New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is defending his plan in his proposed 2020 budget to divert $33 million from a fund for fallen firefighters to the state’s general fund, which could be used to advance his own agenda.
Critics have called the move “horrendous” given that the fund helps pay for burials, provides financial assistance for first responders’ medical bills, and more.
“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,” Ed Donnelly, president of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, told NJ.com.
“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.
Murphy’s defense was that the fund is more than adequately funded.
“I hold them, along with our educators and other public servants, up on a pedestal. Period. And they deserve that," Murphy said during a news conference on Monday. “We’re very much open-minded to sitting with them on this.
“But folks need to understand, this fund has a fund balance six times the amount it needs. Six times.”
The groups are the recipients of a 2 percent tax on insurance premiums written by out-of-state insurers for New Jersey properties. The state association took in about $33 million last year, and half went out the door to the Local Relief Associations.
But a December state comptroller report found the associations were sitting on $245 million in unspent funds and that inadequate oversight left the money vulnerable to waste and abuse. About $180 million of that belonged to the 538 local relief groups.
It also found that collectively, the hundreds of Local Relief Associations spent more on administrative costs and conventions than on financial assistance for their members and that the interpretation of need and hardship varied from one association to another.
The head of the statewide association, Robert Ordway, said its annual income was not enough to cover the $10 million in burial benefits it distributed last year, the more than $10 million sent to the Firemen’s Home, a Boonton retirement home for retired firefighters, more than $3 million on administrative expenses, $360,000 in direct financial relief to members and $142,000 on in-home medical care.
A firefighters union, the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, has vowed to fight the move. (NJ.com)
State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have also pushed back, arguing that the money should not be taken from the fund.
“Gov. Murphy vowed against raiding the clean energy, unemployment compensation, and affordable housing funds to plug budget holes, but he’s willing to take money away from firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect our citizens,” state Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said in a statement. “He doesn’t have his priorities straight. It’s a disgrace that the governor would fund his agenda on the backs of firefighters.”
State Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, said the money is "sacrosanct."
“Funds for the firefighter relief programs have been sacrosanct whereby past administrations and legislatures have said ‘hands off;’ this administration must do the same,” he said.
Senate Democrats Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, said the diversion should not even be under consideration.
“Taking $33 million from a fund that is designed to provide financial assistance to our firefighters in their times of need should not be a consideration,” Singleton said.