State lawmakers yesterday approved a transfer of $4.5 million to six communities in the Meadowlands region to make up for a state budget shortfall that could have left residents of those communities facing higher local property bills.
The transfer, authorized during an afternoon meeting of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee in Trenton, provides a solution to what was an embarrassing – and potentially costly -- predicament that arose after Gov. Chris Christiefrom the $33.8 billion state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
“The municipalities need to be made whole so that local taxpayers aren’t hit with increases and that vital public services are maintained,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the co-chair of the committee, which includes members of both the Senate and Assembly budget committees.
“This is a required payment of money that is due to them,” Sarlo said. For decades, more than a dozen communities in the environmentally sensitive Meadowlands District participated in a regional-planning agreement that involved the sharing of revenue between towns where development was restricted and those where development was encouraged.
But many local officials complained about the arrangement, and it was also subject to fluctuations during economic downturns.
Last year, Democrats who control the Legislature worked with Christie, a Republican, to enact ato replace the cost-sharing agreement, among other controversial changes.
Lawmakers were forced to insert language into the budget bill they sent Christie in late June after revenue from the new hotel tax fell short of what was anticipated when the sharing agreement was killed.
But since Christie and lawmakers could not reach an accord on the budget this year, the new state spending plan was enacted only after Christie made a series ofin the final days before the July 1 budget deadline set in the state constitution.
The allocation for the Meadowlands district was among the many items that Christie -- who is now seeking the GOP presidential nomination -- took out of the Democrats’ budget bill, citing concerns about an “open-ended” appropriation.
To remedy the problem, legislative staff said Christie’s administration later forwarded to the joint budget panel the transfer of $4.5 million from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority that was approved yesterday.
The funds will go to East Rutherford, Jersey City, Kearney, North Arlington, Ridgefield and Rutherford, lawmakers said.
“This vote is great news for taxpayers in the Meadowlands region,” Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) said. “This means these communities will get the property tax relief they need, which is how the system is supposed to work.”
“Everyone agrees that these towns should be compensated,” Sarlo said. “This provides the back-up payments that were already a legal commitment.”
Christie’s office did not respond when asked yesterday to confirm that it was his administration that sought the transfer.Even before the budget mix-up occurred, Christie and lawmakers were already facing criticism by many in the region for the way they handled the fast-tracked adoption of the Meadowlands legislation during the winter holiday season last year.
The new law created a 3 percent hotel tax to replace the prior cost-sharing agreement. It also merged the former Meadowlands Commission with the Sports and Exposition Authority to manage the Meadowlands District, a 30-square mile region that spans parts of 14 municipalities in Bergen and Hudson counties. The law also generated concerns about what the merger will mean for the future of Liberty State Park in Jersey City, including whether it will open the door to more private development.
Lawmakers were forced to send Christie another bill, which he signed into law last month, that was intended to address those concerns, but the issue remains up for debate. And there are also lingering questions about how land-use decisions, preservation goals, scientific monitoring and public-environmental education will be managed going forward.
Yesterday’s vote to transfer the funds for the Meadowlands district came on the same day that the Sports and Exposition Authority approved a $350 million bond issue to help facilitate completion of the long-planned Xanadu entertainment and retail project in the Meadowlands, which is now known as American Dream Meadowlands under current developer Triple Five.
That vote followed a re-approval issued earlier this week by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority for up to $390 million in potential state tax breaks for the American Dream project.