WAYNE, NJ – Fifth Ward Councilwoman Fran Ritter (D) and Councilman-at-Large Jason DeStefano (R) each sponsored an ordinance that was to be introduced during last night’s town council meeting. But neither were voted on. DeStefano pulled his ordinance, saying he wanted it to go through the finance committee first. Ritter moved her ordinance, but when it came time for another council member to second her motion, an uncomfortable silence was the only response.
Without the second, there was no vote. It was a disappointment to Ritter and to the two dozen or so volunteer firefighters and first-aid squad members who had come to the meeting that night to support these two bills.
Both bills were to increase the township’s support of the volunteers of the Wayne Fire Department and the Memorial First Aid Squad. As either ordinance read, the purpose was that, “The Township Council is desirous of attracting, retaining, and encouraging active membership in Wayne Township’s volunteer first aid squad and volunteer fire companies by offering a financial incentive.”
DeStefano’s bill would increase the LOSAP, the Length of Service Award Program, tying annual payment increases to the Consumer Price Index, instead of forcing the council to vote on increases each time a council member decided to raise the payouts.
Currently, the Wayne Township LOSAP payout is $1,392 per year, for those that qualify. The last time there was an increase in this was 15 years ago when it went up $27 from $1,365 per year.
LOSAP, according to NJ.gov is, “a system established to provide tax-deferred income benefits to active volunteer members of an emergency service organization.” Mayor Chris Vergano described the program as “sort of a 401K,” because the money can be invested until a later date (retirement?) Eligibility is based on a point system and time served (minimum of five years).
Ritter’s bill would’ve increased the stipend paid each year to Wayne’s volunteer first responders, who qualify for the LOSAP program. Here’s how the ordinance reads: “In any year that an eligible firefighter and/or First Aid Squad member qualifies for the LOSAP benefit, that member shall be entitled to a stipend in the amount of $1,500.00 which is in addition to any other benefit, incentive, or allowance currently offered by the Township of Wayne.”
Vergano said that the current stipend is $595 per year – just under $600, which is the tax threshold for a 1098 payout.
Before the ordinances were announced, DeStefano asked that his be pulled from the night’s agenda and sent to the finance committee for review.
This shocked Ritter, who asked that he reconsider, but he did not. She questioned “what moved” him, but DeStefano was stone-faced and silent. She looked to the back of the room at the group of first responders and told him to read the room.
“Is this how you’re going to get votes,” she asked of her council colleagues.
Mayor Chris Vergano interrupted, “No. This is how you’re going to get votes.” And followed that up by sarcastically saying, “I love election year.”
All six ward council seats are up for re-election this November.
When next, Ritter moved her ordinance and waited for another council member to second her motion, the council chambers at town hall became very quiet. Ritter soon was frowning, shaking her head silently, while the other council members either stared straight ahead or down at what was on the dais in front of them.
It stayed that way for almost half-a-minute, growing more and more uncomfortable before Mayor Chris Vergano spoke up.
“So, my suggestion to you tonight is to wait until we adopt the budget,” he said. “Which will take place in a few months. The money in these ordinances wouldn’t be paid out until the end of the year, anyway. It will be based on this year’s LOSAP.”
His reasoning for the delay was a potential $4million increase from last year’s budget, which he said would be seven to eight tax points.
“We’re trying to get that down,” he continued. “The budget committee is going to be very busy this year. As your expenses have gone up for your houses, for your businesses, this government is facing the same thing. Gasoline is up, materials are up, parts are up, insurance is up, our pension plan is up.”
He said that it “makes a lot more sense financially” to wait until the budget was done before bringing these bills back up again.
Ritter was incensed and questioned this financial prudence in comparison to the recently failed full-time mayor proposal.
“What price for our safety?” she asked. “When you were looking for us to pay you another $121,000 without even consulting anybody, did you look at the budget?”
“You had no proposal, you had no support, financially,” she continued. “You wanted us to come up with this money, I guess you thought that you would find it somewhere. And, now we can’t find this? Now, we’re going through bureaucratic channels to get this done, when we, as legislators, have the opportunity to do something meaningful? To help the people that help us with life and death? I find this appalling; I find this embarrassing and I find this a besmirchment on this township’s name and reputation for its spirit of volunteerism that it’s history is based on.”
She went on for some time, praising Wayne’s volunteer first responders and talking of the millions of dollars spent on equipment and apparatus, but now they were not willing to spend extra on the “people who operate that equipment.”
Ritter called it a “partisan game,” and suggested that her ordinance did not receive a second because she was the only Democrat on the otherwise Republican council.
When she concluded, Sixth Ward Councilman Jon Ettman spoke up.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea and I think we should absolutely explore this.”
“Right now may be not the right time because of what we’re dealing with the budget and other issues that may be unforeseen to some of us at this stage of the budgetary process,” Ettman added. “So, let’s examine it. Nobody said that it’s not going to ever happen, or we’re going to throw this in the dumpster. Put it to committee like we did with the mayor’s proposal for a full-time mayorship.”
“If it’s not the right time, we’ll do it another time,” he said in conclusion. “But I think it’s a great idea though.”
When it became clear that there would be no vote on either ordinance, the volunteer first responders in the back of the room quietly left the building.
After the meeting Wayne Fire Commissioner Frank Velardi and First Aid Commissioner Matthew Cavallo both looked disappointed, and you could hear it in Velardi’s voice when he quietly said, “I hope it comes up again in the future, and they can secure the funds that the Council members were proposing.” Cavallo did not comment.
The mayor said during the meeting that they will be holding a special budget meeting on Wednesday, April 12, where all the Township department heads will be presenting. The meeting is not yet up on the township website.