Township officials responded to criticism at their regular meeting Monday night from a resident who says the spending from Barnegat's open space fund has gone off the rails.
Jake Taylor, a member of the township’s Open Space Committee, took the mic at the meeting to criticize the township’s use of the fund.
The open space fund is supported by a tax of a penny on each $100 of assessed value on a township property, and, according to the voter-approved ordinance governing its use, the money can be spent a number of ways: on the acquisition, development and maintenance of conservation land, recreational properties, farmland and historic properties.
But Taylor said he and others feel too much of the fund has been used for recreation and other purposes.
“It supports a sort of a slush fund for the township,” Taylor said. “These expenses are not approved by anybody. You just spend it. And it’s not where it’s a small amount any more.”
Spending some of the fund’s money on recreation isn’t objectionable, said Taylor.
“There is some flexibility there,” he said. When the township spent open space funds on the newly improved ball fields on Lower Shore Road, “we thought that was a good improvement. But it’s being carried away.”
Taylor said close to $1 million from the fund has been spent on a range of expenses he sees as inappropriate, from $5,000 for a Pirate’s Day fireworks barge to $2,200 worth of landscaping at Town Hall.
In the meantime, there haven’t been meaningful efforts to set aside land and protect it from development, said Taylor, which is what he believes residents were really voting for when they approved the statute.
“This fund is being fleeced in order to make people look good, and its wrong,” Taylor said.
But township officials said the expenditures fall well within the approved uses for the fund, and that the money is supporting a very real need in Barnegat.
When the open space tax was approved, said Barnegat Mayor Jeffrey Melchiondo, Barnegat’s recreational expenses were supported by special fees developers were required to pay before they could build in the township.
That recreational assessment is no more, Melchiondo said. If not for the open space funds – which can, he pointed out, be used for things other than open space – money for recreation would have to come out of the general fund, “and that means it would be a tax increase.”
Township Administrator David Breeden said he took issue with Taylor’s “slush fund” description.
“The ordinance was approved by this township to address an urgent need, and right now, that need is recreation,” Breeden said.
Deputy Mayor Al Cirulli said it’s a need that applies to all residents.
“We’re talking kids, young adults, seniors,” he said. And the purchases are reasonable, he said. “We’re not building amusement parks here.”
Other points discussed and decided at the meeting included the following
– Two adjacent lots at the southwest corner of Bengal Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue were officially acquired by ordinance last night, a gift from a property owner who lives in Pompton Plains. The township had approached the landowner, said Breeden, asking for right-of-way permission so it could build sidewalks necessary for the Safe Routes to School Program. Instead, he said, the owner made a gift of the two lots, which are 25 feet by 100 feet and 50 feet by 100 feet.
– The committee approved expenditures made possible by various grants. These included:
- $3,066.66 for the Alcohol Rehab Fund, which pays for special court sessions in DWI cases.
- $4,400 from the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, which supports “Over the Limit, Under Arrest” police patrols.
- $20,000 from a Recreational Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities grant, which pays for various recreational programs in the township.
- $1,600 from a Cops in Shops grant, which pays for plainclothes police officers to be stationed in liquor stores to combat underage drinking.
- $25,400.06 from a Recycling Tonnage grant from 2009.