Last year, nearly $250 million in local tax revenue was spent across the state in communities that maintain local firefighting efforts through special fire districts that operate independently of the municipal government. But few people typically turn out to vote in the elections of fire-district commissioners, which are held each year on a Saturday in late February.
A measure now moving through the state Legislature is seeking to drive up voter participation by permitting the fire districts to move their elections to November, when voters typically go to the polls in New Jersey for national, state and local elections.
The bipartisan bill is also viewed as a way to encourage the nearly 200 fire districts in New Jersey to keep tax-levy increases from rising above the state’s 2 percent cap. If a fire district chooses to move its election to November, the measure would eliminate the need for a referendum on a fire-district budget to be held if the district’s annual spending plan keeps any tax-levy increase within the 2 percent limit. Sponsors say the legislation — which comes several years after lawmakers passed a similar reform that allowed school-district elections to be moved from April to November — could save communities money by eliminating the need to hold multiple elections in one year.
The fire-district legislation has already been approved by the full Assembly, and yesterday it was easily passed by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. That puts the measure on course for final legislative approval by the end of the month when lawmakers typically break for the summer.
Residents’ right to vote on districts’ spending plans
In all, there are a total of 183 individual fire districts located across the state that have the authority to levy a local fire tax, according to an analysis prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. The fire districts spent a combined $240 million in local property tax revenue in 2016, according to the OLS.
Not every community maintains a fire district, and some have more than one within their borders, but they help to support a total of 8,000 firefighters both paid and volunteer across the state, according to a report released by the Office of the State Comptroller in 2014.
Under state law, residents of the communities that maintain fire districts have the right to elect the members of five-person boards of commissioners; they can also vote on the districts’ annual spending plans. The fire-district elections by law are held each year on the third Saturday in February.
The 2014 state comptroller’s report found that turnout for elections held in three fire districts that were closely scrutinized by the agency in an in-depth audit ranged from less than 1 percent to 1.6 percent. The report, which also reviewed issues like salary increases and compensation for longevity, made a series of recommendations, including moving the fire-district elections to November to “potentially increase voter turnout and reduce costs.”
The bill now moving through the Legislature would allow the fire commissioners to choose to move their annual elections from April to November by adopting a resolution. During yesterday’s hearing, the bill —which doesn’t force the change, was endorsed by representatives of the New Jersey Association of Fire Districts.
Sen. Shirley Turner, a primary sponsor of the legislation, said it makes sense to give the fire districts the ability to move their elections to a time of the year when voters are already accustomed to going to the polls.
Need to ‘ensure more voters have a say’
“Fewer than 2 percent of voters are participating in these elections, and in some towns, it’s less than one percent,” said Turner (D-Mercer). “We need to increase voter turnout to ensure that more voters have a say in how fire-district budgets spend millions in taxpayer dollars.”
Turner and the other sponsors suggested the measure could also save money by not forcing communities to hold multiple elections in the same year, cutting down on the printing of ballots and other materials.
“It just makes sense to move these elections, particularly given the extra cost of conducting a special election,” said Sen. Jim Beach (D-Camden). “Moreover, having these elections in November will be more convenient for taxpayers, especially when they can get all their voting done at one time without having to worry about going back on an additional winter day.”
The 2 percent cap on local property tax-levy increases was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie in 2010 as part of a broader “tool-kit” initiative that was aimed at controlling local property taxes that at the time were rising by roughly 7 percent annually. In addition to the 2 percent cap, Christie’s initiative pressed lawmakers to pass legislation moving local school-district elections and fire-district elections to November. The bill moving school district elections was enacted in 2012, and most of the more than 500 districts across the state now hold their elections in the fall.
“Our volunteer and professional firemen deserve the same options as schools,” said Assemblyman Ron Dancer, a primary sponsor of the bill in the lower house.
“It will increase voter participation and save taxpayer money,” said Dancer (R-Ocean).