New Jersey's open space funding program is broke. Lawmakers in Trenton have three options for replenishing it.

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One is an increase in the water tax. Another is to dedicate $200 million annually from the existing sales tax to the fund. The final possibility is borrowing $400 million.

State Senator Bob Smith, Chairman of the Environment Panel in the Upper House says, "The state already has $70 billion in debt and I think dedicating money from the sales tax means you have to find that money elsewhere to balance future budgets."

"The water tax, the big advantage is pay-as-you-go," explains Smith. "No more increase in debt service, but it does say to the average homeowner in New Jersey, 'You're going to be paying something under $3 dollars a month for open space, roughly $32 dollars a year.'"

Smith hopes lawmakers can agree on one funding option so that it can be put to the voters this November.

Senator Wants Citizens to Decide

He says, "Our citizens can ultimately make that decision. Hopefully so that it's an issue in the gubernatorial election. I'd like both gubernatorial candidates (Governor Chris Christie and State Senator Barbara Buono) to be asked the questions, 'Where do you stand on open space and how do you plan to fund it?'"

"There are three ways to fund open space that I know of," explains Smith. "One is a water user fee and if you want to be nasty about it, a tax or user fee. However you want to approach it…..That's one way to do it and it's a way that I've been advocating for 25 years, but it hasn't succeeded so maybe it's not so popular."

Smith says the traditional way of funding open space preservation is to borrow money for that purpose. The third way is to dedicate a portion of an existing tax to replenishing the fund.

Why does the fund need money? Smith explains, "We are now at zero in our open space funding. It's over. If you've come to the conclusion, and I think it's the right conclusion, that the people of New Jersey want to see continued acquisition of open space we need a way to re-fund open space, farmland (and) historic preservation."

It is estimated that a surcharge equal to forty cents per thousand gallons of water would raise approximately $150,000,000 in annual revenue. Since the average residential water usage in New Jersey is 80,000 gallons of water annually, a forty cents per thousand gallons rate would cost the average household $32 per year.

Despite the nominal increase, opponents say New Jersey residents are fed up with tax hikes of any kind and any size.