Montclair, NJ – Residents who challenged the fire services deal with Glen Ridge are now calling on Montclair’s Town Council to look more closely at the Fire Department expenses as well as Chief Hermann’s most recent budget request for 13 more firefighters.
“I find the lack of responsiveness and detailed information from the Fire Dept. to be a reason to not support any requests for additional staff or funding,” said Councilor Bob Russo in an email. “I have never seen this arrogance from any Dept. 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 is mentioning is evident at Fire House #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, Montclair Fire Chief John Herrmann, further retaliated against Plaintiff Steven Marshalleck by reassigning him to Firehouse #3.
Tale of Two Fire Houses
Fire House #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 #3 back in 2020.
Upper Montclair’s Fire House #2, was built in 1902, a year after Fire House #3 was built. According to the lawsuit, Firehouse #2 has been consistently maintained and upgraded by Montclair Fire Department, providing modern facilities for its firefighters. The suit cites a recently completed $50,000 renovation of the bathroom facilities at Firehouse #2 to make them handicap accessible. It also has amenities such as a Viking commercial stove, high quality laundry appliances and comfortable sleeping quarters. According to the lawsuit, the majority of firefighters assigned to Firehouse #2 are white.
Firehouse #3 has received little to no capital improvements in more than a decade.
According to the law suit, lead paint was discovered in the building and basic remediation work was completed only recently. “The Firehouse #3 kitchen and bathroom facilities have not been upgraded in at least 20 years and are not handicap accessible. The sleeping quarters are substandard and firefighters sleep on outdated mattresses,” the suit states, adding that Firehouse #3 is the only Montclair Fire Dept. firehouse where the majority of firefighters are Black.
The lawsuit further alleges that Chief Herrmann has “failed to make improvements to Firehouse #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 Town Council meeting, confirmed that the Council had previously adopted an ordinance for $500,000 for some structural work for Firehouse #3.
Of the $500,000, Rao said between $20-30,000 had 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 #3.
“They recently completed preparing specifications to go out for bid and they did bid it out. Just last month, I believe. We recently received all the bids and are about to award the contract,” Rao 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,” Rao said.
Resident Eileen Birmingham, in an email to the Town Council, called Fire House #3 a “gulag” and questioned if there was data that showed that Fire House #3 is needed.
“How is it that the Fire Houses have Nautilus equipment and Viking stoves, but not radios?” resident Eileen Birmingham writes in an email to the Town Council. “What have the priorities been? It is my understanding that [Fire] House #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 an automatic 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. “Your point it 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.