State Comptroller’s Office recommends expanding use of firefighter assistance fund

Close to a quarter-billion dollars earmarked for needy firefighters and their families sits unspent. The investigations division of the state Comptroller’s Office found lax oversight, and even possible misuse of funds by the groups charged with distributing the money. The attorney in charge of the investigation, Andrew Cliver, sat down with Correspondent Briana Vannozzi to discuss the findings in the report.

Vannozzi: How did so much money accumulate in this pot for relief, and why is it being unused?

Cliver: Well, so the legislative scheme that set up the Foreign Fire Tax Fund here in New Jersey was written in the mid-1880s, and that legislative scheme has been largely untouched since that time up until today.

Vannozzi: That’s when we saw a lot of these volunteer fire departments start to formulate back then.

Cliver: Exactly, and the firefighter of the 1880s is far different from the firefighter of 2018. The firefighter of the 1880s was probably rural, and poor, and if he was injured in a fire — and it was always a he, so I apologize for that — but if he was injured in a fire, that could be devastating to his whole life. You flash forward to 2018, that same volunteer fireman, or firefighter, likely has a job, has social benefits that are available t0 that firefighter, whether it’s worker’s comp or other state benefits. And so the definition of relief that that legislative scheme in the 1880s set up has not evolved. And so, as a result, the legal uses of this money have not expanded, and instead it’s gone into a pot.

Vannozzi: And those uses are for needy firefighters, their families, burial costs, insurance, things like that. It’s $245 million. This is New Jersey — that type of money doesn’t just sit around. What did the investigation find as far as where the money is going?

Cliver: So as you said, the relief funds are designated for firefighters who are in financial distress. There is a state retirement home for firefighters, it goes to pay for their annual convention, it pays for the state firefighter’s association’s administrative costs. But what it doesn’t go to, and what it is not allowed to go to, is equipment, lifesaving equipment, firefighter training, educational purposes. Those are not lawfully allowed in the state of New Jersey, unlike a lot of neighboring states. And as such, the limited uses that are allowed by the legislative scheme don’t allow for any other uses, and the money just keeps coming in.

Vannozzi: What triggered this investigation to begin with?

Cliver: Our office was originally alerted to a local fire association that may have been using it as an “ATM machine.” We looked into that, and it was not substantiated. And thankfully, in our investigation, while we saw opportunities for that type of abuse with this system, thankfully — and I think it speaks to the firefighters in this state — we didn’t see a lot of that type of malfeasance with this money. But after we looked into that local association, we took a wider look into this fund because we could see, even in that small snapshot, that there was a very large budget for that association and that we knew that there were 500 other associations who had a similar situation.

Vannozzi: Is it being audited and tracked? And to that same extent, then are there firefighters and families who aren’t getting the money they need?

Cliver: So we didn’t see anyone that had applied and been turned down, and I think that also speaks to the huge pot of money that’s sitting out there. If someone is actually eligible for these relief funds, they’re going to have the opportunity to make the case that they can get it, and they likely will. But what we are seeing is opportunities missed to help fund these fire departments and assist the constituencies that they serve. You know, you go around the state at Memorial Day, and you go through the intersections and almost every fire department is out with the boot asking you for a donation. Meanwhile, there’s a $245 million pot of money that the state could be thinking about smart ways to use. That’s why we’re asking the Legislature and the governor to take a look at this.

Vannozzi: I spoke with Ed Donnelly, the president for the New Jersey Firemen’s Union, which obviously they have no control over the money, and he said, “You know, listen, we’d like to see some changes around this.” There were hearings about this 25 years ago. But there’s concern about the Legislature getting their hands on the money and using it for loans, borrowing, putting it into the general fund. So is there recommendations in there about that?

Cliver: In our report, we underline multiple times that this money is earmarked for firefighters and should continue to be earmarked for firefighters. What’s different in New Jersey than many other states in the region and nationally are, this tax is collected in other states, but only in this state do we not allow for this widened use for firefighters. So it’s important that it doesn’t go to the general fund, it doesn’t go to fill in a gap in another area of the state. There are needs that firefighters have that this money could be applied to.