Erial fire commissioners on Wednesday received the Township Council's informal approval to create an exploratory committee to analyze the feasibility of merging Fire Districts 5 and 6.
The Lambs Terrace Fire Co.-Erial Fire Department consolidation could potentially save the two districts nearly $200,000 right away, the District 6 commissioners said, in part by eliminating five commissioner positions—there are currently 10 commissioners for the two fire districts—and merging other administrative services.
"We're going to be financially strained going forward," District 6 Commissioner George Brown told Council. "We have to plan for it and we have to think outside of the box. As (Mayor David Mayer) said, if we don't do it, we're going to be told by someone else to do it."
Brown was joined by fellow District 6 Commissioners Joe Chew and Jim Kibelstis in discussing the ad hoc committee with Council during the governing body's work session Wednesday evening.
The Erial commissioners' proposed committee would be chaired by Township Business Administrator Tom Cardis and include two commissioners from each fire district.
"Go ahead. You have our blessing," Council President Glen Bianchini said. "Mr. Cardis is ready to go. I'm sure the mayor will be a part of any discussions."
Councilwoman Michelle Gentek suggested each district be represented at committee meetings by appointed volunteer and career firefighters.
The District 6 commissioners are hopeful the Lambs Terrace commissioners—none of whom attended Wednesday's meeting—will agree to join the exploratory committee.
"As we look down the road, we're going to see costs that are going to come about," Brown said. "Our apparatus is starting to age. Our buildings—District 5's was recently redone, but District 6's was last rehabbed in 1993. ... It's time for us to move to the next level. We believe we can save money through consolidation."
Kibelstis told Patch he arrived at a "first cut" estimate of about $190,000 in potential savings through consolidation after reviewing 2010 spending figures. In addition to each having five salaried commissioners, the Fire District 6 commissioners noted the two districts each currently carry separate insurance plans and employ their own solicitors and auditors.
The Lambs Terrace Fire Co.'s current operating budget is $1,366,397, while Erial Fire Department's is $1,235,199.
Brown told Council he envisions a 60-day study will be necessary to come to a conclusion on whether to consolidate the two south-end districts.
Consolidation could come following the dissolution of both existing districts and the creation of a new one, or through the expansion of one of the existing districts and the dissolution of the other, Brown said.
The Lambs Terrace Fire Co. and Erial Fire Department entered into a shared-services agreement in 2007, pooling both manpower and firefighting apparatus, and have operated under the agreement since.
A total of nine career firefighters, working in three-man platoons, alternate 24-hour shifts between the Erial and Lambs Terrace fire stations, located at 1946 Erial Williamstown Rd., in Erial, and at 1781 Sicklerville Rd., in Sicklerville, respectively. Volunteers staff one of the two station houses one day each week.
Consolidation would not result in a reduction in the two districts' current full-time, nine-man firefighting staff, according to the Erial commissioners, nor is it under consideration at this time to shut down and sell one of the two stations.
Brown acknowledged a concern with consolidation is that it could bring about a reduction in volunteerism.
"The fear that other people have is that these kinds of activities result in a loss of volunteers," he said. "Success will not be with us if we lose the volunteers. We've got to strike the right balance. We've got to choose the right leadership."