MOUNT ARLINGTON - Michael Francis understands that Lake Hopatcong’s hold on the public’s imagination is fragile and depends on one factor: That the lake water is clean.
That is why Francis, a Hopatcong Borough Councilman, is concerned about the Nov. 4 open space referendum, Question 2 on the ballot, which would amend the New Jersey Constitution and set aside millions for the purchase of land, but also calls for significant cuts in funding for water clean-up efforts, such as the lake’s annual weed harvesting program, and an assortment of other environmental monitoring programs.
The concern is not idle speculation: the question says, “The amendment would end the current dedication of 4 percent of that revenue for environmental programs.”
The summary of the question, also on the official ballot, explains this statement in more detail: “This amendment also would end the current dedication of 4 percent of Corporation Business Tax revenue. That dedication provides funds for water quality programs, public and private hazardous site cleanups, underground storage tank removal and cleanup, air pollution control equipment for diesel engines, and park improvements and facilities.”
“When people figure out they don’t want to come here because of the weeds, they won’t come,” Francis told the Lake Hopatcong Commission on Oct. 20.
That would be a threat to the entire lake economy, he said.
In 2008, the state Department of Environmental Protection estimated the lake economy was valued between $280 and $455 million annually.
Sixty-five thousand people living in four surrounding towns. That number is swelled annually with thousands of visitors.
And new development is occurring: in Hopatcong’s River Styx section developers are beginning to turn empty lots into sites with new shops and housing, all dependent on access to the lake.
Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the Department of Environmental Protection representative to the lake commission delivered a sobering assessment of the ballot question at the meeting: if Question 2 fails, there will be no state funds designated for the preservation of open space in the 2016 state budget.
“The department is one-hundred percent in favor of approving Question 2,” she said.
State voters since 1961 have approved millions of dollars for the purchase of open space, farms and historic sites, she said.
Voters in the three counties in the Lake Hopatcong watershed—Morris, Sussex and Warren—also have supported local open space taxes by a wide margins.
Then there is the “but.”
Approval of Question 2 “comes with costly trade-offs,” Kirk Pflugh said.
Not only could the Lake Hopatcong weed management program be curtailed, but also the similar effort on Lake Musconetcong, only made possible by an agreement with the Lake Hopatcong Commission, Kirk Pflugh said.
In addition, monitoring of the state’s effort to cap Roxbury’s troubled Fenimore Landfill could end, as well as programs that monitor flood stages in the Raritan and Passaic river watersheds, ocean water quality, especially in Barneget Bay, and the federally mandated monitoring of oyster beds, a $790 million industry, Kirk Pflugh said.
Here’s what the referendum calls for:
Question 2 asks voters to approve a constitutional amendment to set aside 6 percent of the state’s Corporate Business Tax for the preservation of open space, farmland and historic sites for the next 30 years.
One focus of the open space funding is to purchase property in ocean or river flood zones.
The CBT, in place since 1891, generates an annual income of $2.5 billion, of which $100 million is designated for environmental projects.
An August fiscal assessment by the Office of Legislative Services outlines the changes:
Open space funding would be $100 million beginning July 2016, and then jump to $117 million in 2020 when 6 percent of the CBT taxis allocated for that purpose.
Funds for “water resources,” currently at $15 million, would drop to $5 million annually between next July through 2019, and then rise to $7.5 million in 2020.
Funds for brownfield remediation, now at $25 million, would drop to $10 million next July and then rise to $10.5 million in 2020.
Fund for private underground storage tank remediation, now with no allocated funds, would receive $9 million between July 2015 and 2019, and $7.5 million beginning in 2020.
Funds for publically funded clean-ups of site contaminate with hazardous material, current at $28 million, would drop to $5 million from July 2015 to 2019 and then rise to $7.5 million in 2020.
Recreational land development and conservation, now funded at $32 million annually, would not be funded beginning July 2015.
The OLS statements raised two other concerns: the referendum calls for the end of funding for diesel air pollution control programs, and beginning in 2022, funding for underground storage tank programs and hazardous substance discharge remediation programs—so-called “publically funded clean-ups”—would be merged, and thus lose individual budget designation, which could result in less money allocated for specific programs in each category.
Such a change could effect the monitoring of the Fenimore site, Kirk Pflugh said.
The DEP plan there includes capping the part of the site where illegally disposed hazardous materials were blamed for creating horrendous odors, and future monitoring of air and water quality.
The legislative resolutions approving the ballot question said that underground tank removals and clean-ups would be funded under new regulations that designate “revenue annually derived from natural resource damages and fines collected by the state for violations of environmental laws.”
OLS indicated a concern is that there is no way to accurately predict how much money would be generated by such damages and fines.
Jefferson Mayor Russell Felter, who is chairman of the lake commission, voiced concern about the potential cuts to water quality programs.
“We seem to be okay for 2015 (the current state budget year),” he said. “But after 2016 there are real concerns.”
Felter said he was also concerned about language in the Legislative resolutions that said funds for administrative costs associated with environmental programs also face cuts.
“That could impact the ability to raise matching funds, which are required for state and federal programs,” he said.
Tom Gilbert of NJ Keep it Green, which lobbied actively for the passage of Question 2, said there is a great need to approve the ballot question. Without it, he said, the state will not have any funds available to purchase open space, farmland and properties in flood plains.
He said there is language in the Legislative resolutions that created the ballot question that calls for funds to be spent on “stewardship” of the land if the question is passed.
In the Legislative resolutions, “stewardship” is mentioned twice, both in a new section that described the basic intent of the Constitutional amendment.
The new section says: “The amount annually credited…shall be dedicated… only for the preservation , including acquisition, development and stewardship of lands for recreation and conservation purposes, including lands that protect water supplies … and have incurred flood or storm damage or are likely to do so … and farmland for agriculture … and historic preservation.”
This new description replaces language that under current law would fund water clean-up efforts, tank removal and publically funded hazardous waste clean-ups.
Gilbert said such issues are typically addressed when specific regulations are drawn up following the successful passage of a referendum question.
State Sen. Anthony Bucco, R- Boonton, agreed with that assessment.
Bucco said he plans to work to ensure Lake Hopatcong funding when the Legislature discusses the regulations required by the suspected
passage of Question 2.
Bucco said he conveyed that message to Felter.
The senator, along with Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Franklin, sponsored legislation in 2012 that called for a permanent fund drawn from the state’s boat fees to be dedicated to supporting the Lake Hopatcong Commission’s mission, including weed harvesting.
The measure did not receive a full Senate vote. The main issue, Bucco said, is that, without a constitutional dedication, all fees and taxes collected by New Jersey are dedicated to the general fund.
Kirk Pflugh said the department has enough funds to start up the weed harvesting program in the spring, and could, with the help of the department’s budget management group, potentially extended the season past July, even if no new funds emerge .
Felter said the lake commission needs to be prepared after Nov. 4 to discuss how to fund the harvesting program, presuming the referendum passes. Sources on the table include seeking private funds, he said. But he held off adding boat fees to the discussion just yet.