Everybody into the pool: Joint insurance funds help municipalities team up on liability protection — and help them navigate pandemic’s issues

No one ever said running a busy township was easy.

But for Vito Cimilluca, a lifelong Woodbridge resident and the township’s business administrator, it got a lot harder when running a township meant reinventing yourself every other day.

With New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy issuing more than 100 executive orders in 2020 — largely pertaining to rules prompted by the spread of COVID-19 — leaders of busy townships had a lot to take in.

What made it more bearable for Woodbridge and other Central Jersey communities, Cimilluca said, was the information- and risk-sharing network these townships entered into many years ago. When the “new you” for townships was in a constant flux, their joint insurance fund — a type of organization that the Garden State is one of the pioneers of — stepped in to help.

Woodbridge is part of the Central Jersey Joint Insurance Fund, which is a member of the larger Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund, or MEL JIF. The state’s MEL system makes up the largest municipal property-casualty pool in the country.

It’s an outgrowth of a 14-town collective in Bergen County that formed one of the first of these organizations in the country in 1985. Joint insurance funds were created as a result of a nationwide liability insurance crisis that sent local governments hunting for options when they were denied commercial insurance.

There are about 500 of these not-for-profit organizations and other municipal insurance pools active in the country today, all advertising to municipalities the benefits of maintaining certain niche lines of insurance coverage while also stabilizing long-term costs compared with commercial options.

Bradford Stokes. (PERMA)

Risk management agency PERMA, which organized the state’s first JIF, administers these funds for about 65% of the local governments in New Jersey. Bradford Stokes, a leader at PERMA and executive director for the Central Jersey JIF, said the agency has saved New Jersey taxpayers and its membership about $3.8 billion since the mid-’80s.

Stokes described the organization as offering needed liability coverage to public entities, but also in being a resource in the form of safety initiatives and training programs to towns that require guidance on hot-button topics.

Today, that topic is the decisions towns are making about reopening facilities during the winter months and a still-spreading coronavirus situation. Woodbridge, as an example, has based some of its decision-making on reopening indoor recreational facilities, parks and fields earlier this year on guidance from the MEL and Central Jersey JIF.

Joseph Hrubash. (MEL)

Joseph Hrubash, deputy executive director of the MEL, said its guidance has taken many forms, including properly wording language around social distancing, liability wavers or even recommendations on Halloween trick-or-treating.

“My impression is no one is an expert on what to do during the pandemic,” Hrubash said. “This is something we’re all experiencing. It’s something some people never will experience in their lives. But, collectively, we’ve felt we’ve had a good handle of keeping our members prepared through collaboration.”

Casey Wagner. (Township of Woodbridge)

Casey Wagner, Woodbridge’s deputy business administrator, explained that a township would have to be grossly negligent when it comes to these COVID-19 restrictions to result in any liability issues for the municipality.

That said, there’s a lot of work involved in training municipal employees in the manner of operating that fits best with the most up-to-date official recommendations. And that’s where townships’ relationship with these agencies has been essential.

“We’ve read all the executive orders and we’re pulling everything together, but as we’re still running the township — any upper hand is something we’ll take,” Wagner said. “It was good to have this model there already, and just take new information and plug it into that same model.”