HAMILTON: Fire service mulled, district consolidation raised

Township officials and the public heard a comprehensive presentation Tuesday from fire officers regarding fire services in Hamilton and the possibility of eventual consolidation.

by James McEvoy, Managing Editor
HAMILTON — Township officials and the public heard a comprehensive presentation Tuesday from fire officers regarding fire services in Hamilton and the possibility of eventual consolidation.
   Captain Nicholas S. Buroczi, president of the Professional Fire Officers Association Local 284, outlined a breakdown of the nine township fire districts, including their service areas, staffing, budgets and facilities, and said there is a general lack of cohesion that exists among them.
   ”We work in a fragmented, redundant system,” Capt. Buroczi said. “Our current system inhibits progress. We have safety concerns, operational and administrative concerns.”
   After outlining previous attempts to enhance township fire service, including some implementations of a 1997 study, Capt. Buroczi outlined benefits of a consolidation, which include equitable service and tax rates throughout the township and establishing a central command.
   ”Our residents, businesses, visitors and firefighters deserve a better service,” he said. “We have a historic opportunity to create a modern fire service.”
   He, as well as members of the governing body, emphasized multiple times during the presentation that Hamilton firefighters and officers are dedicated to serving the township, and that criticisms of the current system should not be construed as anything beyond that.
   Under the current system of nine fire districts, he said, there are 45 elected fire commissioners, approximately 20 collective bargaining agreements and nine independent fire companies.
   Capt. Buroczi did note there are standard operating guidelines, but that there is no central command to enforce them consistently.
   While he also pointed to some sharing of chiefs and fire marshals between certain districts, he said there are redundancies with regards to payroll, legal counsel and other professional services.
   ”Is the redundancy necessary? The entire township is governed by one mayor and one five-member council,” he said.
   Township officials have stated the council could dissolve a district if five percent of those served by it were to sign a petition. Additionally, the council could assign another district to assume service for areas previously covered by a dissolved district.
   The combined budgets of the nine districts amount to $23 million, which would equate to a tax rate of .49 cent per $100 of valuation – meaning the average owner of a home assessed at $138,000 would pay $680 in fire property taxes if the districts were combined.
   ”It would be a fair tax rate across the whole town instead of one district pays higher than an another,” he said.
   In addition to differences in implementation of operating guidelines, he said there are also issues with districts using different training, apparatus and equipment.
   Capt. Buroczi and members of the governing body pointed to recent consolidation efforts in Cherry Hill, noting some similarities between the municipality and Hamilton.
   Council President Ed Gore offered his support in ongoing efforts to improve fire service in Hamilton.
   ”My sole goal in this is to improve fire delivery service in Hamilton Township, for the safety and protection of citizens, our professional firefighters, our volunteer firefighters and anyone involved in emergency management services,” Mr. Gore said.
   During the public comment portion Captain Aaron Heller, of the Hamilton Township Fire District No. 9 lauded township and fire officials for exploring consolidation, but said it would be a significant challenge to get everyone to buy in.
   However, he noted despite trepidation or concerns shared by fire commissioners as well as those of firefighters and other stakeholders, service to public remains paramount.
   ”We’re not providing the services that we can,” said Capt. Heller, who also serves as a commissioner for the New Egypt Fire Company. “We as officers and firefighters know that we can do a much better job for the residents, for visitors and for our own personnel.
   ”In the end I don’t know that you’re going to save a lot of money, but you’re going to have a lot better service,” he added.