May 30--Cherry Hill firefighters earned more than those in Philadelphia and New York City in recent years, and the approval of a nearly $25 million budget in 2012 went unnoticed by most residents because of a dismal election turnout, according to an audit released Wednesday by the state Comptroller's Office.
The audit, which covered 2010 and 2011, also criticized the Cherry Hill fire district for giving firefighters hefty longevity payments -- essentially bonuses for each year of employment -- and for failing to use volunteers. The fire district covers 71,000 people and has about 130 salaried employees.
The audit also examined the finances of fire districts in Brick and Woodbridge, and raised similar concerns.
Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn, in a statement released Wednesday, called the findings "troubling."
"It shows a trend of growth in spending that is simply not sustainable, and unnecessary," he said. "I have shared my concerns with the Board of Fire Commissioners and department leadership, and while I know they are taking steps to better control costs, I believe more can and should be done."
Hugh H. "Skip" Gibson, chairman of the Cherry Hill Board of Fire Commissioners, said the fire district lowered the starting salary and eliminated longevity payments even for those already receiving them under a collective-bargaining agreement signed in February.
In 2011, according to the audit, Cherry Hill firefighters earned on average $80,000 -- nearly $10,000 more than the average salary of firefighters in New Jersey that year. Cherry Hill firefighters also started at a salary of $50,099, about $10,000 more than firefighters in New York City and Philadelphia, the audit said.
According to the collective-bargaining agreement signed Feb. 6, the starting salary for firefighters in Cherry Hill is now $41,000, an 18 percent drop. Gibson said firefighters were also receiving smaller raises, but he did not have the numbers.
On top of the salaries, the audit says, the Cherry Hill fire district also disbursed more than $1.2 million in longevity payments between 2010 and 2011. The payments were given to firefighters who had reached six years of employment and were awarded annually.
Acting state comptroller Marc Larkins said he would not characterize the spending by the Cherry Hill fire district and other audited districts as out of control, but said "excessive . . . would be a fair characterization."
Among concerns the audit cited was the absence of volunteer firefighters in Cherry Hill. The district "does not attempt to recruit volunteers, which results in increased costs to district taxpayers," the audit said. It suggested substituting volunteers for a quarter of the paid firefighters would save $2.7 million, or $83 per taxpayer, annually.
Owners of Cherry Hill properties on average pay $652 in fire district taxes, according to the audit.
Gibson, in a written response to the state, said the fire district welcomes volunteers, but "training and retention of volunteer firefighters is both difficult and costly."
The audit also recommended New Jersey fire districts hold their elections in November instead of February, which Gibson said he supported.
The audit cited dismal voter turnout, saying only 860 of 54,000 registered voters in Cherry Hill -- fewer than 2 percent -- participated in the fire district election in 2012.
The districts included in the audit have 90 days to respond with changes they have made or plan to make.
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