New Jersey voters will be asked to elect more than their governor, state legislators and local officeholders next month.
Voters will also decide the fate of two ballot questions. The first seeks approval for the state to borrow $125 million to fund library improvements. The second asks permission to dedicate all money the state receives from legal settlements with polluters to environmental cleanups, mitigation or preservation projects.
In addition to those two questions, voters in Mount Laurel, Riverside and Westampton will be asked to weigh in on local questions.
Mount Laurel and Westampton’s questions involve their towns’ open space and farmland preservation taxes and trust funds.
Riverside’s question is a nonbinding referendum seeking to gauge residents' support for or opposition to proposed regulations permitting chickens in the backyards of residential properties.
The statewide questions have not garnered much attention or spending so far.
Election spending reports submitted to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission showed the New Jersey Library Association has contributed $9,000 toward a committee formed to campaign for the special question’s passage. But no spending has been reported.
A committee advocating for approval of the second question reported receiving about $5,330 worth of in-kind contributions from the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, New Jersey Audubon and Trust for Public Lands in the form of staff time and travel expenses related to advocating in favor of the question.
Patricia Tumulty, director of the New Jersey Library Association, said the group is just beginning its outreach to promote the importance of the library question. Approval would allow the state to create a new pool of grant funding that would be made available for “construction, expansion and equipping of New Jersey’s public libraries.”
Tumulty said the group is largely relying on word of mouth and social media to drive home its message that the funding would help upgrade libraries as well as create jobs for construction trades and small businesses.
"The last time (the state did this) was 18 years ago. And it helped transform the Willingboro library into what it is today. We know this money can be transformational, and that's what we're pushing," she said.
The legislation specifies that the state librarian would determine more detailed criteria for the grants. The bill notes that the funding should cover half a project's cost, with the other half coming from the county or municipality that operates the library.
The legislation placing the question on the ballot was overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers this past summer. Gov. Chris Christie signed it.
But the only public polling of the question revealed that voters may not be sold on adding to the state’s debt load. The poll by Stockton University found 46 percent of likely voters planned to vote in favor of the library bond, and 45 percent were opposed. Another 7 percent were undecided.
Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, a prime sponsor of the legislation, said he is hopeful that voters will support the investment in public libraries, describing them as “important building blocks of a healthy community.”
“Libraries give people the opportunity to find jobs, experience new ideas and, much like I did as a child, get lost in wonderful stories. They also serve as a community gathering place, which adds to the vibrancy of our communities,” he said. “The financial implications of this bond issue is best to be decided by the voters, since it is their money after all. I hope that my fellow taxpayers will recognize the wisdom of this investment in our libraries.”
Burlington County completed a $7.4 million makeover of its main branch library in Westampton in 2012, but the county may be interested in doing additional interior work to create more public meeting spaces. Also, Medford is actively investigating a new library to replace the Pinelands branch on Allen Avenue, officials said.
Both projects could conceivably qualify for the new funding if the question is approved.
Public support is stronger for the second question, related to environmental pollution settlements, according to the Stockton poll. It found 79 percent of voters favor the proposed constitutional amendment to dedicate money from pollution settlements to environmental cleanups. Thirteen percent oppose it.
The amendment was proposed in response to the Christie administration’s diversion of money from settlements to the general fund budget to help pay for other programs. Two particular cases involving Exxon Mobil contamination in North Jersey and pollution in the Passaic River drew attention to the issue and prompted lawmakers to place the amendment on the ballot.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said those voters who are aware of the ballot question are overwhelmingly supportive.
“It’s just a matter of letting people know about it,” Tittel said. “People in New Jersey are sick of Christie stealing money from settlements. … This is to restore the public trust and make sure the money goes to the communities impacted by the pollution.”
Like the state questions, the local referendums have garnered little attention.
Mount Laurel is seeking voter approval to amend its nearly 20-year-old open space, farmland and historic preservation tax to permit revenues raised from the tax to be used for maintenance, upkeep or improvement of preserved properties, rather than solely for the acquisition of land.
There is no proposed change to the open space tax, currently 8 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The owner of a home assessed at the township average of $237,664 is taxed about $190.
Westampton also has an open space tax and is seeking voter sentiment about extending it another 20 years. The tax was created in 2000 and currently taxes property owners at a rate of 4 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The owner of a home assessed at the township average of $241,165 pays $96. A vote to extend the tax will not increase it.
Riverside’s question is nonbinding and is intended to gauge public opinion of a proposed ordinance to permit residents to keep chickens in their backyards. Several Burlington County towns have approved similar laws regulating the growing fad.