Murphy changes mind on diverting firefighter funds
TRENTON — Facing a growing public and political backlash, Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday did an about-face on diverting money from the state firefighter fund.
Citing a $240 million surplus in the fund that was established to provide firefighters and their families with financial assistance for funerals, in-home medical care and retirement, the governor had proposed putting the annual $33 million allocation into the state's general fund.
News of the budget proposal drew widespread condemnation this week.
New Jersey 101.5's Bill Spadea on Monday called Murphy's proposal a "slap in the face" the more than 30,000 volunteer firefighters across the state. "Don't balance the budget on the backs of dead heroes and their families," the morning show host said.
Early on Tuesday, state Senate President Steve Sweeney took a strong stance against the plan and said he would "guarantee that it will not be included in the budget that gets approved by the Senate.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the governor had changed his mind.
“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 option off the table. 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. 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.”
Dominick Marino, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey, said once the governor learned more about the fund, he decided to keep the funding in place.
"We talked, he was receptive to having a conversation with us," Marino said. "He was open to discussion and decided to change the direction."
Marino said the fund administrators agreed to be more communicative so the fund can better serve firefighters.
"We thank the governor for hearing us out and taking our concerns to heart,” said Eddie Donnelly, president of the New Jersey Fighters Mutual 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.”
The governor's initial budget proposal may have been influenced by the Office of the State Comptroller report in December that said most of the money is never spent because of “antiquated law.”
North Hudson Regional Fire Capt. Rob Pisani on Monday told New Jersey 101.5 host Steve Trevelise that the state is to blame for the fund having a large balance.
"The state puts on so many restrictions in order to get the benefits. You literally have to jump through not one hoop, not through two hoops. Probably like 50 hoops. You jump through them and they still don't approve it."
The New Jersey State Firemen’s Association and 538 separate Local Relief Associations receive about $30 million in funds from a 2 percent tax on fire insurance policies sold by out-of-state companies. The Comptroller's Office last year said that in 2016, the Local Relief Associations spent $10 million and most of it went to conferences, administrative costs and salaries, the comptroller said.
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