New Jersey’s open space funding is broke with the release of the last of the voter approved bonds from 2009. Unless the legislature and Governor take action, we will no longer be able to preserve new parks, preserves, playgrounds, and farmlands, and buyout flood prone properties.
Over the last forty years we have financed open space purchases through voter approved bond acts. Especially after Hurricane Sandy, we need to put in place a stable open space source of funding . We cannot afford bonding anymore.
Unless we invest in open space like we invest in all other infrastructure, the state will suffer economically and environmentally. Without this funding there will be more pollution in our waterways costing us more money to treat that water and more flooding putting people and property at risk.
The best way to invest in open space and New Jersey’s future is a water user fee. The water surcharge would be constitutionally dedicated so it could not be used for other purposes, establishing a direct connection between the fee and open space preservation. New Jersey’s three largest industries, pharmaceuticals, food processing, and tourism, are all water dependent and this fee would ensure they continue to have the water supply they need.
Two alternative funding mechanisms are being advanced but there are concerns with both proposals. One idea is dedicating a portion of the sales tax revenue for open space. The sales tax is fiscally irresponsible. New Jersey is currently seeing a $400 million shortfall in revenue and sales tax and cuts could already be needed. New Jersey is not getting enough income to support taking $200 million out of sales tax revenue for open space. The last time sales tax was used to fund open space the sales tax revenue was increasing by $500 million a year, but now it is actually decreasing.
If we dedicate $200 million from sales tax revenue for open space, it will be at the expense of other important social, environmental, and education programs. Governor Christie is going to be dedicating $600 million for the Transportation Trust Fund from the sales tax revenue next year as well. The legislature is going to have to make tough choices about what programs get funded and which get cut.
A sales tax dedication could result in cuts to DEP funding. The DEP is currently at its lowest staffing levels in twenty years due to cuts in the operating budget. If sales tax revenue funding is diverted from the DEP to fund open space, funding cuts could be used to justify even more staff and environmental program cuts under this administration. We should not be cutting other programs such as education, property tax relief, or the DEP to fund open space; that is why we need a dedicated source.
The Governor will use the sales tax dedication for green cover for the election while he eliminates other environmental programs. Funding for open space does not make up for eliminating protections for clean air and water.
The second proposal would put a question on the ballot in November to approve $400 million in open space funding bonds. The last two bonds that voters considered passed by less than 53% of the vote. The 2009 referendum failed in a number of rural counties. Even if the voters approve the bonds, Governor Christie could significantly delay the release of the bonds as he did in 2010 or refuse to release the bonds at all. We had the same problem under Governor Whitman when her Treasurer refused to release the bonds.
The water user fee would be a pay-as-you-go mechanism that would not divert funding from other important programs. The cost of a small water surcharge would be about $32 a year for a family, but would have a long lasting value in preserving open space and protecting water supply for future generations.
A water fee could also be used to compensate landowners in the Highlands region. The area provides drinking water for 5.4 million state residents and is protected under the 2004 Highlands Act. A portion of the water surcharge could go to compensate Highlanders landowners who protect the land the rest of the state depends upon for clean drinking water.
This will be the first time since 1988 that our open space programs will have run out of money. There are dozens of examples of important properties the state could not afford to purchase when funding was low or not available and some have already been developed. Having a stable source of funding is important to preserve farmland and open spaces that would otherwise be bought by developers promoting sprawl and overdevelopment. The money from open space also goes to build parks and playgrounds in urban areas, not only providing recreation but helping rebuild and revitalize neighborhoods and communities.
We need a water user fee now to protect our precious open spaces. As Will Rogers said ‘Land, they just don’t make it anymore.’ If we are allowed to run out of funding there will be many important properties we will lose to development or end up paying much more for later, hurting recreation and conservation in New Jersey.