By KRISTINA SCALA and
Sources for open space funding are looking slim after the Assembly failed to vote on a bill, as of Thursday, June 27, that would provide more funding to the Green Acres program. The Burlington County Freeholders also reduced the county open space tax by more than $5 million.
According to Burlington County spokeswoman Charlene Webster, the freeholders reduced the open space tax to help relieve a burden caused by the decrease in ratables, resulting in a general revenue loss of $7.6 million. She said the freeholders analyzed three areas to help ease the burden for the taxpayers — general operations, the library system and open space programs.
Webster said the open space tax is being reduced from 4 cents per $100 of assessed value to 1.5 cents, or $5.3 million. Although the significant decrease may pose as a threat to some, Webster said the county has $48 million available for open space funding, approximately $20 million more than in 2008.
“This year it is not going to affect things at all. We are still doing all of the projects that we have planned and all the programs we offer,” she said, adding three new projects are being added to the plan.
The county is planning to fund the Underground Railroad Museum at Historic Smithville Park, the conservation of the Mount Holly Library as a museum and aiding other organizations to keep the Rancocas Nature Center open.
She said municipalities could apply for $250,000 per year grants that can be applied to municipal park improvements. The county has $5 million per year set aside for all Burlington County municipalities.
Medford Township has its own open space tax. Out of the tax dollars collected, a percentage goes to that effort, according to councilman James “Randy” Pace.
Part of the tax is a county tax, library tax and open space tax. The percentages are on the resident’s tax bill.
“In regard to Medford Township’s open space tax, the amount we collect goes to pay for all the property acquisition we’ve done locally,” Pace said.
What will be available to Medford Township will be county funded, offering grant opportunities.
Pace isn’t certain there’s going to be a direct impact on the township.
“Based on the annual debt service statement from the county, they have somewhere around $88 million in open space tax,” he said. “Essentially, all our taxes remitted haven’t paid for everything they’ve done.”
Pace said there’s outstanding debt that needs to be paid for in the township first and it can’t be done through borrowing money and increasing debt service.
“The impact is going to be minimal, the township has been given a direct benefit. It’s county-wide to do county projects,” Pace said. “We have to be fiscally responsible with people’s tax dollar. It’s not an unlimited resource.”
Jeff Tittel, state chapter director of the Sierra Club — a national environmental organization “which seeks to influence public policy in both Washington and the state capitals through public education and grass-roots political action” — said the state DEP has approximately $100 million in Green Acres funds until next year.
“After that the state, for the first time since 1988, will be out of money,” he said.
Greens Acres is a state-run funding program that was established to help maintain, protect, preserve and enhance the state’s natural environments along with its historic, scenic and recreational resources for the public’s enjoyment, according to the Green Acres website.
According to Tittel, there is enough funding to continue current projects for this year, without adding new projects to the list. A new project could be added if a current project is dropped.
But there is some hesitation coming out of the Legislature, he said.
“They are taking all of that money out of existing revenues and cutting other programs,” Tittel said, adding he foresees the $17 billion, 30-year bill not making it on the ballot in November.
He said at this point, Green Acres needs a “long term stable course of funding.”
State DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the state is currently looking into long term funding for the program, but could not release details.
“We do have enough money in the Green Acres program that we can continue to work with. But we clearly recognize that it needs to be replenished,” he said.
Hajna said a majority of the focus is on “Blue Acres” programs, which was created under Green Acres in 1995 for municipalities and counties to acquire costal areas that have been damaged by storms, are prone to storm damage or areas acting as a buffer zone that would help protect other areas.
He said after Hurricane Sandy those projects became the main focus.
Although there is no major concern at this time, Tittel said Green Acres funding is “running on vapors,” and the funds need to be replenished by 2014.
“If we are not on the ballot by next year, we are in serious trouble,” he said.
“A tremendous amount of money has been spent and will continue to be spent,” Pace said.