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N.J. lawmakers act to protect volunteers who drive

Federations sought measure, which would help Meals on Wheels

“No good deed goes unpunished,” or so the saying goes. But an alliance of New Jersey nonprofits has enlisted a bipartisan group of legislators to prevent that maxim from applying to volunteer drivers in the Garden State.

The move was prompted by a survey conducted by the non-profits, including the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations (NJSAJF). It showed that some charities shy away from recruiting volunteer drivers because of concerns that auto insurance companies will raise volunteer drivers’ rates, or that the volunteers would be subject to greater liability payments in case of accidents.

The legislators responded by introducing bills to prevent either from occurring. Meals on Wheels and programs to drive the elderly to medical appointments could be especially vulnerable without such protection.

“We wanted to close every loophole so that someone who volunteers his or her time will have no liability at all other than the standard liability of driving a car,” said Sen. Robert Singer (R-30), co-sponsor with Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38) of S2249, which would protect the interests of volunteer drivers.

“The second part is, we wanted to make sure there would not be any surcharges or additional charges [for volunteer drivers] from the insurance companies,” Singer said.

Reps. Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) and Ronald Dancer (R-30) introduced a corresponding bill (A3523) in the State Assembly.

The immediate prompt for introducing the legislation, according to Singer, was some insurance companies’ possible plans to raise rates of coverage on volunteer drivers.

“It was brought to our attention that some insurance companies are considering surcharging people who are using their own vehicles to do volunteer work,” he said.

Huttle said she was moved to introduce the legislation after being approached by Jacob Toporek, executive director of NJSAJF, and Linda Czipo, executive director of the Center for Non-profits, an umbrella organization that provides resources to non-profit agencies.

“Jake Toporek and Linda Czipo had been talking to me about some of the issues they face with the senior population [and] transportation is the number one issue,” said Huttle. “Frankly, they have difficulty recruiting and retaining volunteers [to drive,] and this bill would help.”

In addition to preventing insurance companies from raising rates for individuals because they are volunteer drivers, the bill would protect those drivers from increased liability in accidents. The bill would not give volunteer drivers any special legal protection in an accident, but it would prevent someone from obtaining additional damages because the driver was a volunteer, Singer said.

Should the legislation succeed, said Huttle, volunteer drivers would “not need to be afraid of anything extraordinary” because they were volunteers.

Toporek emphasized the fact that the fears are theoretical, not actual; at least, not yet. “There have not been any known complaints…where an individual has seen [insurance] rates rise because of being a volunteer driver,” he said. Nevertheless, social service organizations “have indicated they are having trouble recruiting volunteer drivers because of these concerns.”

The NJSAJF sees this legislation as part of a long-term plan for dealing with an aging population, especially if fiscal hard times continue.

“New Jersey has more than one million seniors, and by 2030 it’ll be 2.5 million… so the idea is, how do we deal with senior transportation issues?” said Toporek.

The many organizations that rely on volunteer drivers include Jewish Family Service of Bergen County, which uses over 200 volunteer drivers to coordinate delivery of Meals on Wheels, the free food program for the homebound elderly.

Other programs relying heavily on volunteer drivers include those for the blind and visually impaired, and services that provide seniors and the disabled with access to medical appointments.

The case for the pending legislation has been reinforced, Toporek said, by a survey conducted recently by the NJSAJF, as well as the Center for Non-Profits and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging. The survey polled over 130 non-profit administrators whose agencies provide assistance to the elderly and/or the poor and disabled across the state.

It uncovered three relevant findings, according to Toporek. First, more than half the non-profit responders reported having trouble recruiting volunteer drivers. Second, over half of the non-profit agencies that do not use volunteer drivers cite organizational liability concerns as the main reason. Third, over 40 percent of responders that do not use volunteer drivers point to prospective drivers’ concerns about potential liability.

Another of the survey’s findings is that 82 percent of non-profit responders believe that a law along the lines of the legislation now pending would be helpful in recruitment and retention of volunteer drivers.

The Assembly bill is before the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee. The senate bill is in the hands of the Commerce Committee.

Both legislative houses are expected to vote on the legislation later this year or in January, an aide to Huttle said.

 
 

Federations score in Trenton

Victories include Iran sanctions, Medicaid funding, day school aid

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 13 July 2012

It was a fruitful year in Trenton.

That’s the assessment of Ruth Cole, president of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, about the organization’s accomplishments in conveying the Jewish community’s priorities to lawmakers — and in having those priorities take effect.

One of the group’s major goals this year was state sanctions against Iran. Late last month, both the State Senate and the assembly voted unanimously for the sanctions.

The bill awaits signing by Governor Chris Christie. If he does, New Jersey will become the sixth state to impose sanctions on Iran.

The bill bars companies doing more than $20 million worth of business with Iran’s energy or financial sectors from bidding on state or local contracts.

“There are moral and reputational reasons for state and local governments to not engage in business with foreign companies that have business activities benefiting foreign states, such as Iran, that pursue illegal nuclear programs, support acts of terrorism and commit violations of human rights,” the bill reads.

Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D. - Dist. 37), one of its sponsors in the Assembly, said that with the sanctions, “New Jersey sends a clear message against Iran and its threat toward Israel and liberty. Iran’s threat to Israel and global security is something we must all stand against.”

She noted that the state sanctions follow the directions of the federal sanctions signed into law in the 2010. The federal Iran Sanctions Act made provisions for state and local government to apply their own sanctions against Iran.

In the state budget, the association — joined by affiliate advocacy groups such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — had made an increase in Medicaid funding to nursing homes its top priority.

Last year’s budget cut Medicaid reimbursement to nursing homes by $75 million. That meant more than a million dollars in cuts to local Jewish nursing homes. This year, the governor’s budget had restored $5 million of those cuts. The legislature added a further $10 million in funding, which was left intact by the governor. Another $15 million will be matched by federal funds.

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, said that he has heard that another $22 million may be available, a result of savings in another budget item. “It’s a positive thing,” he said.

Charles Berkowitz, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Home Family, the parent body of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, praised the restoration as “good news.”

He said the Jewish home was “very proactive” in trying to reverse the cuts. “All the boards sent a lot of letters to the governor and the legislators. We had families send letters, we had colleagues from other organizations send letters. And then when it was reinstalled in the budget, we sent a thank you.”

The new budget also sends money to Jewish day schools.

From 1999 through 2009, the state provided technology grants to private schools — it reached $40 per student in the 2008/2009 budget. The grants were eliminated the next year.

The new budget provides a $20 per student grant, which would bring in a total of more than $100,000 to area day schools.

“While we would have liked to have seen the grant fully restored to the $40 level it was before it was eliminated in the final budget of Governor Jon Corzine, we understand the fiscal realities and appreciate this significant first step in increased funding for non-public schools and their families,” Josh Pruzansky, the Orthodox Union’s New Jersey director of political affairs and public policy, said in a statement.

He continued, “Governor Christie is a strong supporter of the non-public school community and has expressed on many occasions his desire to help our families to better afford their children’s education. I am confident that as the economy recovers, the governor will find the funding sources that will make that goal possible.”

The measure was also supported by the state association of Jewish federations.

The association also is counting on the state assembly’s approval of a $250,000 grant to fund medical, social, and transportation services to seniors in Mercer County as a victory. The Senate has not yet voted on the measure.

The funding would establish a pilot “Naturally Occurring Retirement Community,” or NORC, in which local social service groups would provide assistance to seniors in a specific community.

The NORC concept dates to the 1980s, and the first such program was established in New York City with the support of New York’s Jewish federation. The idea has since become a priority for the Jewish Federations of North America, which notes that the Jewish community is demographically older than other American religious and ethnic groups.

“Seniors are multiplying in number, with the Baby Boomer generation moving into the senior stage of life,” Cole said. “Many healthy seniors prefer to live where they’re living. It’s more economical than housing people in a facility.”

In NORC programs, social workers and health care professionals visit the seniors where they live.

Toporek said this first program — if the Senate and the governor approve it — “is a possible precedent for future NORC funding in the state of New Jersey, which is something we’ve been trying to get for a number of years.”

Locally, both the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson in Teaneck and the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Wayne have received federal grants for NORC programs, as well as support from the Jewish federation.

 
 

Keeping an eye on special needs

Statewide coalition will raise awareness, monitor legislation

Lois GoldrichLocal
Published: 17 August 2012
(tags): jacob toporek

There’s strength in numbers, says Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. That’s why last year the NJSAJF convened a statewide working group devoted to special needs in the Jewish community.

“It arose out of the fact that the interest of the Jewish community in special needs services and programs keeps growing statewide,” he said. “There were many voices speaking through existing organizations — but being in this job and knowing the effect of unified advocacy, I felt it was important that the Jewish community have some sort of mechanism to speak with one voice.

“We won’t agree on everything, but we’ll have a forum to discuss the issues and see where we want to take the most effective stands.”

First and foremost, Toporek said, the working group provides an opportunity for its members to sit down together and talk. After that, he hopes, the group will set an agenda.

The 43-member coalition includes delegates from agencies and organizations all over the state. Our local area is well represented, said Joy Kurland, a group member who is director of the Jewish Community Relations Commission of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

In addition to Kurland, the original working group included Sharyn Gallatin, formerly JFNNJ’s point person on disabilities, who has now moved to Detroit. Kurland said that Gallatin had been active in bringing community concerns to state and county legislators and served as a member of the Jewish Federation of North America’s Domestic Affairs Disability Work Group.

Representatives from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the YJCC of Bergen County, and Jewish Family Services in Bergen and North Hudson, North Jersey, and Clifton also are included. Chani Herrman of Yachad has a seat at the table, as does Dr. John Winer of the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities.

Ruth Cole of Ridgewood, now in her third term as president of the state association, serves on the group as well.

Cole says it is precisely because there are so many groups interested in special needs that the NJSAJF formed the coalition.

“When you have so many groups dealing [with the issue], especially from the Jewish perspective, it’s important to maximize your efforts,” she said, adding that collaboration helps prevent duplication of efforts and “makes sure that dollars are spent as wisely as possible.”

A trained counselor who is also a former president of the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, Cole said she understands the requirements of the special needs community and that working on this issue interests her as both a lay leader and a professional.

She said that one area the working group will explore is housing, pointing to the need for more group homes.

While the coalition has not yet targeted specific areas for advocacy, she said, it is nevertheless engaged in “fact-finding and sharing experiences.” Its next step will be to “come to a meeting of the minds on important priorities.”

So far, the working group has had three meetings. One was with the executive directors of ARC, which advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, which works to improve the lives of people with complex physical and neurological developmental disabilities.

“We wanted to get a feeling for the specific state budget agenda,” Toporek said, noting that the group already has weighed in on the replenishment of the special needs housing trust fund.

Early in the fall, NJSAJF will hold another meeting to explore specific pieces of legislation.

“There could be twenty or twenty-five laws” to consider, Toporek said. “We have to decide which is important, rather than using the shotgun approach. In the meantime, we’re also a resource for information.”

Kurland said the JCRC has been working in the area of special needs for years, pointing out that several years ago Gallatin had presented an agenda of special needs issues at a legislative gathering convened by the federation.

Among the issues presented for consideration were the need for a greater Division of Developmental Disabilities presence in the catchment area, enhanced services for children and seniors, increased job opportunities, available housing, and more accessible transportation. Kurland said she later presented that agenda at one of the NJSAFJ meetings.

 
 
 
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