Fighting Over How to Spend Open Space Funding

By Briana Vannozzi

If there’s one item conservationists can agree on, it’s that preserving open space, farmland and parks is a must. But what they can’t get on board with are the cuts each group is likely to face now that they’re working with $71 million in the budget instead of $200 million.

“So it’s significantly down and that’s why if you take a quarter of that already reduced pot of funding and put it into something else other than open space farmland and historic preservation it’s gonna make that pool of funds even smaller,” said NJ Keep It Green Chairman Thomas Gilbert.

Voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment last November — championed by environmental groups across the board and ridiculed by Gov. Chris Christie. It created a dedicated, permanent source of funding through the state’s business tax — 4 percent each year until 2019 when it would increase to 6 percent.

Previously the funds came through bonds and borrowing. But the amendment didn’t specify how the money should be doled out. So when Christie proposed using 25 percent of it to pay for staff salaries at state parks — money that typically comes out of the general fund — Gilbert’s group, NJ Keep It Green, started speaking up.

“So that was not the intent of the funds that these voters approved,” Gilbert said.

“It’s a sum total game right, where we all are looking to do our best and to balance our budget so there certainly has been a haircut if you will as it relates to whether it’s Green Acres or farmland or historic preservation,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.

McKeon is sponsoring a bill along with two Senate counterparts that many environmental groups say most evenly distributes the money. Other bills have been drafted in the Assembly but haven’t had a favorable response.

“The Assembly bill does tip the balance more in favor of farmland preservation. It doesn’t include guaranteed funding for capital parks improvements and it doesn’t include as much money for stewardship,” Gilbert said.

“I think we need to be practical about it, but eventually we’ll come up with something that makes everyone satisfied,” McKeon said.

Most environmental advocates agree it’s better to have dedicated funding, albeit less, than none at all. But with so many programs in need and not enough money to fund them, it comes as no surprise everyone is looking for a larger slice of the pie.

“Historic preservation, we can’t sustain that same level of cut as other programs can,” said Michael Hanrahan, past president of Preservation New Jersey.

Historic preservation would take a big hit as it stands — to the tune of $4 million less.

“Now it would get $2.1 million and that is not enough to sustain the program. It would effectively kill the program so we would like to see the funding increased from $2.1 million to at least $7 million,” Hanrahan said.

It’s unclear how far the Democrat-led legislation will push this issue with so many other fires — like transportation and pension funding — to be put out. Conservationists just hope their voices aren’t lost in the blaze.