Local lawmakers recently proposed a bill they say would benefit towns by updating how much municipalities can spend on their volunteer fire responders – and thus save on full-time crews.
“They do have budgets and things to pay for,” Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said of the volunteer companies. “And there’s only a certain amount of barbeques and mass-mailings that they can do.”
Current state law caps the amount towns can donate to fire districts or volunteer fire companies at $90,000, or $30,000 per company in towns with three or more volunteer companies or fire districts. Fire companies are required to use at least 50 percent of the funds on fire equipment, materials and supplies. Towns also can and do buy equipment for their firefighters.
Lawmakers last updated the $90,000 figure in 1989, according to the bill. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator stated that sum would today be worth more than $171,500.
The new proposal would boost the amount municipalities can spend on their fire companies to $120,000. That sum would then be reset every other year by a state Division of Local Government Service annual cost-of living adjustment.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, introduced the bill in the state Senate in February, and Assemblymen Mazzeo and Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, introduced it in the General Assembly the following month.
It is now pending legislative committee hearings that Mazzeo hoped would take place in May. Van Drew, who chairs the Community and Urban Affairs committee, said he expected a committee hearing there later this year. The bill would also likely go before the budget committee.
Mazzeo is the former mayor of Northfield, which has a mixture of paid and volunteer firefighters. There, he said the town provided its fire companies with $21,000 apiece. It also spent about $450,000 annually on its six firefighters.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities supported the proposal, said Mike Cerra, the league’s director of governmental affairs. It is an inducement for volunteers, Cerra noted, and gives the discretion to the towns.
“We think it makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Lawmakers said they proposed the bill after speaking with local fire fighters. Van Drew said these included crews from Fairfield Township, Cumberland County, and Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County.
Egg Harbor Township currently provides their local fire companies with the $30,000 per-company maximum.
The township committee in February passed a resolution in support of the proposal after the township’s fire chief, William E. Danz, Jr. spoke on its behalf.
In a Feb. 5 letter to Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, Danz stated the spending caps were enacted in 1971 and last updated in 1989.
The problem is locally acute. “In South Jersey counties, we have had extreme population growth due to the Pinelands Act. Volunteer fire companies across the state have had to add new stations to provide adequate fire protection,” Danz wrote. “This has created a financial burden on the volunteer companies to fund these expansions.”
Danz said he continued to support it, saying he has scheduled meetings on the proposal. Asked why he thought the measure was necessary, Danz said, “Why isn’t it necessary? How you think we operate?” and hung up the phone.
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