TRENTON – Fire officials from Millburn and Elizabeth said Monday that due to budget cuts and pension reform, public safety is increasingly at risk.
Assembly Law and Public Safety committee members were told that the numbers of volunteers are down, particularly in well-to-do communities; mutual-aid agreements are forcing companies from neighboring towns that should be providing secondary or back-up service into a primary firefighting role; and with the threat of public pension reform, senior firefighters are retiring in large numbers.
“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Elizabeth Deputy Fire Chief Carl Heitmeyer. “We have had a crisis of manpower, boots-on-the-ground, for some time.”
He said that with a 2 percent cap on budget increases in place, his city might see an eventual cut in manpower to 160 personnel when 267 would be normal.
“Without proper manning you can’t stop these fires,” he said. “When the governor says that everything is fine, I’m telling you it is not fine.”
The committee was taking testimony to assess the effect of public budget cuts on community safety.
Millburn Fire Chief Michael Roberts said his department has dropped from 56 personnel in the 1980s to 47 now for a town of approximately 19,000. The domino effect of reduced personnel, he said, affects morale. “We are doing more work with less people,” he said.
And Roberts added that highly dedicated professionals – firefighters, police, and teachers – have unfairly been made “public enemy number one” due to New Jersey’s budget problems.