Since 1885, New Jersey firefighters and their families have benefitted from a special fund designed to support them in times of tragedy and financial hardship.
It helps pay for the burials of fallen firefighters, provides financial assistance for first responders hit with medical bills, and even provides in-home health care for those who are aging and suffering from physical ailments. The fund is available to active and retired career and volunteer firefighters and their families.
Now, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration wants to divert $33 million from that fund to spend on its own agenda, an under-the-radar maneuver that critics are calling “horrendous” and a threat to the neediest of firefighters. It means no new money would come into the fund this year.
“These dollars collected from out of state insurance companies are a safety net to help firefighters in their greatest time of hardship, and should never be used to fill a budget hole,” said Ed Donnelly, president of the firefighters’ union, the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, who first learned about the proposal when he was contacted by a reporter.
“In neighborhoods all across New Jersey, and the nation, firefighters are increasingly being treated for cancer, PTSD, and other illnesses caused by the work we do. These are the men and women that need and deserve this fund. This is our insurance policy. It’s there for a specific reason, to take care of the men and woman who take care of NJ residents and visitors,” Donnelly said.
There are about 38,000 active firefighters in New Jersey.
The potential change is a one-sentence proposal in Murphy’s voluminous 2020 state budget plan, where his administration recommends taking the money currently dedicated to the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association and transferring it into the state’s general fund, where it can be used to pay for anything the state sees fit.
It follows a state comptroller investigation that found inadequate oversight left the money vulnerable to waste and abuse. It also said the state and local relief agencies were sitting on $245 million in unspent funds because of rigid spending restrictions.
The comptroller recommended tightening controls, beefing up oversight and expanding the permissible uses of the money, as long as it still benefits firefighters. That money could, for example, help volunteer fire companies purchase equipment to relieve the pressure on them to fundraise, the comptroller’s office said.
Thus far, there has been no effort in Trenton to make such changes.
Robert Ordway, president of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, said he has no doubt the comptroller’s report put a target on the organization’s back.
A spokeswoman for the the state Department of Treasury, Jennifer Sciortino, said the firefighters’ fund will still have plenty of money and the $33 million will help the state “meet our many obligations, which includes funding the firefighters’ pension system.”
The New Jersey State Firemen’s Association was created 134 years ago to help out firefighters and their families in times of need. The vast majority of New Jersey firefighters are volunteers; fewer than 20 percent are career firefighters.
It’s funded through a 2 percent tax on insurance premiums written by out-of-state insurers for New Jersey properties. The state association keeps 52 percent and divides the rest among 538 Local Relief Associations.
The state association took in about $33 million last year, and half went out the door to local groups, Ordway said. The rest wasn’t enough to cover the more than $10 million the state group sent to the Firemen’s Home, a Boonton retirement home for retired firefighters, $10 million on burial assistance, more than $3 million on administrative expenses, $360,000 in direct financial relief to members and $142,000 on in-home medical care, he said.
The local organizations can spend their income from the insurance premiums tax on aid to members in need, professional conventions and administrative costs.
But Comptroller Philip James Degnan’s office in its December report found the allowable expenditures were so restrictive the associations were sitting on a combined $245 million in unspent funds, about $180 million of which belonged to the 538 local associations. Some local groups hadn’t doled out any money in years.
Collectively, the hundreds of Local Relief Associations spent more on administrative costs and conventions than on financial assistance for their members, according to the report.
It also found big deviations in how local groups define “need” and the proof they require to demonstrate it. One applicant who was having trouble making ends meet on his two homes was approved for aid, as was a widow who had more than $245,000 in savings.
The associations scrutinize applications for assistance and have built up cash on hand to prepare for extreme times of need, Ordway said.
“We’re not just giving money out willy nilly. We’re looking for people who have a need. And yet, now we’re being penalized for it,” he said.
While the Treasury Department said the language in the governor’s proposed budget, if approved by the Legislature, would provide the authority to divert the money to the state budget, Donnelly and Ordway said it’s unclear whether the state could intercept the tax dollars without a change in state law.
Donnelly said firefighters intend to fight back.
“It is horrendous …. I will not sit quietly, nor I believe will those we serve, if the administration moves forward on this plan that attempts to make up for an inability to negotiate with the Legislature on the backs of firefighters,” he said.