Montclair council approves Glen Ridge fire contract on split vote
In a raucous session marked by bursts of anger and accusations, a divided Montclair Township Council voted Wednesday night to approve a new 10-year fire services contract with neighboring Glen Ridge to replace an expiring deal.
The 4-3 vote, held in a first floor chamber at the Municipal Building, punctuated the end of a bitter months-long debate, culminating with council members accusing one another of lying or withholding critical data. The exchanges played out in front of an overflow gallery of advocates on both sides of the issue — including about 40 Montclair firefighters who came out to demonstrate their support for the new contract.
The first year of the new contract calls for Glen Ridge to pay Montclair $850,000 — roughly $76,000 less than the fee for 2022. The reduction has angered scores of residents who have said that Glen Ridge was not paying its fair share, especially in these inflationary times.
It was past 11 p.m., nearly four hours into a session that weighed a number of other issues but which placed the fire contract front and center, that the vote was taken. Mayor Sean Spiller, who has championed the new contract, said, “I am very confident that we will continue to make sure that this is a win-win.”
He added, “I think this is a fair deal.”
It was thought that 2nd Ward Councilor Robin Schlager was undecided in the days, even hours, leading up to the vote. But in the end, while acknowledging that she had not received all the financial analysis until after Montclair had made its bid, she decided to support the contract.
Schlager, along with the mayor and council members David Cummings and Lori Price Abrams, voted yes. Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, Bob Russo and Peter Yacobellis voted against it. In a motion seconded by Yacobellis, Russo urged the council to table the vote and to allow shared services experts from the state to review the contract.
From the moment last June when Glen Ridge threw the process open for bidding, officials in Montclair openly expressed fear that Bloomfield would swoop in with a sweeter offer for Glen Ridge.
As it turns out, Montclair’s fear was misplaced. Montclair’s offer, according to the Glen Ridge borough attorney, was the only one on the table. Montclair was competing against itself.
“Bloomfield did not make a bid,” the attorney, John Malyska, told Montclair Local earlier in the week.
At the Wednesday meeting, the mayor and other council members supporting the contract said that given that it was a sealed bidding process, they were unaware that Montclair was the sole bidder.
A vote against the contract or delaying a vote might have come with risk for Montclair, possibly upending the process and inviting Glen Ridge to reopen the bidding.
Responding to a question on what steps Glen Ridge would take, Malyska, the Glen Ridge attorney, first said that relations between the two neighbors had always been harmonious and he did not want to “speculate or go down a legal road or say anything inflammatory.”
But, he added: “An offer was made. If a person backs away from an agreement, it comes with consequences. They didn’t have to submit a proposal. We had a meeting and said thank you very much. What more do I have to do? Do I have to wait for two or three more resolutions?”
Over the last several days Russo and Yacobellis had angrily accused the mayor and other officials of withholding crucial information from the majority of Montclair’s seven-person council – including an analysis by Montclair’s chief financial officer that they said undermines the argument that Montclair stands to come out ahead with the new contract.
Russo said the CFO’s report was never shared with him and that he did not see it until a person not connected to the process forwarded it to him in an email late Monday night.
Russo was pushing to have a pair of former mayors – Jordan Glatt and Nicholas Platt, who were appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy to be the state’s shared services czars – review the new contract as well as the analysis by the Montclair CFO, Padmaja Rao.
The contrast between the proposed contract’s numbers and Rao’s report is striking. Rao drew up three models to determine what Glen Ridge’s fair share should be. One, based on a percentage of taxable properties, would put the annual figure at $2.9 million, or at 17% of the Montclair Fire Department’s approximately $17 million annual budget. A second model, based on Glen Ridge’s population compared to Montclair, would put the fee at $2.7 million.
The lowest estimate in the CFO report is rooted in the number of Glen Ridge fire calls Montclair responds to – roughly 10 percent of its overall calls. That would put Glen Ridge’s annual payment at $1.7 million.
The contract calls for the payments from Glen Ridge to rise to $1.4 million in the 10th year. At that point, Glen Ridge would have the option to reup for an additional five years, and would not reach the CFO’s lowest figure of $1.7 million until the final year, 2037.
In emails obtained by Montclair Local, the mayor circulated an analysis done by the Fire Department and defended his position to constituents who had written to him in opposition this week.
“As we have to engage in a sealed bid process for the fire contract, not a negotiations,” the mayor wrote, “we are forced to make determinations of what we will offer, knowing that other towns may bid as well.”
FEMA standards had been applied to calculate everything from the cost of fuel to vehicle maintenance and depreciation connected to trips to Glen Ridge, the mayor wrote, putting the overall price tag at “$100,000 or less.”
“So, when we craft a deal with Glen Ridge that offers us revenue of $850,000 per year, rising to $1,700,000 per year, it absolutely helps us with supporting our priorities,” Spiller wrote. “If we were not to have an agreement with Glen Ridge, those dollars, which we get now, would need to be made up,” the mayor added. “Either through cuts in our general budget or by increasing taxes.”
Citing the shared service agreement among all Essex County towns, Spiller said that Montclair would respond to Glen Ridge’s calls for help with or without a fire services contract.
“What set me off,” Yacobellis said before Wednesday night’s vote, “is the council in its entirety was not given this information before the bid.”
“I don’t know what data was used to have made the bid decision,” he said. “If you look at information the mayor is circulating, it would seem we’re ripping Glen Ridge off. If you look at the data the CFO prepared and that was withheld from us, it suggests we’re being wildly undercompensated. I’d like to see the source data that was used for the presentation the mayor has circulated. The source data for what the CFO used is our actual budget.
“I think the most responsible course of action at this point is to table this vote until we can get a third-party analysis. Otherwise, I still see this as a bad deal that we shouldn’t enter into.”