At a time when firefighter associations nationwide are struggling to keep afloat, nearly $245 million sits untouched in a fund designed to help New Jersey firefighters — thanks to an “antiquated” law restricting its use, the state comptroller asserted Wednesday.
The money — collected through a tax and intended for the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, as well as the state’s 538 local relief associations — has barely been touched in decades, and the state nonprofit’s monitoring of its use has been flawed, according to Comptroller Philip James Degnan.
“The accumulation of substantial money, combined with a lack of appropriate oversight, has resulted in waste, and could lead to fraud or theft," a report by his office concluded.
The state Firemen’s Association gets its money — about $30 million annually — from a 2 percent tax on fire insurance policies that out-of-state insurers write for New Jersey properties. About half the money goes to local relief associations to give to firefighters in financial need. Other states, including Pennsylvania and New York, allow fire companies to use the funds they receive this way for training, equipment, and annual physicals.
New Jersey only allows fire companies to use the fund to aid individual firefighters — for costs including burials and financial assistance — even though relief associations' biggest cost is for administrative and operating expenses.
Degnan said the money could specifically be used to help volunteer firefighter groups, whose numbers have been dwindling.
More than 80 percent of New Jersey’s roughly 37,000 firefighters are volunteers, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. The number of volunteer firefighters nationwide has been dropping for decades, due in part to fire companies asking members to devote more time to raising money as costs rise and community contributions lag.
Degnan recommended that state law “be significantly revised” so some funds can go to education, ongoing training, and equipment “to increase personal safety as firefighters perform their mission of protecting the public."
New Jersey’s Comptroller’s Office began its examination of the state’s firefighter assistance program after receiving a complaint that a local relief association in Bergen County was giving aid to members who were not experiencing financial hardship. Its investigators reviewed records from local relief associations and the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association between January 2013 and June 2017.
The comptroller’s report suggested lawmakers bolster the association’s internal controls and mandate audits by an independent auditor. The report also recommended the group require training for all new officers in local relief associations.
The president of the state association did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.