have more than eight times our population. Hopewell Township, for example, spends $1.5 million to cover 50 square miles and protects three towns.
   If you were a CEO and heard these facts, could you sit back and do nothing? I cannot, and I am pleased to have the cooperation of Fire Chief Kevin Brink and Commissioners Greg Zalenski and Mike McGowan in this review. Union leaders will be interviewed. However, this is a review of service delivery, not a collective bargaining session.
   Our new administrative code puts the mayor in charge of public safety. I take this seriously and would not advocate any change that puts residents or safety personnel in harm’s way. However, as I work to control the highest tax rate in Mercer County, nothing can be off-limits. I ask residents to keep an open mind, as I have, to possible changes in fire or EMS service that will protect both your homes and your wallets.
David Fried
Washington Township
Union’s statements

were scare tactics
To the editor:
The Washington Township Fire District has five commissioners charged with running its operations. As commissioners, we are elected by you to serve the best interests of providing fire and emergency response services and to control costs. It is also our duty to address recent events that may have you concerned regarding our status.
   Mayor David Fried, within his purview to do so, has assembled a committee to research possible improvements and cost reductions for fire district services. Mr. Fried has asked that the commissioners to develop such a plan as well. Several representatives from the district will be a part of Mayor Fried’s committee. This includes our current fire district chief and two commissioners — one a volunteer firefighter and the other an MBA. The mayor’s committee will also include our police chief and two council representatives, providing objective and broad insights into its analysis.
   To be clear the commissioners do not support the recent public actions and statements by the firefighters union. There have been no decisions made one way or another by anyone regarding the possible dissolution of the fire district or layoffs.
   The commissioners have availed ourselves to the union and their concerns for countless hours over the past two months. The union members and their leaders have attended our monthly meetings and have expressed their concerns many times. The commissioners have engaged with the union and their leaders, including on the record. In addition, the union leadership has met several times with the mayor and council members of their concerns.
   Despite this transparency and inclusion there have been unwarranted scare tactics utilized by the union leadership, led by its president, Jason Palmer. The commissioners have not been provided the courtesy of advance information of these initiatives by Mr. Palmer. These unauthorized actions have caused factions between employees, needless stress and a high level of concern for the integrity of public safety by the administration. We apologize if any of these activities that you have heard or read about have caused alarm to anyone.
   The commissioners have directed the union and their leadership to refrain from this public relations activity while on duty going forward. Taxpayers do not pay for our fire district employees to perform these functions. The union’s concerns about layoffs and the lessening of public safety levels, particularly by Mr. Palmer, are their own creation and are frankly disturbing. The actions, if any, by the mayor’s committee may actually preserve and enhance positions into the future.
   The district’s long-term financial outlook, not unlike what every business and government entity today is coping with, is seriously impacted by extraordinary increases in pension and health care benefit costs. It is only prudent that we analyze these facts and plan for the future, not ignore and run from them.
   We hope to examine all facts and make reasonable recommendations based on those, not by external union pressures. We ask that you please be patient with us as we move forward with this important task. Thank you.
Rob Hutchinson
Nate Bouchelle
Peter March
Michael McGowan
Greg Zalenski
The letter was submitted by Mr. McGowan on behalf of the individuals listed, who are members of Washington’s Board of Fire Commissioners.