Facing a backlash from firefighters and state lawmakers, the Democratic governor announced Tuesday plans to amend his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year to eliminate the proposed $33 million diversion from the New Jersey Firemen’s Association to the state’s general fund.
TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy is backtracking on his state budget proposal to divert millions from a fund that supports local firefighters and their families.
Facing a backlash from firefighters and state lawmakers, the Democratic governor announced Tuesday plans to amend his budget proposal for the upcoming 2020 fiscal year to eliminate the proposed $33 million diversion from the New Jersey Firemen’s Association fund to the state’s general fund. By diverting the money, the government could use the revenue for other state programs or purposes.
“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 in a statement. “As a result, I can say unequivocally that we are taking this budget off the table.”
The fund, which was created in 1885 and supported by a 2 percent tax on fire insurance policies written by out-of-state insurance companies, provides support for firefighters and their families, including burial benefits and other financial assistance. It also helps fund the New Jersey Firemen’s Home in Boonton, a long-term health care facility for firefighters, and assistance provided by more than 530 separately local relief associations.
Since 2013, the fire insurance tax has generated about $30 million a year, with about half going to the local relief groups, state officials said.
The diversion was a little-noticed component in the governor’s proposed $38.6 billion spending plan. The Star-Ledger and its website NJ.com was the first to report on it on Sunday, close to three months after the budget was first unveiled.
Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, was one of the first to raise the issue last week during a budget hearing with state Department of Banking and Insurance Commissioner Marlene Caride. The department collects the taxes for the association.
“Over the past week, myself and others have questioned the administration’s decision to reallocate $33 million from the New Jersey Firemen’s Association Fund. I was pleased to learn today that the governor reconsidered his position and will preserve this funding,” Singleton said Tuesday. “It is of utmost importance that our firefighters and their families know that this fund is available to them, in their time of need, as they are always there for us in our times of need.”
Murphy initially defended the proposal, pointing out that the association and the local relief groups held substantial unspent funds already.
A New Jersey Comptroller’s Report released in December found the state association and local groups have accumulated a surplus of over $245 million, including $65 million by the state association and $180 million by local groups. The same report recommended stronger oversight and an overhaul of the laws governing how funds can be spent.
During a town hall Monday night, Murphy addressed the issue briefly, saying he wanted to meet with firefighters to “re-examine” how money is raised for the relief fund.
“This is a fund ... it has got six times the money as it needs. The way that the money gets put in there I think needs to be re-examined,” Murphy said. “That’s something we owe firefighters to sit down and figure out together, which we will do.”
On Tuesday, Murphy reiterated that the fund remains flush, but he stressed that the administration would work with lawmakers to loosen restrictions on how the funds can be spent.
“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,” he said.
Among the groups that had criticized the governor for the proposed diversion was the Cinnaminson Fire Department, whose president James Vassallo sent a letter to Murphy urging him to work with lawmakers to amend state laws so that the funds can be more easily distributed and possibly used for more purposes, such as training, equipment, and volunteer recruitment and retention.
“We believe that it would be much more prudent if you directed the Legislature to amend the laws that govern the two percent assessment ... to allow for a portion of these funds to be used for local fire purposes,” Vassallo wrote. “With the significant decline in volunteers over the past few decades, and the state and local elected officials ignoring this problem, the use of these monies to fund incentive programs or equipment and training that local volunteer fire organizations cannot afford would go a long way towards addressing this shortage before it becomes critical.”
He also said the relief associations must continue to have the financial resources to assist firefighters and their families.
Four years ago the department mourned the loss of one of their own when 38-year-old Lt. Christopher Hunter died from a “cardiac event” less than 18 hours after his shift. He is believed to be the most recent “active duty” firefighter to die in Burlington County.
Prior to Murphy’s announcement, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said he would guarantee that the diversion would not be approved.
“There is no reason and no excuse for denying firefighters support and assistance in their time of need,” Sweeney said Tuesday. “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.”
Leaders of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association and the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey also issued statements Tuesday thanking the governor for his reversal.
“We thank the governor for hearing us out and taking our concerns to heart,” said Effie Donnelly, president of the benevolent association. “This fund provides critical services to our families during extremely difficult times and we are pleased that this mission will not be altered.”