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A Strategy to Begin To Heal The Wounds Created By The Open Space Diversion Disaster

DEP and State Parks Cuts Must Be Restored

Urban and Environmental Justice Issues Must Be Addressed

Before Any Funds Are Appropriated

The Open Space debate was not only misleading, nasty and divisive, but the diversion of DEP funds created huge holes in DEP’s budget.

If unfilled, those holes will force environmental program cuts, professional staff layoffs, and an increase in the taxpayers’ burden of funding environmental programs – in addition to further decline of State Parks facilities, increases in risks, less inspection and enforcement, and even less oversight of polluters and land developers.

Several people have reached out to ask me: what’s next? How can we fix this?

So, to begin to heal the political, organizational, programmatic, and personal wounds,  I thought I’d lay out some ideas that could form the contours of a positive path forward, in terms of a set of demands to organize around and make to legislators.

In terms of the next step, the new Open Space funds authorized by voters require individual appropriations bills before any of the money approved by the voters can be spent on open space, farmland preservation, historic preservation, and blue acres programs.

Expectations will be formed, political commitments made, and bills are likely to be drafted between now and next spring.

So before then, Legislators need to hear from those who were disturbed by the misleading nature of the ballot question and the lack of any real debate about the diversion of DEP environmental program funds, including taking the entire $32 million parks capital budget.

Here are some of the things they should hear:

1. There should be no legislative appropriations for any purpose authorized by the voters until all $71 – $117 million that was diverted is fully restored.

Specifically, that means:

  • $32 million to parks capital budget
  • $10 million to water resource programs
  • $25 million to brownfields
  • $23 million to publicly funded cleanups

2. The diversion of funds from DEP programs would defund, and possibly force the layoff of at least 266 DEP professionals in the following environmental programs

  • Site Remediation- 107 positions
  • Compliance & Enforcement/UST Inspections- 10 positions
  • Water Monitoring & Planning- 123 positions
  • Air Quality- 8 positions
  • Parks Management- 18 positions 

Given these potential cuts to environmental programs and layoffs of public employees, no new open space funds should be appropriated to any non-profit group.

3. To justify these diversions, the Keep It Green Coalition and Senator Smith both falsely accused DEP of abusing dedicated CBT funds by using them for salaries.

Senator Smith even inserted a new (punitive) provision in the new Open Space Resolution that expressly prohibits the DEP site remediation program from using funds for staff salaries.

Accordingly, if DEP can’t use CBT funds for salaries, then NO KIG member group shall be eligible for any “stewardship” or administrative overhead or salaries in any appropriation bill.

4.  Democrats, who control the Legislature, should not appropriate $1 of new Open Space Fund moneys until the following programs are funded by at least 50% of available funds:

  • urban parks
  • urban forestry (which is also a climate change adaptation strategy to address the heat island effect and an emissions mitigation strategy via carbon sequestration)
  • community and neighborhood gardens
  • Food access – urban farmers markets – linked to preserved farms

This outline is the just that, an outline of tentative ideas and demands for your consideration.

In future posts, I will flesh out the urban and environmental justice programs that must be funded, and show how they are inter-related to the programs authorized by the voters in approving Ballot question #2 –

The interrelationships I will emphasize are examined comprehensively in this recent Report on Trenton’s Community Health Needs Assessment

From a longer list of needs generated by quantitative data, residents identified these needs as the top health concerns in Trenton, which will drive the development of the CHIP:

  • Obesity/healthy lifestyles – Nearly half of the city’s children – even those as young as three to five years old – are obese. Trenton has been identified as a food desert, due to lack of access to healthy foods. Poor food options and limited places to play have taken a toll on Trenton’s children. Hunger is also an issue, with 17 percent of Trenton households regularly lacking enough food to eat.

NJ’s farmland preservation, parks, toxic site cleanup, and open space funds can be part of the solution to these challenges – it’s time that they begin doing so.

If the KIG groups can get a new use for “stewardship” funded, then certainly pressing urban needs – where the majority of people in NJ live,  already bear disproportionate burden of pollution, and historically have been shortchanged by open space and agricultural preservation funding – can be addressed as well.

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