Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday defended his plan to siphon $33 million from a relief fund for New Jersey firefighters in need as the move drew outrage from first responders and state lawmakers.
At an unrelated news conference in Newark, Murphy said that while he reveres firefighters and is willing to meet to discuss his budget proposal, the state and local relief agencies have ample resources to meet the needs of the active and retired volunteer and career firefighters in their ranks.
“I hold them, along with our educators and other public servants, up on a pedestal. Period. And they deserve that," the Democratic governor said. “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.”
NJ Advance Media reported Sunday that Murphy’s administration wants to shift $33 million from the New Jersey State Firefighters Association, which, along with 538 local relief groups, provides burial benefits, financial assistance, a retirement home and in-home medical care for New Jersey’s firefighters.
The New Jersey State Firemen’s Association was created 134 years ago to help out firefighters and their families in times of need. The vast majority of New Jersey firefighters are volunteers; fewer than 20 percent are career firefighters.
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.
Some state lawmakers on Monday expressed outrage, saying Murphy should not balance his budget with these “sacrosanct” dollars.
“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.”
Bucco said he’s requested a legal opinion on whether Murphy can divert these funds and he will introduce legislation to bar the raid.
State Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, said “Funds for the firefighter relief programs have been sacrosanct whereby past administrations and legislatures have said ‘hands off;’ this administration must do the same.”
Senate Democrats Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, also criticized the diversion. “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.