FREEHOLD – Monmouth County voters will be asked about increasing the Open Space Trust Fund tax this November, from its current rate of 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed property to 2.75 cents per $100 of assessed property.
For the average Howell resident, where the average home assessment is $332,528, that translates to $91 a year in Open Space tax. The increase would add an additional $14 million to the Open Space Trust Fund.
The Monmouth County Open Space Program was developed to help curb overdevelopment and urban sprawl, ensure clean air and water, create open spaces for parks and recreation and maintain a high quality of life in Monmouth County.
The Open Space Trust Fund has $2 million set aside annually for cooperative land acquisition and development projects with Monmouth County municipalities. Projects that received 2016 funding include a Town Hall Walking Path Paving in Colts Neck for $94,000, Bradley Cove Acquisition in Asbury Park for $250,000 and a Municipal Complex Splash Park in Wall for $200,000.
This isn’t the first time voters are seeing an Open Space question on the ballot.
At a special meeting held to discuss the potential increase, Freeholder Director Lillian Burry said that since 1987 there has been overwhelming support for funding the county’s land preservation program. In that year, as well as in 1996, 2002 and 2006, a majority of voters supported increasing the Open Space tax, in most cases by 70 percent or more.
She pointed out that Open Space is the only project the Freeholders take on that affects 98 percent of Monmouth County’s population, and is essentially a non-partisan issue.
“Everyone has an opportunity to benefit from that – and they do,” she said.
Officials said that increasing the Open Space tax in smaller increments would not be helpful, and would hinder the county’s ability to purchase the amount of property necessary to maintain the quality of life that residents have become accustomed to.
According to the Freeholders, right now Monmouth County boasts a total of 17,000 total acres of open space – not including farmland – which accounts for about 15,000 acres alone. Although so much land has already been preserved, the Monmouth County Park System’s ultimate goal is to preserve over 20,000 acres to meet the county’s park, recreation, conservation and open space needs of the future.
Officials pointed out that while on one side this is a tax increase, on the other side, it’s a long-term savings. This is especially true when it comes to preventing overdevelopment, they said, which brings with it the cost of infrastructure and employment needs, such as requiring more police officers and schools.
Even with the long-term savings, Howell residents earlier this year saw their taxes go up, mostly due to rising home values. Even though the municipal tax rate remained nearly flat, the median home value recently jumped $14,359. Many residents who attended council meetings throughout this year’s budget process told officials they were already paying taxes they felt were too high, some in excess of $24,000 a year.
If voters approve the question in November, the new Open Space tax nearly doubles the previous rate, although officials said the amount has been specifically chosen in order to provide enough money to fund Open Space moving forward.
“If they want to keep Monmouth County the beautiful place that it is, then they will make the decision to vote for this proposal,” said Freeholder Serena DiMaso, Esq.