Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed state budget calls for taking $33 million from a special fund that’s designed to help New Jersey firefighters and their families in difficult times.

The money would be placed into the general fund so it could then be used by state leaders for whatever purposes they want.

When questioned about the monetary diversion on Monday during an event in Newark, Murphy defended the idea: “We’re very much open minded to sitting with them on this, but folks need to understand this fund has a fund balance 6 times the amount that it needs.”

“The folks putting the budget together thought this was a sensible, reasonable thing to do," he said. "It’s very rare that you have something that has six times what you need.”

A report by the Office of the State Comptroller found the firefighter fund has more than $240 million in unspent funds, in large measure because of outdated and restrictive spending restrictions, and it recommended loosening those restrictions -- however no action has been taken by lawmakers so far.

Ed Donnelly, the president of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, said the state does not have the right to take any money from the fund, and no matter what the governor says, “the answer is no. We will not allow that to happen.”

“Our position is quite simple. You will not take the $33 million to fill a budget hole on the backs of sick and indigent firefighters,” Donnelly said.

He said the fund, established in the late 1800s, "is dedicated to our firefighters as somewhat of an insurance policy in our worst times of need in our hardships.”

He said the fund has grown over the years because it’s been carefully protected.

“Just because we’ve been good stewards and have done good by caring for this fund, we should not be penalized for it by taking it," Donnelly said.

Donnelly said there’s no way to know if and when monies from the fund will be needed in the future to help firefighters and their families.

"This money is earmarked for that, and I don’t know how you can project what this taking of $33 million this year will do," Donnelly said.

He stressed he hopes "no firefighter needs to receive one penny from that fund, but if we do, it better be there.”

Donnelly added he doesn’t believe the state can legally take the $33 million, but if it does, "I can bet you there’s going to be a really serious lawsuit to follow.”

Donnelly said he’s been on the phone with the governor's office for the past three days, but “if the governor wants to sit down and have a face-to-face on this, I’d be more than happy to.”

He also said he’s had a really good relationship with Murphy since he’s been governor “and I am not overly concerned right now we’re not going to be able to work through this."

The Governor stressed he holds first-responders, including firemen “up on a pedestal, period, and they deserve that, they deserve the respect, they deserve the honor. I want to reiterate we’re always honored to sit down with these folks.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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