The city’s battle against the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) over a fire mutual aid plan turned into a fight over the adjective “contiguous,” according to a decision issued by New Jersey Appellate Court judges Susan Reisner and Robert Gilson on Friday.
Paterson submitted its biennial local fire mutual aid plan to the Division of Fire Safety within the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) that included fire departments of towns that do not directly border the city.
The state accepted the city’s 2014-15 mutual aid plan, but took the position fire departments of other municipalities had to be “contiguous” to be included. It directed the city to submit a new plan for 2016-17 that complied with the contiguity requirement set in Fire Service Resource Emergency Deployment Act.
New plan was due at the end of 2015. The city did not submit a compliant plan. The state in Aug. 2016 ordered the city to submit its 2016-17 plan by Sept. 15, 2016. The order also stated the city could make an appeal before an administrative law judge. The city neither submitted a plan nor requested a hearing by due date.
Two months later, the state issued a final order requiring the submission of the plan by Nov. 30, 2016. It also assessed a $1,000 penalty and told the city to submit a compliant by Dec. 1, 2016 or face fines of $1,000 per day.
Under the threat of daily penalties, the city submitted four fire aid plans, two of which were compliant, on Nov. 9, 2016. The state told the city it could implement either of the two compliant plans.
The city also unsuccessfully requested a stay of the final order. The state withdrew the monetary penalty.
One of the compliant plans was implemented, according to the decision.
The city later filed an appeal arguing the state’s orders violated the terms of the Fire Service Resource Emergency Deployment Act. It argued the act does not bar the inclusion of fire departments that do not directly border a municipality. There’s no definition of the “contiguous municipalities” in the act, argued the city.
The city defined “contiguous” as being “next or near in time or sequence” using the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
The state argued “contiguous means municipalities immediately adjacent to one another with borders that touch,” reads the decision. The dictionary had three similar definition of the word – three agreed with the state and one with the city.
“The definition does not completely provide the answer,” wrote the judges. Reisner and Gilson wrote the law charges the DCA to oversee and coordinate the local mutual aid plans. Both judges accepted the state’s interpretation of the act.
The judges also addressed the issue of past plans that included non-bordering towns.
“We also reject the City’s argument that because it had previous Aid Plans with fire departments from municipalities that did not border the City, it should be allowed to continue to submit such plans,” wrote Reisner and Gilson.
Both judges also noted the city failed the challenge the state’s decisions at various points in time to create record of opposition.
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