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Fire Department Merger—What's the Timetable?

South Orange and Maplewood are in the early stages of discussing a fire department merger.

The potential merger of the South Orange and Maplewood fire departments is a topic that has been overshadowed by many other conversations lately—including possible mergers of the police departments, recreation departments, libraries and the actual impending merger of the municipal court systems between the two towns. (The South Orange Trustees are voting on moving the proposal to the state Administrative Office of the Courts at their Wednesday night meeting.)

The Maplewood Township Committee officially endorsed the idea of the merger at its Feb. 16 meeting by passing a resolution to authorize negotiations with South Orange for the establishment of a shared fire department. (At the same meeting, the Township Committee passed a resolution expressing Maplewood's interest in receiving a proposal from South Orange to provide recreation and cultural affairs services to Maplewood through an inter-local agreement.)

But how long will such a merger take? At the last budget meeting on Feb. 13, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca clearly stated that such mergers would not be able to take effect in time to affect current budget discussions for 2010. Committee member Jerry Ryan pointed out to Patch that the current merger of the municipal courts has taken two or three years.

However, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca told Patch earlier this week that he did have a fairly aggressive timetable: "I hope we can put together an agreement for a start in 2011."

As NJ.com reported, Chief Joseph Richardella of Maplewood is talking about the merger and seems positive and supportive, saying that a merger of the two departments could lead to potential improvements in responses to fires. Fire Chief Jeff Markey of South Orange is not commenting yet.

The article points out that the South Orange Fire Department currently has 31 firefighters covering three square miles and 16,000 residents; Maplewood FD's 40 firefighters cover four square miles and serve 22,000 residents.

South Orange Trustee Howard Levison, who chairs the Shared Services Committee, noted that the goal of a unified fire department is "to respond to emergencies more effectively" at a time when the cost of providing fire service is going up, due largely to rising pension and health benefit costs.

The objective is not to reduce manpower through layoffs or close firehouses in either town, Levison said, though there's a possibility of finding savings through attrition if it's ultimately deemed operationally feasible. Savings could also be made in the area of capital investment—in the two towns sharing the expense of a $1 million hook and ladder, for example.

Levison also noted that there's an interest in exploring combining the dispatch function for police, fire and ambulance for the two towns. And an important factor in discussions about a unified fire department is looking at the impact on mutual aid agreements with towns like West Orange and Millburn.

As for potential stumbling blocks?

South Orange is a civil service town, meaning its municipal employees—including uniformed personnel such as police and fire—operate under different rules than Maplewood, a non-civil service town. (Civil service towns operate under guidelines of the Civil Service Commission of New Jersey, which includes use of a civil service exam. The Commission operates as an arbitrator on employment issues for civil service employees.) The South Orange Fire Department also has a different compensation structure than the Maplewood FD.

For civil service towns, "basically there are state statutes governing how people are hired, fired, promoted," said Maplewood Township Administrator Joseph Manning. Manning said that when a non-civil service and civil service towns merge departments, they must choose. "If Maplewood is the lead, the employees are non-civil service. If South Orange leads, they are civil service." Manning pointed out that since Maplewood is the lead town on the municipal court merger—which should take effect Jan. 1, 2011—the joint court system will be non-civil service.

Maplewood's leadership—particularly DeLuca—have noted that they, at least initially, have envisioned leadership of a merged fire department coming from Maplewood (although Deputy Mayor Fred Profeta has mused about selling the fire house on Dunnell Road to allow for greater development potential in the area).

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