LETTER – Schepisi bill stopping volunteer firefighters from being furloughed advances again this session

A bill pushed by Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi over the last two years to help local emergency volunteers continue volunteering in their communities without fear of losing their state pension if they retire was advanced by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.

The bill (A1627) is also sponsored by Assemblymen Anthony Bucco, Robert Auth and John DiMaio. It cleared the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee today by an 8-0 vote.

“This bill passed unanimously in both houses of the Legislature last session and then inexplicably vetoed by then Governor Christie,” said Schepisi (R-Bergen). “I thank Speaker Coughlin for expediting this bill and I look forward to getting it signed by Governor Murphy as soon as possible.”

An interpretation of IRS code requires retiring police officers, teachers, government employees or municipal employees who also volunteer in the same town be separated from any municipal roles, including a volunteer position, for a minimum of six months in order to receive their pension payment. As a result, volunteer firefighters, EMTs and other first-responders are being forced to resign or risk losing their pensions.

“Volunteers and communities have been in a state of limbo guided by inconsistent opinions from the pension board on whether a volunteer must stop providing services to a community in order to receive a pension upon retirement from an unrelated municipal job,” Schepisi said. “This bill protects the volunteers and mitigates the effect on towns that struggle to find round-the-clock protection for their community.”

Seventy-five percent of fire departments are all-volunteer in New Jersey, and 18 percent have paid and volunteer responders. There are 579 volunteer fire departments in the state and 49 career fire departments. The volunteers often hold paying jobs with local municipalities.

“It’s unfathomable we would turn away reliable and tested responders,” said Bucco (R—Morris), a longtime volunteer who has been with the Boonton Volunteer Fire Department for 37 years. “I can’t imagine how our towns would manage without the dedicated and selfless volunteers who drop everything to answer the alarm. Not only do they save lives, their volunteer service provides millions of dollars of tax savings for our residents.”

“Volunteers are critical to our towns, putting themselves at risk to provide life-saving assistance during fires, car crashes, and natural disasters,” said Auth (R-Bergen), a former volunteer firefighter. “This bill is our chance to help them help us. We should be applauding their selflessness, not locking them out of the firehouse.”

“It’s absurd to tell hard-working, unpaid everyday heroes they can no longer run into burning buildings to rescue their neighbors without jeopardizing their retirement income,” said DiMaio, a life member of a first aid and rescue squad. “This bill furnishes the financial protections they deserve.”