After facing backlash from state fire officials and lawmakers, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday he will not remove $33 million from the New Jersey Firemen’s Association fund, as his 2020 budget originally proposed.
The association provides financial assistance to both career and volunteer firefighters, including retirement homes, burial benefits and in-home medical care whether they are retired or still on active duty.
It is supported by a 2% tax on fire insurance policies written by out-of-state insurers on New Jersey properties and brings in about $30 million annually.
Murphy’s original plan sought to move the $33 million from the firefighter fund to the state’s general fund as revenue.
“We have listened to the concerns of our brothers and sisters in the firefighter community, whom I have the utmost respect and admiration for,” Murphy said. “As a result, I can say unequivocally that we are taking this budget option off the table.”
Egg Harbor Township fire Chief Charles Winkler said they recently used the fund to help pay for the burial of two of their older members, all of whom serve the department as volunteers.
“It’s a nice thing that we get for our funeral expenses to be able to help our families when we pass,” Winkler said.
He said the fund is helpful for volunteer firefighters because they do not get paid for their service.
“We’re doing it for different reasons. It’s not for the money,” Winkler said.
Senate President Steve Sweeney had said before Murphy’s announcement that the Senate would not allow the diversion of the firefighters’ funds to be included in the state budget.
“There is no reason and no excuse for denying firefighters support and assistance in their time of need,” said Sweeney. “They put their lives at risk every day in service to others. Refusing or reducing emergency responders and their families the care they deserve in order to prop up the budget is unacceptable.”
As of March 2018, there were 730 fire departments in the state with 37,683 firefighters, 80.6% of which were volunteer, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.
VINELAND— Officials are investigating a fire that spread through the garage and part of a home early Monday morning, leaving two residents displaced.
“Having been a volunteer firefighter for 49 years and counting, I have seen firsthand the relief that this funding provides to families in their most desperate times of need,” said Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic. “During difficult and challenging situations, the families of our brave firefighters should not be focused on the burden of paying funeral costs or making ends meet. These heroes put their lives in danger to protect their friends and neighbors, and their families deserve our unwavering support and respect.”
Along with announcing he will not transfer the funds, Murphy said he is open to working with lawmakers to possibly loosen the restrictions on the use of the funds.
“The administration remains committed to ensuring that no family of a fallen New Jersey firefighter will go without help during their greatest time of need,” Murphy said. “I remain open to working with the Legislature to explore options to loosen the restrictions on the use of these funds so we can provide greater assistance for firefighters and their families.”
The fund, which started in 1885, provides financial assistance but has rigid spending restrictions. A recent State Comptroller report noted the fund was vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse, and was hard to access by the first responders who most needed it.
“Instead of writing this fund off, we should be working to improve it,” said state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.
Andrzejczak, along with Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matt Milam, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, denounced the governor’s proposal Monday.
“We have to expand the permissible uses for the fund and make it more accessible to local departments, even if that means increasing oversight and tightening up controls,” Andrzejczak said.
The Firemen’s Association fund will continue to retain more than six years’ worth of program costs, totaling about $185 million.
ATLANTIC CITY — Bob Smith finds himself at a loss for words when trying to explain to tourists what is happening with the Boardwalk’s two biggest vacancies.
The Atlantic City tram car attendant said he only knows what he reads in the papers about the shuttered Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino and Atlantic Club Casino Hotel.
But he has some thoughts.
“It’s the biggest eyesore on the Boardwalk,” Smith said of the Plaza. “It shouldn’t be here any longer.”
Trump Plaza was said to be scheduled for demolition, dating back at least two years. But the building’s owner, billionaire Wall Street investor Carl Icahn, has not sought a demolition permit with the city, and his attempts to recoup investment alternative tax funds toward a scheduled tear-down were unsuccessful.
The Atlantic Club, owned by Florida-based real estate company TJM Properties, has been the subject of several deals, including an indoor water park or additional parking for Stockton University, but nothing has come to fruition.
ATLANTIC CITY — The casino workers union is concerned the increasing influence hedge funds are exerting over gaming companies could have a disastrous impact on the local market and wants state regulators to step in before it is too late.
Requests for comment from Icahn’s office and TJM were not immediately returned.
When it comes to the Plaza, Smith, of Buena Vista Township, said the fault lies with city and state officials who have not done more to work toward a resolution.
“They should have taken it down,” he said Monday morning while collecting fares from visitors. “The (Casino Reinvestment) Development Authority has the ability to say we need that down. It wouldn’t be like that in (Las) Vegas.”
Residents and tourists have their own ideas about what should be done with the two properties, both of which have been closed since 2014.
“Take it down,” said Betty Chaney, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, while standing in front of the Plaza. “It’s just a waste of space here.”
Chaney was with a group of friends that included Elizabeth Mangan, of Mountaintop, Pennsylvania, on Monday.
The six women strolled past the shuttered Plaza and wondered why something more wasn’t being done.
“So what (Icahn is) doing is limiting opportunity for other people to come in and change the face of Atlantic City by just letting it sit here,” said Mangan. “Shame on him.”
Carl Icahn has appointed three people to the board of directors for Caesars Entertainment Corp., giving the billionaire hedge-fund manager a significant amount of influence over the gaming and hospitality company’s future.
The women did not believe the Plaza should reopen as a casino. Instead, they thought a park or a museum highlighting Atlantic City history would be more appropriate.
But Aida Delgado, of New York City, said she has fond memories of the Plaza and thinks it could be a viable casino again.
“I would rather see it as a casino where people can gamble, have fun and enjoy some beautiful views,” she said. “It’s worth opening up as a casino hotel.”
Farther down the Boardwalk, Atlantic City resident Deborah Johnson was taking a rest from her bicycle ride in front of the Atlantic Club. Johnson, a retired teacher from New York City who moved to the resort five years ago, said instead of tearing down the vacant casino hotel it should be repurposed as housing for the city’s homeless.
Johnson said she watched as developers in Brooklyn turned a profit from housing the homeless and saw no reason why the Atlantic Club owners could not do the same thing.
“Homelessness is a business,” she said.
Her idea was to have some type of public-private collaboration in which Atlantic City’s homeless could receive vocational training using the Atlantic Club’s existing resources. She envisioned a culinary class or a program where people could learn a trade.
“It’s a crying shame,” said Johnson while motioning toward the empty building. “Everything is already there. They have all these buildings and don’t use them.”
Back on the tram car, Smith said while the empty properties draw questions from people, he prefers to focus on the positive things happening in Atlantic City. He said convincing people Atlantic City is moving in the right direction is not difficult once they are on the tram car.
“Not after I speak to them,” said Smith. “They get (the negative) from other people or they see it (in the news). We get bad publicity from other papers, and that’s where it’s coming from. Not when they get here and they say, ‘Wow, it’s not what I thought.’ I mean, look how beautiful this place is now.”
ATLANTIC CITY — Inside Jogi Discount Pharmacy on Atlantic Avenue, manager Rakesh Kundalia scans his computer screen for the number of Narcan prescriptions the store has filled in the past month.
“It’s usually four or five,” he said, a small, blue naloxone kit — the generic name for the opioid antidote — sitting beside his keyboard. “We fill many more narcotics prescriptions.”
The family-owned store is in downtown Atlantic City, a resort of 38,000 hit hard by the opioid epidemic, where police removed almost 33,000 individual doses of heroin from the streets last year.
At Jogi Pharmacy, patients can buy Narcan with a prescription.
An Atlantic City police officer performed CPR on a man who overdosed Monday night.
But a recent Rutgers study found the lifesaving drug was not as widely available in pharmacies in poor, large New Jersey cities facing the brunt of the nationwide crisis as it was in smaller, wealthier towns.
In New Jersey, drugstores have been allowed to dispense naloxone over the counter without requiring a prescription since 2017.
In Atlantic City, about 16% of the city’s pharmacies carry naloxone, the study found. The median household income for residents is $26,500.
Compare that to Readington, a township in Hunterdon County with a median household income of $125,700, where 66 percent of pharmacies carried the drug, according to the report.
The study’s results come from a survey of 90 pharmacies in 10 New Jersey cities between February and July 2017, before legislation passed allowing all pharmacies in the state to dispense Narcan.
“The results suggest an unsurprising and concerning pattern: Patients living in the most populous poorer areas are also living in areas with less access to naloxone,” according to the study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.
An Egg Harbor Township High School student will perform his original song, “Wasting Time,” next month as part of a statewide drug prevention music competition.
Cities with severe opioid-related public heath concerns that had limited naloxone access in pharmacies included Newark, Camden and Atlantic City, which researchers dubbed “Narcan deserts.”
One reason, they conclude, could be the high cost of purchasing the drug without insurance. Narcan nasal spray can range from $70 to $300. At Jogi Pharmacy, two doses cost about $130, Kundalia said.
“Naloxone is covered by Medicaid in New Jersey, which would help reduce this price barrier, but unfortunately many patients lack health insurance,” the report states.
Pharmacies aren’t the only place to get naloxone, though.
MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — South Jersey’s first recovery high school is looking for a new home after being ousted from the Cape Assist building in Wildwood by the city’s zoning official earlier this month.
Atlantic City police officers have been carrying naloxone since 2015 and have deployed the drug 64 times in four years, according to the department’s End of Year Report. Sargent Kevin Fair said it's only used in the event someone is overdosing, and not given out outside of emergency situations.
The South Jersey Aids Alliance on Tennessee Avenue also gives free Narcan kits to people who participate in its syringe access program. The nonprofit has received more than 80 reports of naloxone being used since it started giving out the drug in 2014, according to CEO Carol Harney.
Still, access could be better, said Diane Calello, executive and medical director for the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System and one of the Rutgers study’s authors.
Calello said there’s a lack of easy-to-find and reliable information for nonpharmacy naloxone distribution programs in New Jersey but did not specify Atlantic City.
“Anytime you’re dealing with a burden or illness ... the fewer hurdles to getting what you need, the more likely you are to take care of yourself,” Calello said. “Getting your prescription and having to take it to the pharmacy is not hard, but it’s just another step.”
In New Jersey, you’re more likely to come across a student diagnosed with autism than in any other state in the nation.
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control, which used research from Rutgers University, found a 43% increase in the prevalence of autism in 4-year-olds in the state from 2010 to 2014, and that one in 35 students in New Jersey has been diagnosed.
It’s a reflection of New Jersey’s ability to diagnose earlier, which leads to better outcomes for students, said Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who directed New Jersey’s portion of the study.
But the increase in diagnosis affects the education system financially and students’ access to quality services.
The notion that vaccines might cause autism was refuted nine years ago, when a British medical panel concluded in 2010 that Andrew Wakefield, the doctor with undisclosed financial interests in making such claims, had acted with "callous disregard" in conducting his research.
Liz Parlett-Butcher’s oldest son, 11, is diagnosed and her youngest, 5, is under evaluation for autism.
Parlett-Butcher, of Egg Harbor Township, knows that in districts like hers, which has been underfunded for many years by the state while enrollment grew rapidly, finding the money for the services needed is tough. She does believe students in special education bear the brunt of those cuts.
So Parlett-Butcher has become an advocate for parents like herself who have children with autism in local school districts. She pushes for services like speech and language, and even contacted then Gov. Chris Christie on the topic during his regular appearances on NJ101.5 FM radio.
“There’s a special place in my heart that just feels for them,” she said. “I try to help them wherever I can.”
Parlett-Butcher said she is in favor of any plans to increase funding for special education, including one by Senate President Steve Sweeney, who proposed having the state fund costly extraordinary special education services in his Path to Progress report that came out last summer.
Sweeney’s proposal would relieve the cost burdens on local districts.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said the high rates of diagnosis mean the cost of education increases, so Sweeney’s proposal could help.
“That cost to date has been borne disproportionately by municipalities,” Callahan Harrison said.
That means parents will “shop around” for a district that can offer the services necessary for their child. Having the state step in to cover the costs of special education would mean children, no matter where they live, would have access to quality special education services.
“As a fairness proposition, it seems to make sense to have these costs be borne by the state and have quality services available for all children regardless of where they live,” Callahan Harrison said.
Jamie Moscony, assistant superintendent of the Cape May County Special Services School District, is the former director of curriculum at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology and a mother to a child diagnosed with autism.
Moscony said she isn’t surprised by the study’s findings. She said at the Special Services School, the number of children on the autism spectrum continues to grow, as do the services provided.
In the past few years, the district has added four classes for students with autism.
Autism spectrum disorder rates in New Jersey 4-year-olds rose by 43 percent over a four-year period, according to a report released Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We project that number to increase based on the trends,” she said.
For students not in special services schools, funding is an issue, Moscony said.
“Especially in Cape May County, it’s very difficult for our sending districts, especially since they’re going to be losing millions of dollars (from school funding reform),” she said. “How they’re going to budget for and provide these types of services, it’s going to be very challenging for them.”
Zahorodny said the study’s findings show “no likely let up in the burden or responsibility of school districts for more and more children that are going to come into the district needing educational services.”
“If you want to really grasp the weight or the burden of autism, look at any district’s autism count and double it,” he said.
Zahorodny said families in New Jersey have an advantage over those in other states.
“Our education system is aware and has been aware of autism for a long time and has had the ability to develop both special schools and district-level programs,” he said, although nothing is perfect.
“In New Jersey, it’s not like every family gets exactly what’s needed, but odds are much better in New Jersey that a child with autism will have a better chance of getting a complete repertoire of educational services and help,” Zahorodny said.