by Robert Holt and Karen E. Viereck
SWEDESBORO– –Swedesboro and Woolwich Township have been at odds over an Interlocal fire service agreement since September 2016. Swedesboro says that Woolwich wants complete control over capital items, while Woolwich claims that Swedesboro is not negotiating in good faith.
Woolwich Township Mayor Alan Schwager stated that Swedesboro had refused to negotiate the matter in December 2015. At the Swedesboro Council’s Jan. 19 meeting, Council gave Swedesboro’s Mayor Tom Fromm the authority to enter into a revised Interlocal service agreement for the fire service.
However the agreement was put on hold later in the week when according to Fromm the Woolwich Township Committee made a counter offer on the agreement that Swedesboro did not find acceptable.
Fromm responded that Swedesboro had negotiated in good faith, but the two Woolwich politicians Mayor Frank Rizzi) had a “hidden agenda” to have Swedesboro contribute to capital expenditures associated with buildings and equipment that will be needed for Woolwich Township to build a fire station on Route 322.
“Swedesboro expressed concerns about having to build a fire station on Route 322 from future growth,” Schwager stated. “We told Swedesboro we would never ask you to do that.”
Schwager explains the Interlocal contract: “It is a one-page agreement that states Woolwich will pay 75 percent of operating costs and Swedesboro will pay 25 percent. The agreement says nothing about any capital expenditures such as equipment, turnout gear or communication radios.”
According to Swedesboro Councilman David Flaherty, at the first meeting Woolwich said they had an issue with the split between the two towns. Swedesboro Councilman Sam Casella questioned them about capital improvement and Woolwich said their issue was only about the split of expense percentages.
Swedesboro has contended that Woolwich wanted 100 percent authority on capital items. Schwager recalled, “Swedesboro told us the agreement was more than fair to their residents, and they had no intentions on cancelling it. We told them it’s not fair to the residents of Woolwich.”
Woolwich felt that Swedesboro should pay a larger share of the mutual calls since Schwager’s numbers indicated that Swedesboro had more fire calls. “I told them that this was not a good reason to make a change to the agreement as far as I was concerned,” stated Flaherty. “From this point on Alan had set in motion the canceling of our agreement and letting the state know about their decision to the closing of the fire house in Swedesboro and that we would have no fire protection.”
“The agreement says that if either party wants to cancel, they can do it with 30 days notice,” Schwager added. “Swedesboro’s position at the September meeting was that they were not interested in renegotiating, and if Woolwich didn’t like it, they can cancel the contract.”
According to the Swedesboro mayor, the two towns reached an agreement where Swedesboro would continue to contribute 25 percent of the operating costs for the fire department in 2016 and a long-term agreement would be negotiated later in the year. Swedesboro also agreed to repair one of Woolwich’s trucks.
“I then proposed that we agree to a five year agreement in which Swedesboro would increase our contribution to 30 percent,” Fromm noted. “This was received by Woolwich with a favorable response, but the mayor said he would have to get his committee’s approval – but he said the 2016 arrangement would not be a problem.” But Fromm pointed out, “The one comment that Dave Flaherty and I remember very clearly was made by Woolwich’s solicitor when he said, ‘There is no chance that capital projects will be included in this agreement.’”
“We met again on Oct. 7, at which point Mayor Fromm did not show up for the meeting,” Schwager related. “Flaherty and Casella both stated that Swedesboro was happy with the current agreement, and Woolwich can exercise its option to cancel the current contract with the 30-day notice.”
“Woolwich Township sent Swedesboro a notice on Oct. 20 to cancel the contract effective Jan. 31,” Schwager stated. “That gave them over 100 days to get back to the table.”
According to Schwager, a Nov.11 meeting changed nothing, and Fromm cancelled a meeting that had been scheduled for Jan. 30. “We reached out in December because Swedesboro was refusing to negotiate,” Schwager noted. “We reached out to the State Fire Commission and the Woolwich Fire Company to discuss options.”
Fromm said that the next counter-offer Swedesboro received contained previously agreed upon language, but also a new condition about capital projects. “Woolwich insisted that not only would Swedesboro be responsible for 30 percent of all capital costs associated with the fire department but that they (Woolwich) would have 100 percent authority to pick the projects that would be funded,” explained Fromm. “So if Woolwich wants to build a new station on 322 and house two to three new trucks out there to protect Walmart, Swedesboro would be responsible for 30 percent of the costs, no questions or input allowed. Obviously we will not put our taxpayers in that position.”
Regarding Schwager’s remarks that Fromm had missed the October meeting and cancelled one in January, the Swedesboro mayor countered, “For the record, I work at a power plant 60 miles from town. On the night of one of our scheduled meetings there was an emergency at the plant that required that I be there. I notified the others that I was not going to make it back in time and that Dave Flaherty and Sam Casella had the full authority to speak on behalf of Swedesboro.”
And concerning the cancelled meeting, according to Fromm the cancellation was agreed upon by both he and then Woolwich Township Mayor Sam Maccarone.
Schwager contends that the State Fire Commission called Gloucester County about the matter. “The county informed Swedesboro that you have to have an agreement,” he added. “There was a meeting at the end of December with County Dispatch Tom Butz, and at that point negotiations started again.”
The Swedesboro mayor insists that his community was not involved in those discussions. “We only found out when the state notified the county that this was happening,” he said. “That’s when we met with the county and agreed to a deal that Alan Schwager and Frank Rizzi then reneged on.”
As far as any fire service interruption in Swedesboro, Schwager stated, “That’s not my call. That’s up to the county because 911 calls go into Gloucester County Dispatch. It’s up to the county to see if they can continue to contact the fire department for Swedesboro calls.”
“This has never been about terminating services to Swedesboro,” Schwager insisted. “The problem is, if Swedesboro allows this agreement to lapse, they have problems with the county, not Woolwich.”
According to Fromm, Schwager told Flaherty that Swedesboro should not expect to have fire protection after the inter-local agreement expired. “He lied to us again when he (Schwager) denied saying this, exclaiming loudly, ‘That’s a lie, I am not a barbarian’,” Fromm stated. “However at the same time he was making his denial he was arranging a meeting with the State of New Jersey to work out the logistics of how to terminate fire protection in Swedesboro.”
“The Woolwich Fire Company is an independent, non-profit organization that neither Swedesboro or Woolwich have the authority to dictate where they can, and in Schwager’s and Rizzi’s case, can’t provide service,” Fromm said. “It is simply amazing that two politicians who have been in “power” for less than a month would try to terminate fire protection in Swedesboro.”
Both communities were in agreement that the dispute is not about the Woolwich Fire Company. “If the fire department gets a call, they’re going to respond,” pointed out Schwager.
Dave Valichka and Brian Slusar of the Woolwich Fire Company attended Swedesboro’s last Council meeting and made it clear that they would always provide fire protection in Swedesboro. Valichka said, “If the agreement ended tomorrow, we’d still be providing service for both towns.”
“Our Chief Ed Barber also made that perfectly clear to the county emergency coordinator,” Fromm commented. “I cannot express to the fire company how much we appreciate them speaking up loud and clear that they have our backs.”
Fromm says his community doesn’t need to have an interlocal agreement with Woolwich going forward if need be.
“We will set up a process where we pay our fair share of the fire company’s operating expenses,” he explained. “There is an agreement related to the firehouse that says Swedesboro will have to pay Woolwich 50 percent of the fair market value of the building if there is not an interlocal or other agreement. If that is the case, Swedesboro will buy Woolwich’s share of the building and move on.”
“Since Schwager and Rizzi have also said that Woolwich owns ALL of the equipment in the firehouse and they would remove it all when they cut Swedesboro off for fire protection, our solicitor will prepare the paperwork necessary to obtain an injunction to stop any such ridiculous action by these people,” Fromm continued. “Swedesboro will not be without fire protection.”
Schwager justifies the township’s request for more funding from the borough based on dispatched call percentages. “Based on Gloucester County dispatch records, when the fire company responds to a fire, 34 percent of the calls are going into Swedesboro,” he said. “Yet Swedesboro pays 25 percent toward operating costs, and zero toward capital.”
Fromm remembers the numbers differently. “They came up with their own bogus fire department call-out data that they manipulated to help their argument,” he remarked. “They eventually admitted that their data was wrong during a meeting with the county when the county provided accurate data.”
Schwager then looked at other numbers. “We’re asking Swedesboro to pay 30 percent of the costs. At a $100,000 budget, that’s an additional $5,000 a year.”
“There’s ground contamination out there that Swedesboro is refusing to deal with as well,” he continued. “There was a contaminated tank in the back of the fire department that was pulled, and we’ve asked for cost share on that.”
“Swedesboro and Woolwich joint own the land and the building,” Schwager added. “There’s been an agreement in place since 1973 that says those costs are shared equally.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the Swedesboro Council is getting the full story from their mayor,” Schwager continued. “We want them to agree to pay their fair share on operating, and on capital. We’ve even said we’ll get arbitrators.”
“When we pay $670,000 for an engine, it’s not fair to Woolwich,” mentioned Schwager. “Part of that is helping Swedesboro residents, and Swedesboro didn’t pay a dime. How is that fair to Woolwich?”
“All we were looking for is to negotiate in good faith, and we feel we’ve never gotten that from Swedesboro,” Schwager said. “It has gone way too far.”
“It is really a shame,” said Fromm, “that a couple of two bit politicians who apparently are trying to make a name for themselves as tough guys would actually try to break up something that has been in place for well over a century. Running a town is not like being the thug on the planning board where developers have to put up with your threats and mean spirited actions.”
The hope was to get all this done by the end of the year because we’re in our budget process,” Schwager noted. “But Swedesboro wouldn’t negotiate.”
“Swedesboro is ready and willing to work with Woolwich Township,” said Fromm, “in a cooperative manner as we have done so for many, many years and I am hopeful that the new leadership will realize that we’ll accomplish more positive results for our residents/taxpayers if we work together versus being at odds with one another.”
The agreement expires March 7.