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.
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“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.
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“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.