Proposed Open Space Tax To Fund Public Spaces and Improvements in Clifton
At the City Council meeting of July 6, 2023, Councilman Joe Kolodziej brought up for discussion an Open Space Tax, which would provide a dedicated fund through which the city could update playgrounds to be ADA-compliant and also provide other dedicated public spaces for Cliftonites. The cost, he said, would be approximately $18 for the year for the average assessed home. He asked to have it put to the taxpayers as a question on the November ballot. Councilwoman Mary Sadrakula requested more information and raised concerns that previous referenda of this sort have failed to pass in Clifton.
We spoke to Councilman Kolodziej to clarify what an Open Space Tax (“OST”) would entail and its benefits and costs for Clifton. We also reached out to Councilwoman Sadrakula, who declined to comment.
What is an Open Space Fund? NJ Rev Stat § 40:12-15.7 (2022) gives New Jersey’s counties and municipalities the power to submit to the voters of the municipality in a general or special election a proposition authorizing imposition of an annual levy (the OST). This OST would be used to create a “Municipal Open Space, Recreation, Floodplain Protection, and Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund” (“Open Space Fund” or “OSF”). This OSF would be created by the municipality and used exclusively for the purposes authorized by the voters.
An Open Space Fund can be used for the acquisition, development, repair, and maintenance of lands for recreation and conservation purposes, and for farmland preservation purposes. It can also be used to acquire, develop, repair and maintain land, structures, and objects for historic preservation purposes. In addition, am OSF can be used to service debt issued or incurred by a municipality for these acquisitions etc. This means that a municipality like Clifton can raise funds through a bond issuance to buy a property and then repay that bond out of the OSF, instead of using funds from the operating budget.
Other Passaic County Open Space Funds: Passaic County created their Open Space, Farmland, and Historic Preservation Trust Fund (“Passaic County OSF”) through a referendum in 1996. The OSF is used to fund grants to municipal and non-profit partners for open space acquisition, park development, and historic preservation projects, on an annual basis. Clifton has received $5,897,350 in grants from this fund for a variety of projects (see HERE).
Of the 16 municipalities in Passaic County, about half have their own municipal Open Space Funds (Bloomingdale, Little Falls, Wanaque, West Milford, Ringwood, Wayne, Woodland Park, and Pompton Lakes). Kolodziej explained that a benefit of having a municipal Open Space Fund is that it shows the State of New Jersey, Passaic County, and other organizations who make grants that the municipality is willing to invest in its own properties. Doing so would also make Clifton eligible for many matching grants, which Clifton cannot currently take advantage of. This means that the Clifton Open Space Fund would put up part of the funding and the other fund would provide the remainder. Kolodziej pointed to Wayne, which has received $9,130,449 in grants from Passaic County OSF (see HERE), in part because their municipal Open Space Fund can provide matching or partial funding.
How Much Would An Open Space Tax Cost Me? Open Space Taxes range between 0.5 and 2.5 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation, and for most municipalities it is about a penny. Wayne has an OST of 2.5 cents. Kolodziej stated that an OST of a penny would amount to an annual $18 (or $1.50 per month) on an average assessed home in Clifton. This OST would become a separate line item on a tax bill, much like the library tax. The US Census data shows that there are 31,774 households in Clifton, so the amount of money raised by this OST, though a very small amount per family, could provide a substantial amount to go to public space projects in Clifton. At the City Council meeting on July 6, 2023, the City Manager and staff said that they would look into how much money might be raised if voters approve it.
How Could Clifton Benefit From an Open Space Fund? Kolodziej told us that one of his goals for the Clifton OSF would be to update playgrounds to make them ADA accessible. Currently the only ADA accessible playground in Clifton is the Chelsea Memorial Park/John Samra Memorial Playground, near the Allwood branch of the Clifton Public Library. With an OSF, Clifton can create a schedule to update all of our playgrounds without needing to come back to the City Council for funding for each one. The OSF could also be used to maintain existing playgrounds and parks, as well as to create and maintain a Clifton Historical Museum, something that some Cliftonites have requested at City Council meetings.
Referendum Costs: Councilwoman Sadrakula raised a concern that the referendum to put this question before voters might be expensive and that other previous similar referenda have failed to pass. Kolodziej explained that while it would be expensive to run a special election, the proposed OST referendum would simply be added to the November election paperwork. As Passaic County is already responsible for the costs of holding a general election in November, if Clifton sends over a ballot question, any additional costs should be minimal. Kolodziej reiterated that the referendum is a chance to hear from all of Clifton’s citizens to determine what they want to do and whether they want the City of Clifton to invest in more playgrounds, parks, museums and other public spaces. The City Clerk is confirming that the deadline to submit the question for inclusion in the November ballot would be September.
An Open Space Fund is a way for municipalities to raise funds for use on projects that enhance public spaces without needing to use general revenue funds from the budget or being dependent on political will to move forward. These public spaces can often enhance the livability and value of homes in Clifton, and can foster a sense of community in the City that Cares.