Residents who challenged the fire services deal with Glen Ridge are now calling on Montclair’s Township Council to look more closely at the Fire Department’s expenses as well as Chief John Hermann’s most recent budget request for 13 more firefighters.

“I find the lack of responsiveness and detailed information from the Fire Department to be a reason to not support any requests for additional staff or funding,” Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo said in an email. “I have never seen this arrogance from any department heads in 23 years on the council. I continue to support the fire union leaders, but not the requests for 14 additional staff by the chief. What are these numbers based upon? How can we not spend money on the essential communications equipment, but allow the purchase of non-essential items for some of our facilities and not others?

The discrepancy in facilities Russo mentioned is evident at Firehouse No. 3, located in Montclair’s South End by Nishuane Park. The historic station and its condition figured prominently in the lawsuit two Black firefighters filed against the township, contending that they faced “egregious race discrimination” in the Montclair Fire Department.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendant, Herrmann, retaliated against one of the plaintiffs, Steven Marshalleck, by reassigning him to Firehouse No. 3.

Tale of Two Firehouses

Firehouse No. 3, the town’s oldest working station, made news in February 2022 when it was slated for repairs and a renovation, but work has yet to start. Montclair had authorized $500,000 for capital improvements to Firehouse No. 3 in 2020.

Upper Montclair’s Firehouse No. 2, was built in 1902, a year after Firehouse No. 3 was built. 

Firehouse No. 2 has been consistently maintained and upgraded by the Montclair Fire Department, providing modern facilities for its firefighters, according to the lawsuit. The suit cites a recently completed $50,000 renovation of the bathroom facilities at Firehouse No. 2 to make them accessible. It also has amenities, like a Viking commercial stove, high-quality laundry appliances and comfortable sleeping quarters. The majority of the firefighters assigned to Firehouse No. 2 are white, the suit says.

Firehouse No. 3 has received little to no capital improvements in more than a decade.

Lead paint was discovered in the building and basic remediation work was completed only recently, according to the lawsuit. 

Read: Montclair firefighters union challenges claims about Firehouse No. 3

“The Firehouse No. 3 kitchen and bathroom facilities have not been upgraded in at least 20 years and are not handicap accessible,” the suit says. “The sleeping quarters are substandard and firefighters sleep on outdated mattresses.”

Firehouse No. 3 is the only Montclair Fire Department firehouse where the majority of firefighters are Black, the suit says.

The lawsuit further alleges that Herrmann has “failed to make improvements to Firehouse No. 3 in order to preserve it as a punishment assignment for firefighters and a tool of discrimination against Black firefighters.”

Montclair Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao, at the last Township Council meeting, confirmed that the council had previously adopted an ordinance for $500,000 for some structural work for Firehouse No. 3.

Of the $500,000, Rao said, between $20,000 and $30,000 has been spent for an architectural firm to write the specifications for bid. The Township Council approved $24,950 for Connelly & Hickey to design structural upgrades for Fire Station No. 3.

“They recently completed preparing specifications to go out for bid and they did bid it out,” Rao said. “Just last month, I believe. We recently received all the bids and are about to award the contract.”

She added: “We received various proposals, roughly from $260,000 to one and a half million dollars. So we are going to pick the lowest responsible bidder and going to award the contract soon, probably at the next meeting.”

Equipment 911

In an email to the Township Council, resident Eileen Birmingham called Firehouse No. 3 a “gulag” and questioned if there was data that showed that Firehouse No. 3 is needed.

“How is it that the firehouses have Nautilus equipment and Viking stoves, but not radios?” resident Eileen Birmingham wrote. “What have the priorities been? It is my understanding that House No. 3 does not have working radios. And we are told that for years, the Fire Department has had substandard radios. Any department that prioritizes Viking stoves and Nautilus equipment over radios and other safety equipment is not a serious department.”

Birmingham also stated that during the Montclair budget presentation, Montclair’s financial consultant Bob Benecke offered no explanation for the number of firefighters, and why Montclair would need more staff than Bloomfield, a much larger town that has a mutual aid agreement with Nutley and Belleville.

“I would like Mr. Scantlebury to look into the discrepancies in equipment available at the different houses,”  Councilor Peter Yacobellis replied to Birmingham’s email, referring to Acting Township Manager Brian Scantlebury. “Your point is taken on the stoves vs. radios as a principal.”

Birmingham was one of the first to raise concerns about Montclair’s fire services agreement with Glen Ridge, stating in June 2022 that Glen Ridge was paying $50,000 less than it did in 2011 and, when adjusted for inflation, the borough was paying Montclair less than it did in 1991. Yacobellis also called the agreement a bad deal for Montclair taxpayers.

In his op-ed, stating that the Montclair Glen Ridge fire agreement is a win-win, Mayor Sean Spiller stated that “after working with Glen Ridge for a number of years, we know exactly what our annual costs are to provide fire service and protection. Our lone costs are fuel, maintenance, and vehicle depreciation; not one additional firefighter is employed to service Glen Ridge.”

Herrmann, in an op-ed in favor of the Glen Ridge fire agreement, stated that “in 1961, there were 82 firefighters in the Montclair Fire Department. In 1993, there were 82 firefighters. In 1999, there were 79 firefighters. In 2013, there were 81 firefighters. And today, there are 76 firefighters in the department. We have always been in that range and truly need more personnel even today.”

On Tuesday, Montclair’s council will decide on whether to adopt the 2023 Municipal Budget, including a $12.7 million proposed budget for the township’s Fire Department – a 7.5% increase. Glen Ridge is paying Montclair $75,738 less in 2023 as part of the new fire services agreement.

— Liz George, Baristanet