DENNIS TOWNSHIP — The Ocean View Fire Company has been engulfed in controversy recently, causing volunteers to resign, residents to fear for their safety and voters to reject the fire district’s budget for the first time in decades.
In the past few years, a number of volunteers have left the company because they were unhappy with its leadership. Earlier this month, locals responded by ousting three fire commissioners in favor of three former volunteers.
The exact cause of the infighting is disputed, but locals have said the apparent problems have them worried about how well they are protected.
“My main concern is I don’t feel safe,” Ocean View resident Sandy Izzi said. “We want to find out what’s going on.”
“It’s at the point now where us here in Ocean View live day to day and hope that a fire does not break out,” resident Joseph Carbonaro Sr. said.
Dennis Township is one of 10 municipalities in The Press of Atlantic City coverage area that is divided into fire districts. The districts are run by elected fire commissioners, who craft budgets and raise tax money that pays for local fire companies. Those budgets are put to voters each February.
Dennis Township Fire District No. 1 provides funding and equipment for the Ocean View Fire Company, which was founded in 1927. The company has two stations and six fire and rescue apparatuses.
Members on one side say firefighters got disgruntled because they were demoted or not promoted, while the other side say the leadership carried out personal vendettas.
There is disagreement over how many members left because of these conflicts. Some say 15 over about six years, others say 25 over the past two years. There are currently 24 fully qualified members.
“At the point I left, it was just chaos,” said Chris Dougherty, a volunteer for about 25 years who said he retired last year.
When a group of members who were unhappy with the company’s direction publicly complained, several were forced out. Former commissioner Wayne Matthews said only about six members were removed for not following proper procedures with handling their complaints.
“They wrote a letter filled with lies to try and cause turmoil,” he said.
Matthews and fire Chief Joe Gurdgiel Jr. said an investigation by the State Police and Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office found no wrongdoing by the former leadership.
“In my 35-year tenure ... this is the first time that I’ve ever seen this anger, that members are going on this outside campaign against the fire department," Gurdgiel said.
The decline in members led some residents to question the department’s response to an early morning fire last month on County Route 550/Woodbine-Ocean View Road that killed 75-year-old resident Margaret Ann “Peggy” McLaughlin.
Neighbors called in the fire shortly after 3:30 a.m. Jan. 16. Gurdgiel said he arrived within five minutes and that the first fire apparatus arrived within eight minutes.
People who watched the blaze said the department did not arrive fast enough, and that when they did they were not fully prepared to stop it. Since there are no fire hydrants in that area, several trucks were needed to bring water to the scene.
Neighbor Tom Rock said several former fire company members live nearby, and he argues that if they were still members the response might have been better.
“By the time that they arrived, that house was fully involved,” he said. “I mean, the whole house.”
Whether that situation was affected in any way by the ongoing controversy is unclear. Gurdgiel disputes it was, calling any such allegations “spin.”
The newly elected commissioners have vowed to resolve the recent disputes, recruit more members and address the rejected fire district budget.
“We’re concerned that the community is not being protected, and that’s what the fire company’s job is,” said Bryan Moran, a newly elected commissioner who resigned from the company recently after 10 years as a volunteer.
Moran said there will be a steep learning curve because the former commissioners have provided minimum help during the transition. He said Matthews was the only commissioner to lose the recent election and still come to the new board’s first meeting.
The proposed fire district budget would increase the amount to be raised by taxes by $13,000 to $368,000, a 0.2 cent increase on the tax rate, bringing the tax rate to 6 cents per $100 of assessed value. That rate is assessed only on properties within the fire district and not the entire township.
The rejection of a fire district budget is rare. Gurdgiel said it was the first time he had seen it happen in 35 years.
By law, the Township Committee will review the budget and hold a public hearing. That will take place at the regular meeting at 7 p.m Tuesday, March 5.
Township Committeeman Frank Germanio, who supervises fire and rescue for the committee, said no determination has been made about how the committee will revise the budget.
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