Well, here's another crisis to add to the list in New Jersey.
NorthJersey.com reported last week that the Green Acres program is broke. The money from the last bond issue - $400 million approved by voters in 2009 - has been doled out. And that's all there is.
Some $98 million a year in state sales-tax revenue is still dedicated to the Garden State Preservation Trust, which was set up in 1998 to fund open-space preservation through the Green Acres program. But that sales-tax revenue stream was used to leverage more borrowing for open-space acquisition, and the entire $98 million a year now goes to paying that debt service, NorthJersey.com reported.
So how can we say that having no more state money to buy open land - or flood-prone property - is a crisis? After all, The Press urged voters not to approve the 2009 bond referendum. Open-space funding, as important as it is, can wait in the midst of an economic crisis, we argued.
Well, for one thing, Sandy has changed the lay of the land. Coastal areas are struggling to figure out where to rebuild and where not to rebuild. Many property owners are facing the choice of either raising their homes at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars or being hit with flood insurance premiums they can't afford. The once-unthinkable notion of "retreat" from the shore is gaining prominence.
All that translates into an increased need for government to purchase and preserve open space and flood-prone areas. And now, at this crucial point in state history, Green Acres is broke. This is simply an untenable situation. Having the ability to buy up open land, or to buy up developed coastal land and let it revert to its natural state, is a key component of New Jersey's recovery from Sandy. It is also a key component to saving Barnegat Bay.
Since it was established in 1961, the Green Acres program has spent $3 billion to preserve 650,000 acres of open space, supplementing funds raised by municipal and county open-space taxes. The funding has always come from bond issues - voters have approved 13 bond referendums, never once rejecting Green Acres borrowing. But more borrowing is a tough sell in the cash-strapped and already debt-ridden state. So the hunt is on for some kind of stable funding source for Green Acres. And frankly, no one - including us - has a particularly good idea of what that stable funding source should be.
But we do have an important suggestion that we think will play a role in saving and stabilizing the Green Acres program - spend the money, however it is eventually raised, solely on land acquisition. Stop using it to light ballfields, build gazebos or pave bike paths. Those are all worthy projects. But with money short, and the need to purchase land likely to grow, the Green Acres program of the future must focus solely on purchasing land and preserving it.