N.J. comptroller: $250 million fund for firefighters sits unused

Red fire engine.

Fire truck. (Shutterstock image)

Taxes paid by New Jersey fire insurance policyholders into a fund meant to help the state’s firefighters largely goes unused, according to a report released Wednesday by the state comptroller.

The New Jersey State Firemen’s Association and local firefighters relief organizations across the state have amassed nearly $245 million to help needy firefighters, but they can only spend it in limited circumstances so much of the money remains in reserve.

“This money has sat unused for decades,” said Andrew Cliver, assistant director of the comptroller’s investigations division.

Cliver suggested state lawmakers should “take a look at better ways to use it because there aren’t a lot of $245 million pots of money laying around in New Jersey.”

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The fund was set up in 1885 as a way to assist struggling or injured firefighters and, in cases of fatalities, pay for burial services. The mission has remained largely the same ever since. It is funded by a 2 percent tax on fire insurance policies written by out-of-state companies.

Speakers at a 1994 state legislative hearing raised concerns about what was a $90 million surplus at the time, but the rules around the fund remained the same, according to the comptroller’s office.

Cliver said state lawmakers should follow the lead of Pennsylvania and New York by allowing the money to be used for safety equipment and education — the parts of their budgets that fire departments sometimes struggle to pay for.

“You drive around the state in summertime over Memorial Day weekend, and you see every local fire department out asking for change to try and supplement their budgets,” Cliver said. “We’ve got money here that could be benefiting them directly.”

The comptroller’s office also found that the parameters for awarding funds were vague and oversight of the payments is lax.

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