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We Must Fund Open Space Responsibly With a Water User Fee

A water user fee is the most responsible way to fund future open space acquisitions

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

firedup49 April 02, 2013 at 07:29 PM
Right more money for open spaces. We can take the green and fill in the brown spots on the grass, with our money. No thank you I will keep my money. Tired of you waisting it....
foggyworld April 29, 2013 at 12:20 AM
Jeff who doesn't live around here and is paid by the Sierra Club I believe, is wearing out his welcome. People here are in the midst of a disaster that he would like to see get worse and to add to all of the problems we have, we should now cough up money from Lord knows where for a water tax. Stay in Princeton, Jeff, with the once percenters.
life time resident April 29, 2013 at 04:05 PM
"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." OK let me get this right, an increase in costs for meds, food, and tourism (all tourism?) by way of a fee added to the already high cost of these three categories…the US census lists NJ as having 3,562,553 housing units and at $32 per, that equals only $114,001,696 in revenue. To get to $400 million, the surcharge would have to be $112.28 per housing unit…..no thanks.
Joe R April 29, 2013 at 05:20 PM
@Teecher Foreva (his latest stupid anti-teacher alias): Your teacher hating screeds and rants are not funny or original, just stupid, inane and Neanderthalish. Oh wait, that's an insult to Neanderthals. You hate teachers, you are against learning and education because you worship at the altar of ignorance. According to you, teachers should be earning Walmart wages because you so despise teachers and education. You place no value on education.
Mel Sharples April 29, 2013 at 06:41 PM
Good point. Those are all profitable categories of business. Maybe the industries should pay for these things and stop passing the costs on to the taxpayers. We do that enough in the country and state. And if the shore town I go to requires I pay for it, then that's a choice I made by going there. And I can continue to do so or not based on the higher sales tax / parking rates or whatever else they employ to gather the money. But that would be my choice. I'm all for that.

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