Expend Open Space Funds the Way Voters Intended

Voters chose once again to overwhelming support preservation of New Jersey’s last remaining and precious open spaces, waterways, parks, farms and historic sites. In November, 65 percent of voters approved Public Question 2, dedicating a portion of existing corporate business tax revenues (CBT) to fund the now-depleted Green Acres, Blue Acres, Farmland and Historic Preservation programs.

It is now time to ensure those funds are distributed according to the voter’s intent. Unfortunately, Gov. Chris Christie’s budget calls for using $20 million of voter-approved CBT funds to pay for over 300 state park management staff. Park management staff are critical to keeping New Jersey’s parks safe and open to the public, and those staff should be supported through the general fund as they have been in the past.

Sens. Bob Smith, Christopher “Kip” Bateman and Assemblyman John McKeon have introduced legislation that takes a reasonable approach to allocating the limited funds available for preservation and stewardship for the next four years. Funding levels will rise in 2019 when the portion of existing CBT revenues dedicated increases from 4 percent to 6 percent, and as CBT revenues grow over time.

But until then, the available CBT funds will amount to less than half of what has traditionally been available for preservation, and allocating $20 million to state park staffing rather than putting those funds toward preservation and stewardship projects runs counter to the voters’ intent to protect New Jersey’s last remaining open spaces.

According to state agencies, an additional 650,000 acres of natural and water resource lands still need protection, and at least 350,000 acres of farmland need to be preserved to keep the garden in the Garden State. Smith, Bateman and McKeon’s legislation recognizes these priorities by allocating the lion’s share of the funding to the Green Acres and Farmland Preservation Programs.

The Green Acres Program has also greatly benefitted urban areas by supporting the development of more than 1,100 parks. The legislation allocates the largest percentage of Green Acres funds to county and local governments so they can continue important work to ensure that all residents have access to quality parks and green spaces, especially in our cities.

The legislative proposal for the funds authorized by voters last fall recognizes the importance of continuing to care for our existing parks and preserved lands to protect their natural, recreational and historic values for the public. The state Department of Environmental Protection would continue to receive $15 million annually for capital improvements on state lands as well as stewardship projects to protect, enhance or restore the ecological health of our public lands. Staff salaries would continue to be funded through the general fund.

The need for better stewardship of preserved lands and parks extends beyond state lands, and voters also authorized the use of funds to care for those preserved lands. The legislative proposal would allocate a modest portion of funds to counties, local governments and nonprofit organizations for stewardship projects.

Nonprofits are effective in leveraging state funds with local and private funds to complete preservation and stewardship projects. Nonprofits would be required to leverage their own funds and provided a 2-to-1 match for state funds.

Public Question 2 also continues baseline funding for vital environmental programs including watershed management, underground storage tank removal, hazardous site remediation and brownfields. NJ Keep in Green supports fully funding these programs as well as the operations and staffing of the DEP divisions of Parks and Forestry, and Fish and Wildlife through the annual budget.

Despite a challenging fiscal climate in the state, New Jersey voters gave a resounding “Yes” to continuing preservation efforts for the 14th time in the state’s history. It provides reliable funding that will grow over time and can address a broad array of preservation, stewardship, park and environmental needs in the most densely populated state in the nation.

Legislative leaders served the state well in advancing this measure to the ballot, and they can do the same by passing sound implementing legislation and fully funding DEP staffing and programs through the budget.

Jennifer M. Coffey is acting chairwoman of NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of more than 185 organizations working to sustain funding for the preservation and stewardship of New Jersey’s land, water and historic sites. Kelly Mooij, coordinator of NJ Keep It Green, also contributed to this piece.

http://www.app.com/story/opinion/columnists/2015/06/23/coffey-expend-open-space-funds-way-voters-intended/29153037/

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