Voorhees Committee approves ordinance on second reading to dissolve Voorhees Fire District No. 3

Voorhees Township and the Voorhees Fire District will officially be consolidated Friday when the ordinance takes effect.

Applause from employees of Voorhees Fire District No. 3 broke out after the Voorhees Township Committee unanimously approved an ordinance on second reading to dissolve the Voorhees Fire District No. 3 at a public hearing Tuesday night.

The ordinance takes effect Friday, and then Voorhees Township will have control over the fire department.

“It’s about time,” said firefighter John Pihs.

This second vote comes after the township spent several months of investigating claims of safety and fiscal mismanagement against the district, including late pension payments, failed or obsolete equipment, un-budgeted overtime, a downgrade in credit rating and owing more than $100,000 in bill payments.

The first ordinance was introduced at a public hearing on Jan. 17. After the ordinance passed, a request for approval of the dissolution went to the state’s local finance board on Feb. 8 and was unanimously approved.

Certified public accountant Oliver Walling presented his analysis and recommendations on the board of fire commissioners at the first public hearing and estimated the consolidation would save $300,000.

“He projected a savings of $300,000 to the taxpayers based on the information he had from the fire district at the time of his review,” Mayor Michael Mignogna said. “The savings would be the result of the elimination of professional services, commissioners’ compensation, insurance costs and purchasing practices.”

According to the committee and special counsel Stuart Platt, the administrative transition is actively taking place and the fire department and emergency medical services are continuing as is, without any breaks in service.

Battalion Chief John Schwarz called the consolidation “a positive thing.”

“I think we were just in a tight situation financially. I think it’s going to be more organized,” Schwarz said.

“We’re excited to see where (Voorhees Township Police) Chief (Lou) Bordi and the town fathers takes us,” said Harry Lauletta, Volunteer Battalion Chief.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Voorhees resident Anna Droege asked the committee what would happen next.

Mignogna responded, saying Bordi came up with an extensive transition plan that will be implemented over a period of time.

“We believe there will be a seamless transition and a seamless consolidation,” Mignogna said. “We have a CFO and an administration that the fire commission did not have, so we believe that by the township taking over, it will be run more efficiently and more importantly, more safely for our residents and for the fire company.”

Committeeman Mike Friedman said one of the reasons he voted yes to the consolidation is because the township has experienced administration officials that will be able to properly manage all aspects of the fire district and take the workload off Deputy Chief Michael Wharton.

“Our experienced CFO Dean (Ciminera) will be able to oversee and properly manage the finances of the fire district and our capable administrator Larry (Spellman) will be able to oversee administrative operations as well,” he said. “I think Wharton has done a tremendous job, but you’ve had too much on your plate and it’s not fair to you, working what, 90 hours a week? I think this will be an opportunity for you to be able to concentrate on firematic issues and allow the financial and other operations to be handled from this end.”

Fellow Committeeman Harry Platt echoed Friedman’s statements, adding that public safety issues were paramount to the committee, firefighters and Voorhees residents.

“We took the time we needed to find out everything and realized like Friedman said — we have professionals that can handle what deputy chief Wharton was unable to handle and him and the firefighters can operate on the issues that they need to be focused on,” Platt said.

Christine Arpino, wife of one of the firefighters, said this has been one of the hardest years for her family and thanked the committee for “being the first people to ever take this so seriously and to make a move and act on it.”

“I want to thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “I think I speak for all the wives here that we have watched and seen what our husbands have gone through and it has not been easy. I watched him work 36-hour shifts that were mandatory; I got a call from him when he fell asleep at a light coming home from work. Those are just minor things compared to the rest of them.”

Union Chief Keith Kemery, International Association of Firefighters Local No. 3249, spoke on behalf of the full-time paid fire officer and emergency medical technicians and said they fully support the consolidation and thanked the township committee.

“We appreciate your efforts and taking action to fully investigate the matter, both financially as well as operationally,” he said. “We had full confidence when we brought our concerns to you that the facts were going to tell the story and those facts did. If our first responders are taken care of, then they are at their best for the public safety of the community and that’s what this is all about.”