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Voters to decide open space tax increase

The Monmouth County Board of Freeholders will place a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot to ask residents of the county’s 53 municipalities if they want to raise the open space tax rate that generates millions of dollars in revenue that public officials use to acquire and preserve open space properties.

During a special meeting in Freehold Borough on July 27, the freeholders said they want voters to decide whether the open space tax rate will be increased from 1.5 cents to 2.75 cents per $100 of equalized valuation.

The voters’ decision will be final and will not require any additional action by the freeholders, according to county counsel Michael Fitzgerald.

Monmouth County’s open space trust fund was established in 1987 and Freeholder Director Lillian Burry said that since that time there has been “overwhelming support” from a public that has supported increases in funding for land preservation efforts.

However, “the current collection (tax revenue) is not meeting the county’s needs,” Burry said, adding that “if we don’t save land now, it will be lost.”

In 2017, the open space tax is expected to produce $17.7 million in revenue. It is estimated that if the tax rate is raised to 2.75 cents, $33 million in revenue will be generated annually, according to Craig R. Marshall, the county’s chief financial officer and county treasurer.

Freeholder Thomas Arnone, who works in the field of land development, said he looks at the proposed increase in the open space tax rate as a benefit and added, “If we miss this opportunity to hold onto land, it will be missed by freeholders who sit here at a later time. I hope the voters see it that way.”

Arnone said while one side of the equation is a tax increase on the county’s property owners, the other side is the savings that would result by preventing development that would require additional services such as schools, police and the maintenance of infrastructure.

Freeholder John Curley said placing a referendum on the ballot “is democracy at its best. It is letting the people make their decision on how their money is spent. It is a wonderful opportunity for members of the public to get out there and state their opinion.”

Freeholder Serena DiMaso said that “generally speaking, Republicans (all of the freeholders are Republican) do not support tax increases and this is a tax increase, but the people will decide.”

DiMaso expressed concern with the size of the proposed increase which would see the open space tax rate move from 1.5 cents to 2.75 cents per $100 of equalized valuation.

Curley said the size of the increase is linked to the pace of how property appreciates in value. He said the proposed increase will meet the county’s needs associated with property acquisition and maintenance.

Members of the public had the opportunity to comment on the ballot question.

Ray Kalainikas of Manalapan said, “the true way to save open space and farmland is through zoning and not through taxation and bonding.” He advocated 6-acre zoning as a means of preventing development.

Bill Kastning, the executive director of the Monmouth Conservation Foundation, said land preservation cannot be accomplished without funding. He said he supports the referendum and letting voters decide.

Although the foundation is not permitted to lobby for or against the referendum, “we intend to educate the voting population” about why this proposal is beneficial to them, Kastning said.

Amanda Brockwell is the deputy executive director of the Monmouth Conservation Foundation and a lifetime resident of Wall Township. She acknowledged that “property taxes are on everyone’s mind and it is hard to think long-term when people are dealing with day-to-day issues in their lives, but land preserved today is saving us money on the back end.”

Brockwell summed up land preservation efforts and the minimal services open space parcels require by telling the freeholders and those in attendance that “cows don’t ride school buses” and “trees don’t call ambulances.”

Rhoda Chodosh of Manalapan said it is “very important to have open space and not to have everything paved over. Once land is gone, it is gone forever. I am going to see what I can do to pass this referendum.”

Patricia Butch of Millstone Township serves on two county panels – the Agriculture Development Board and the Board of Recreation Commissioners.

“We need to expand our parks and preserve land. Municipal open space grant programs are a way the county shares funding and saves municipalities some money. Our farmland provides food that is locally grown,” Butch said, adding her support for the referendum.

Burry made a motion to place the question on the Nov. 7 ballot and she, Arnone, DiMaso and Curley voted yes on a resolution to take that action. Freeholder Gary J. Rich Sr. was not present at the meeting.

The open space tax rate, when applied to the assessed value of an individual’s property, determines the amount a property owner pays into the county’s open space trust fund on an annual basis.

County officials use those funds to pursue a policy of preserving public open space, providing public recreation opportunities, conserving natural resources and protecting water quality, according to the resolution.

On an assessment of $200,000, a property owner currently pays $30 per year into the county’s open space trust fund. With a tax rate of 2.75 cents, that would increase to $55 per year.

On an assessment of $400,000, a property owner currently pays $60 per year into the county’s open space trust fund. With a tax rate of 2.75 cents, that would increase to $110 per year.

On an assessment of $600,000, a property owner currently pays $90 per year into the county’s open space trust fund. With a tax rate of 2.75 cents, that would increase to $165 per year.

On an assessment of $800,000, a property owner currently pays $120 per year into the county’s open space trust fund. With a tax rate to 2.75 cents, that would increase to $220 per year.

In the resolution, the freeholders said the Board of Recreation Commissioners “has determined that in order to continue the county’s program of land acquisition for public park and recreation purposes, it is necessary to increase the annual collection for the open space trust fund.”

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