Let’s talk about Open Space. Amelia understands that open space is cost-effective. By placing land in a “non-development” status, we raise cows and plants instead of children, and it sure does cost less to educate a cow than a kid. Since school tax represents the largest piece of the property tax pie, keeping the number of children we educate/houses we build at bay is cost-effective practice for small rural land rich townships in Jersey.

In November, the township committee put open space funds up to a referendum question. Asking the people to vote on this question was a wise choice. Could the township appropriate some (unspecified) percent of the Open Space funds for recreation development? In a margin of about 40 votes, the township passed the ability to earmark funds for recreation spending. Now there is the big question: What will the recreation committee propose to spend money on this spring?

Amelia thinks it fair to assume that a walking path will be developed at the Town Hall recreation complex. The school and the PTO have also prepared a proposal for “request for funds” from the newly “unlocked” funds. So while Amelia voted against recreation appropriating open space funds, she now thinks that if this is going to happen, it should be distributed equitably across the township’s properties and demographics. Over $250,000 has already been invested with tax dollars in the last year on recreation development. One site has already received over a quarter million dollars in development funds, not one grant used.

The Nature Conservancy, when asked about this referendum question regarding open space funds said, “It sets an unruly precedent. Once a township dilutes open space support, and attach those funds to other purposes, it can happen again in the future for other needs. It is a slippery slope.” They have seen it happen in many townships in NJ, suddenly a fund that has been used just for open space land purchase, is also being used for recreation programs, land maintenance programs, forest management plans, etc. They have seen repeated examples of land acquisition percentages fall, and bigger projects do not get accomplished because of lack of matching funds for purchase.  It appears easier to siphon funds from the existing earmarked funds than to ask residents to pay an additional cent or two per acre to fund the “new” needs. But this reshuffling is not without consequences, and a consequence can be that land cannot be purchased (due to not enough funds) and then the land is developed, and then the number of school kids increases, and then our taxes go up. What started as a good idea, turns into an idea that ends up costing everyone more than just attaching a recreation fee to the local tax base.

In Amelia’s utopia, the recreation committee is an open book. It is not a committee stacked with elected officials and township staff, and its fiscal scenario, including the Frelinghuysen Booster Club, shares its fiscal reports with the township during budget proceedings. How much money did the Booster club make and spend last year on recreation programming/development last year? No way to know because their records, which should be published in the public domain are not there and when asked to release bank statements, they will not. Reason? Not associated with town business. How can we as a township give more money to a committee/club that will not share its fiscal history? Transparency: a word that needs to be studied in much more detail by elected officials in Frelinghuysenfolly. It would appear that many elected officials think less information is better, and limited information is effective, but in fact the opposite is true. With work, this is a paradigm that can be adjusted, unless of course there are things people are trying to hide. I found it interesting that the blogger Scott commented that an elected official was “paid $10,000 for a $60,000 job” regarding recreation work. Paid from where? Hard to tell! Should it be hard to tell? Absolutely not!