By Cleve Bryan


VINELAND, N.J. (CBS) — First responders are outraged over a plan to take tens of millions dedicated to New Jersey firefighters to help balance the state’s budget. Gov. Phil Murphy is defending his plan to drain a firefighters’ fund, but critics say it’s indefensible.

“It seems like we’re being penalized for doing the right thing,” Carlos Mercado, of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolence Association, said.

Since the 1880s, New Jersey firefighters have been able to get a little extra help when times are tough through a dedicated relief fund.

“Firefighters are always there to help others and this fund is intended to help them in a time of need,” Mercado said.

The money comes from a 2% tax levied on fire insurance policies written by out-of-state providers. State and local boards can help firefighters with as much as $16,000 to cover burial costs in the event of a death, or give assistance if a current or retired firefighter’s family suffers a financial hardship.

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“This fund has saved both volunteer and paid firefighters from losing their homes,” Mercado said. “It’s kept widows in a warm house in the winter.”

But a recent audit found the fund takes in much more money than it doles out. Right now, it has about a $245 million surplus.

That has caught Murphy’s attention. Unbeknownst to the firefighter’s union, the governor’s proposed budget for next year diverts about $33 million from the relief fund to New Jersey’s general fund to help fill budget gaps.

“This has happened before, where other administrations have looked at this money as a quick money grab and we’re just not going to allow that,” Mercado said.

On Monday, Murphy defended the proposal to divert the firefighters’ fund.

“Folks need to understand, this fund has a fund balance six times the amount that it needs,” Murphy said.

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But firefighters are asking why they should be penalized for being careful with how they spend, especially if there’s another 9/11 or Superstorm Sandy disaster when they might need it.

“So that’s why we’re doing the right thing. Keeping the reserve, keeping the money where it needs to be,” Mercado said.

The budget process is far from over. Both the firefighter’s union and the governor expressed a willingness to come to the table and discuss the issue further.