Despite pushback from the public, Burlington County freeholders voted Wednesday to reduce the Open Space, Farmland and Historic Preservation tax to offset an increase in the tax rate for the operating budget.
By a 3-2 vote, freeholders approved a budget plan that will decrease the open space tax from 4¢ per $100 of assessed value to 1.5¢, reducing the revenue for the fund by almost $12.5 million—from $19 million to $6.7 million.
The reduction will easily offset a $5 million increase in the operating budget for the tax levy, leaving the overall county tax rate unchanged at 40 cents. The ratable base of the county sank another $2 billion this year, resulting in a general revenue loss of $7.6 million, according to a release from the county.
Freeholder Director Joe Donnelly defended the cut—the first in the open space program's 17-year history, according to the Courier-Post—by pointing out the $48 million surplus the county has already banked from the tax.
"It was inconceivable to me that we would expect taxpayers to pay the full 4-cent open space tax in 2013 when the dedicated fund for farmland preservation, open space, parks, and historic preservation currently enjoys a $48 million fund balance," said Donnelly.
The director said he was confident the fund would not only cover existing programs, but also was healthy enough to fund three major initiatives: the planned Underground Railroad Museum at Historic Smithville Park; the conversion of Mount Holly Library into the county’s first general history museum; and the recent partnership with the state, Westampton Township, and other organizations to keep Rancocas Nature Center in operation.
Others were not as confident. Members of the public turned out to Wednesday's freeholder meeting to express their concerns over the cut. Among them was Barbara Rich, a member of Moorestown's Environmental Advisory Committee and liaison to the Open Space Advisory Committee, and a vocal proponent of open space preservation.
Rich explained the breakdown of funding for open space purchases through the state's Green Acres program is 50 percent from the state, and then 25 percent each from the county and municipality.
With such a significant dip in revenue for open space, Rich said it's hard to tell exactly what kind of impact the county's tax cut will have on its 25 percent match.
"There are too many unknowns," she said. "It has to have an impact ... it stands to reason to me."
Cinnaminson Mayor Ben Young however, supported the county's decision, based on the size of the fund balance.
"If I had not had another commitment (Wednesday night), I would have rearranged my schedule (to go to the freeholder meeting), because I do fully support the ability to preserve taxpayer dollars," said Young, who sits on the township's Open Space Committee.
Although the committee "keeps tabs on what's floating around," the mayor said the tax cut wouldn't have an impact on the township's ability to preserve open space, because it doesn't have the matching funds necessary to do so.