Report – Abuse found in NJ first responders benefits program
A New Jersey program that allows towns to put taxpayer dollars into tax-deferred investment accounts for the future benefit of active volunteer firefighters and first aid responders is riddled with mismanagement and potential abuse, according to a report released Tuesday by the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller (OSC).
The probe looked at one volunteer emergency service organization from four different municipalities (Middletown, Lebanon Township, Galloway and Wall townships) and found that almost two-thirds of the funds were deposited improperly. Program deposits from the New Jersey's Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP) were made on behalf of over 100 people who either didn't qualify or weren't active in the volunteer service.
"We found that 65 percent of the funds that were being contributed to these volunteers were actually being contributed in error," said acting State Comptroller Marc Larkins. "The two basic criteria are that the volunteer be active and that they also receive a certain number of points for service credit and we found flaws in both instances."
The report's findings included:
- The Leonardo First Aid and Rescue Squad (Middletown Township) automatically awarded half of the required points necessary for a yearly LOSAP contribution to the chairpersons of its ad hoc committees.
- The Wall Township First Aid and Rescue Squad admitted to not tracking LOSAP points at all and just determined that if a volunteer met the requirements to be considered "active" then that volunteer automatically earned credits.
- Twenty-six percent of emergency service calls at the South Egg Harbor Volunteer Fire Company (Galloway Township) were deemed "all credit calls" and volunteers were automatically given credit whether they responded to the call or not.
- Seventy percent of the volunteers certified by the Lebanon Township Volunteer Fire Department as being eligible for LOSAP contributions did not actually satisfy the definition of being an active volunteer or otherwise qualify.
"One of the entities created a 'soda' and 'picnic' committee and awarded the chairs of those committees a certain number of credits. South Egg Harbor Volunteer Fire Company, they were awarding credits for calls where volunteers actually didn't show up," Larkins said.
In order to qualify for death benefits coverage, volunteers must maintain a 50 percent participation rate in fire calls and drills for seven years. The review found that Lebanon Township reported an annual participation rate of 59 percent and 51 percent for its then vice president, but documents revealed the actual participation rate was 1 percent and 0.4 percent.
"Lebanon was actually reporting inaccurate or over-inflated rates to the State Firemen's Association in support of obtaining death benefits for their volunteers," Larkins said. "These are absolutely taxpayer dollars that are paid by the municipalities on behalf of the volunteers."
The findings were referred to the state Department of Community Affairs' which could levy fines or withhold of benefits. OSC is also referring relevant information regarding qualification for death benefits to the State Firemen's Association for its consideration and review.