HILLSIDE, NJ — There’s more trouble brewing in Hillside, as both the police department and fire department say that residents are at risk due to depleted manpower, missing, outdated or shoddy equipment, and questions about where funds allegedly allotted for this much-needed equipment has disappeared to.
According to sources inside both departments, measures need to be taken immediately in order to stop the downward spiral before it’s too late.
According to both township officials and employees inside the police department, manpower is down from 78 officers to just 58 officers, and units have been dismantled because there are simply not enough officers to handle the load.
According to an employee inside the police department who requested anonymity, the detective’s bureau is down by four officers. In addition, the traffic lieutenant — stating that he can no longer take working under Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson — is quitting, leaving that unit severely short on manpower, and the night detective’s bureau has been dismantled due to a depleted force. “I’m saying that we are 20 guys short,” the source told LocalSource. “She has no intention of hiring anyone,” he said of Garretson.
According to the source, Garretson has promised to make several officers permanent, but she has never followed through with this promise. “It’s just crazy,” he said.
Another source at the HPD who requested anonymity told LocalSource that Garretson has been promising to hire more police officers but she has not come through. “In June she said she was going to hire police officers,” the source said about Garretson. “Well now it’s November. Where are they?”
Yet another employee at the HPD claims that the department had to fight with Garretson over the course of 14 months in order to hire more parking enforcement officers. “Everything is a fight,” he said. “Then she gets insulted when she’s reported to Civil Services. The saddest part of this whole thing is that the taxpayers have to suffer.”
Another employee inside the police department who requested anonymity also mentioned acting Hillside Chief of Police Louis Panarese, who is currently embroiled in a legal fight with Garretson. In March, Garretson demoted Panarese, then slammed him, along with Hillside’s town council, with a lawsuit just months later. “He is really being mistreated,” the source told LocalSource in a phone call. “He’s one of the most highly-decorated officers in the department. It’s just a shame how she’s treating the poor guy.”
The source noted that Garretson’s legal debacles comes out of taxpayers’ money. “She’s not playing with her own money,’ he said. “She’s playing with the taxpayers’ money.”
A Hillside council member who requested anonymity told LocalSource that patrol shifts are at the bare minimum. “We do have an active civil service list, but there are issues with it,” the council member said in a phone call. “Police officers are retiring by the droves because they don’t want to work with the mayor.”
The council member confirmed that the department is severely depleted. “Each of our patrol shifts are down to the bare minimum,” she said.
Sources also claim that Garretson has not turned in the necessary
documentation to the Civil Service Commission — documentation necessary to hire and promote officers. Sources told LocalSource that although papers were initially submitted to the CSC by Garretson, they were sent back for “minor clarifications.” The CSC requested that this paperwork be returned. But according to sources, the corrected paperwork was never sent back to the CSC by Garretson.
According to members of the HPD, candidates for the position of chief of police have never had to take a civil service exam, but that Garretson is now insisting on it. “We haven’t had a chief’s test since 1918,” a source inside the HPD who requested anonymity told LocalSource in a phone call. “For some reason, now the mayor thinks there needs to be a chief’s test.”
The source said that the chief’s test will be taken in December, but that it makes no sense that Panarese is being forced to take the exam. “He’s a good chief,” he said of Panarese. “Everything is run well under him. He’s what a true chief should be. It makes no sense that he has to take the test.”
According to Garretson, however, she is actively pursuing the hiring of officers. “My administration is aggressively pursuing the hiring process for police officers, including the utilization of the inter-agency transfer procedure and the processes made available by the Rice Bill,” Garretson told LocalSource in an email. “Now that the internal civil service hiring practices within the police department have been corrected, we will soon be able to proceed with the recruitment process.”
But a source inside the HPD said that he spoke with the Civil Service Commission and can confirm that Garretson has not returned the necessary documents to proceed with the hiring of new officers. “As of last week, I was on the phone with Civil Service, and they have confirmed that the documents have not not been returned with the necessary corrections.”
The source said that the department will be down to 52 police officers as February. “People’s lives are at risk because of this,” he said. “Someone has to be held accountable. The services in town are so dilapidated. It’s so disheartening.”
Hillside Democratic Chairman Anthony Salters said that the posting of new jobs at the department needs to be scrutinized. “The major overlooked question is when and where were these positions posted,” Salters told LocalSource in an email. “The positions should be vacated and posted properly. The taxpayer burden caused by a bloated influx of new hires is unfair.”
And then there is the question of when the township’s fire department will get equipment they so desperately need. Funds were allegedly supposed to come out of a Union County Improvement Authority account originally set up several years ago to build a new library in the township. The library was never built, however, and the funds were supposed to be used to purchase two new engines.
Those purchases never occurred, however, and how much money there is left in the account, as well as where the money has gone, seems to be the million dollar question — or, in the case of the UCIA account, the $2.3 million question — the amount allegedly left in the account.
According to a council member who requested anonymity, the account started out with $4 million, with the money allocated for a new library. The library never was built, however. Then, just months ago, the council heard that the mayor was going to purchase fire trucks. “All of a sudden, the council got wind that the mayor wanted to purchase a fire truck, and she said the money would come out of the UCI account,” said the council member. “We heard that two firetrucks were going to be purchased for $1.1 million dollars, and Garretson said the money would come out of the UCI account.”
But then, according to council members, the purchasing of new fire trucks was taken off the agenda, and the purchase of any new equipment for the beleaguered department does not seem to be imminent.
According to sources, Hillside’s CFO allegedly gave three different amounts regarding funds left in the account at public meetings.
A council member told LocalSource that the CFO was asked for the UCIA balance sheet, but the council member claims that the council has not seen an accounting as of yet. “She won’t authorize the CFO to release the balance sheet for the UCIA account,” said the source of Garretson. “We have no idea how much money is in the account. She pulled the fire trucks from the agenda, and her explanation was that the funds had not been certified yet.”
According to Councilman Gerald Freedman, there had been a pool of money in the account, but that some of it went to fix the roof on town hall, along with the heating system. “Apparently, there was not enough money in the account to buy two pieces of equipment,” Freedman told LocalSource in a phone call.”
The bottom line? No one can get an accounting of how much money there is left, or where it’s been spent.
Jeff Albrecht, President of the Hillside FMBA Local 35, told LocalSource that Garretson’s inaction is putting both residents and firefighters in danger. “This isn’t a situation that arose overnight, and we know that it will not be solved that quickly either,” Albrecht said. “However, despite the willingness of FMBA Local 35 to work in partnership to develop a long-term strategy for our fire department, and an offer from the New Jersey FMBA to lend support based on their representation of firefighters, EMTs and dispatchers across the state, Mayor Garretson seems unwilling to pay attention to this critical matter. Simply put, Mayor Garretson’s inaction is putting residents, and firefighters, in danger.”
According to Albrecht, the department is in dire need of adequate equipment, and the firehouses are unsafe. “The apparatus we do have is grossly out of date, and what we lack leaves huge holes in our ability to respond adequately to some emergencies,” Albrecht said. “Our local firehouses are in various states of disrepair, exposing our firefighters to unsafe working conditions. Staffing issues are keeping us from maintaining our ranks in a way that builds for the future and also must be addressed. We have reached out to Council President DeAugustine and look forward to having a more in-depth conversation with him in the coming days, and are also preparing, with the assistance of the NJ FMBA, to seek out the support of our state and federal legislators.”
Salters said that certain factors must be considered when addressing the situation at the fire department — the first being a potentially large sum of money that may come into the township that could be used to purchase a truck. “There are two major factors,” Salters told LocalSource. “Once the Central Avenue Redevelopment Plan is presented and approved by our council, we can close the deal and receive an additional $800,000 from the land buyer who has already put $100,00 in escrow. This will be enough money to buy a second fire truck.”
Salters also noted that the township’s board of education needs to budget more effectively. “The second point is our Board of Education administration has to do a better job of managing their budget by first understanding the devastating impact of a 4 percent increase and its effect on the economics of the Hillside community,” Salters said. “You cannot say you are doing what’s best for children and putting their family’s home into foreclosure. Also, they have students sit in non-air conditioned classrooms at the high school because the money that can be used is supposed to go to a turf football field. The superintendent, business administrator and principals’ offices have air conditioning. Get your priorities in order. Know your community. These increases do not enhance the educational experience for our children in the classroom. The council had to appropriate township surplus monies to offset the board budget increase to overt a major tax increase.”
Garretson did not respond to LocalSource’s inquiry regarding the purchase of fire equipment, or the question of funds in the UCIA account.
Arthur Kobitz, president of Hillside’s health department, expressed concern over the situation at the fire department. “Our fire department is second to none,” Kobitz told LocalSource in a phone call. “They’re as good as they come. My concern is that if we have a fire, they just don’t have the fire trucks.”
Albrecht maintains that the ball is in Garretson’s court. “It is Mayor Garretson’s choice whether or not she wants to be part of these efforts to better protect Hillside,” he said. “If she chooses not to be, we simply ask that she not stand in the way of those of that that want to make sure our residents are as safe as possible.”
An employee inside the HPD summed up the sentiments of many in the township. “This is legitimately a nightmare,” he said.