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RED BANK: FIREFIGHTERS PRESS FOR RENT HIKE

red-bank-fire-volunteers-041223-1-500x375-6199318Volunteer firefighters heading into borough hall for Wednesday night’s council session. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot-topic_03-220x138-9108919Red Bank’s volunteer firefighters derailed the planned introduction of a borough budget they said would scuttle a negotiated funding plan for their firehouses Wednesday night.

red-bank-fire-volunteers-041223-2-500x375-3638060Men and women in firefighter blue stood throughout the testimony of ex-chief Stu Jensen, right, and other department leaders. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

On the agenda for the council’s semimonthly meeting was the scheduled introduction of a $25.88 million budget for 2023. But the only aspect of the spending plan that got any attention concerned the so-called “rent” the borough pays to the fire department’s independent, non-profit fire companies, which own four firehouses.

The houses are: Westside Hose on Leighton Avenue; Union Hose on Shrewsbury Avenue; Navesink Hook & Ladder on Mechanic Street; and the First Aid & Rescue Squad building on Spring Street, which since 2016 has shared space with the Independent Engine and Liberty Hose companies.

Backed by about two dozen firefighters, former chief Stu Jensen told the council the budget did not reflect the terms previously discussed with the governing body’s three-member finance committee in regard to town support for the houses.

The Navesink Hook house, built around 1880, and others require costly maintenance and repairs, such as roof and replacements, Jensen told the council. Insurance coverage alone costs $4,000 to $7,000 per house, he said.

The rents are “the only source of income” the companies have to pay those expenses, and without adequate rents, volunteer firefighters are forced to devote additional time to raising funds for their houses, Jensen said.

“We spend way too much time fundraising, way too much time scraping, way too much time working and cleaning and repairing our own firehouses” while providing “an essential service” to the borough, he said.

Had the rents kept pace with inflation since 2000, they’d be at $19,000 now, Jensen said. He acknowledged the department had not pressed hard enough for the increases in the past.

“The point is this: a fair rent is what these companies need,” he said. “We had an agreement, we thought, last year, and it’s been stricken from the budget. We really ask that you return that” at the agreed-upon $18,500 per house, he said.

According to figures Jensen later provided to redbankgreen, after nearly 20 years without an increase, the rent paid per house has risen $500 in each of the last three years, to $10,500.

Under the pending request, the rent would rise to $18,500 this year for three companies and First Aid. The two other companies formerly based in borough-owned houses would get $9,000 each, known as “broom fees,” for cleaning and personal maintenance, from the present $5,000, he said.

In total, Jensen said, “the budget would have gone up $40,000 on the rent line.”

“Less than the cost of a cop car,” said Councilwoman Kate Triggiano, a volunteer firefighter with the Westside Hose. She called the request “reasonable.”

Councilman Michael Ballard, who sits on the finance committee with Councilperson Angela Mirandi and Triggiano, told Jensen he was “so sorry that for many years the fire department has not been given the money they needed.

“I want to do the right thing for the fire department. I appreciate anyone who will run into a burning building when I’m trying to get out,” Ballard added.

But Triggiano, who has been at odds with Ballard and members of his council majority for years, chastised Ballard and Mirandi. “You are the two people who made the decision to not give them their full funding,” she said. “And this isn’t the first time.”

Mirandi, however, said the issue was not the amount of money requested but the “mechanism” of the borough making capital expenditures for buildings it does not own.

“We want to help the fire department,” said Mirandi, the committee chair. “What we made clear was that this was not the mechanism in which to help them, to just throw cash at the rent line.”

Department officials, however, insisted that they did not want “capital” financing from the borough. They could manage the finances for repairs using the rents, Jensen and Chief Wayne Hartman said.

“It appears one of the main sticking points was not as much the dollar value of the increases but the perception and accountability of the monies that would be going out,” Hartman said. “I’d like to remind [the committee] that we’ve been here performing our services for the borough’s residents and business owners for over 150 years. Folks, we are not going anyplace.”

“If we do not enable and support this volunteer fire department,” said Mayor Billy Portman, “we’re going to end up paying for a professional fire department, and that’s going to cost us about $3 million to $5 million every year.

“So this is the absolute definition of penny-wise, pound-foolish,” he said.

Later, during public comments, Pinckney Road resident Barbara Monahan told the council she was “astonished” that it would resist the request.

“This is public safety. This is free labor,” she said. “You must have rocks in your head,” she added, to a burst of cheers from the audience.

Dominick Rizzo, a volunteer firefighter who co-owns downtown restaurants Catch 19 and Centrada, told the council he, too, found it “astonishing” that the fire department had to fight “just to get what we need to do the job.”

Ballard and council ally John Jackson sought to assure the audience that the request would get due consideration.

“Provided that that documentation is a fair representation of the increases you’re asking for, I promise the fire department that we’re not going to nickel-and-dime anybody,” Jackson said. “We value the fire department, we value the services that you bring to our community. All we’re hoping to do is to make an informed decision.”

A revised version of the spending plan, which has not yet been made public and was otherwise not discussed, is likely to be on the agenda for the council’s April 26 session, officials said.

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