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Plans to Divvy Up State's Open-Space Funds Continue to Raise a Clamor

There’s the Assembly proposal, the Senate plan, and the administration’s approach -- none of which satisfy all interested parties

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer
Assemblywoman Grace Spencer

The discussion on how to spend money from an open-space ballot question approved last November is growing more contentious.

The Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee narrowly approved on Thursday its own version of a plan to divvy up the money, but it differs in many ways from a bill now moving through the Senate -- as well as from the Christie administration’s proposal in its budget for next year.

But it’s not just legislators and the administration that are divided on how to split a smaller amount of money (at least $71million a year compared to as much as $200 million in past years); the environmental community also is at odds as to where the funds should be directed.

The version (A-4206) approved by the Assembly committee provides more money for farmland preservation than has been traditionally allocated, less money for stewardship of public lands for nonprofit groups, and not enough money for capital expenditures at state parks, according to critics.

The fight essentially boils down to the fact that many groups who in the past have won funding from bigger pots of money now are facing huge cuts in potential grants. Much of the criticism focuses on funding for historic-preservation projects and set -asides to urban areas to acquire and develop open space.

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the committee and sponsor of the measure, defended the bill -- a combination of two bills that had been introduced earlier -- that was released from the panel in a 3-2-vote. “Everyone is taking a cut,’’ she said.

The money is derived from a constitutional amendment approved last fall, which sets aside a portion of corporate business taxes to fund preservation of open space, farmland, and historic structures. It will provide at least $71 million over the next four years, but could rise to $117 million or more in the future, depending on tax receipts.

With less money to dole out to various preservation efforts, including the traditional Green Acres program in which money goes to protect open space and help local governments develop recreational facilities, disputes over how the funds should be spent have become increasingly divisive.

For instance, Tom Gilbert, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green Coalition, an organization of more than 180 conservation groups that lobbied for passage of the ballot question, objected to a plan in the Christie administration’s proposed budget to use $20 million out of the money to fund salaries for state park staffers. In the past, that money traditionally came out of the general fund.

Gilbert added that the committee substitute also fails to provide adequate capital spending for state parks. That has been a recurring concern among conservationists over the years as they have watched facilities at parks deteriorate.

Others objected that the allocation of 36 percent of the funding from the ballot question to farmland preservation comes at the expense of other worthy programs. “It tips the scales to farmland preservation,’’ said Debbie Mans, director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper, an organization geared to protecting waters in the New York estuary.

Historic-preservation advocates pressed for more funding, although they did say that the committee substitute is an improvement over the Senate version (S-2769), which allocated only 3 percent of the new money to their projects. Spencer’s bill would divert more than 5 percent of the funds to historic projects.

“If the New Jersey Historic Trust (which administers the program) is defunded, we’re going to have more historic buildings falling apart,’’ said Janet Foster, a board member of the trust.

“The funding pot is a lot smaller,’’ Spencer said. “We can’t give you $10 million.’’

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