TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Bob Gordon which would provide for a one-time diversion of funds from the State’s “Shore Protection Fund” to pay for park operations in New Jersey was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee today by a vote of 9-5.
“For so many New Jersey residents, our State parks represent a glimpse of New Jersey’s history or a valuable chance to get away from the stresses of everyday life,” said Senator Gordon, D-Bergen, and a member of the Senate Environment Committee. “We saw just how precious New Jerseyans consider their parks earlier in the year, when hundreds of State residents protested the Governor’s tough decision to eliminate funding for park services in his proposed FY 09 Budget. Through this bill, we would be able to tap an existing surplus to make sure that State parks are fully operational in the upcoming fiscal year.”
The bill, S-2043, would allow for up to $9 million from the “Shore Protection Fund” to be used in FY 2009 for defray the cost of operations and maintenance at State parks. The “Shore Protection Fund,” which was established in 1992, receives an annual appropriation of $25 million from the realty transfer fee. However, the fund has maintained a significant carry forward in unexpended revenue for the last ten years, and will begin FY 2009 with more than $68 million on hand – by way of contrast, the most paid out of the fund in the last ten years was nearly $32 million in FY 2002.
“The ‘Shore Protection Fund’ has maintained a healthy surplus over the last ten years, and is fully capable of taking a $9 million hit to keep State parks running,” said Senator Gordon. “However, we don’t want this to become a recurring expense for the fund. This measure would ensure stop-gap funding for our parks, without taking essential funding away from other worthy programs within the DEP.”
As an additional safeguard to ensure that there would be enough funding for next year’s beach replenishment projects, the Budget Committee amended the bill to ensure that if the fund falls below $20 million in FY 2009, that the $9 million used for parks would be replaced with additional revenue from the realty transfer fee.
In addition to the one-time funding from the “Shore Protection Fund,” the bill would require the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to conduct a study of park facilities, services and resources, and to establish a better business model to ensure that the State’s park system moves towards self-sustainability. Senator Gordon noted that without a willingness to explore new revenue options to help parks pay for themselves, the State’s park system would be vulnerable to underfunding in order to balance future difficult budgets.
“Unless we can do more to ensure that parks pay for themselves, park funding will be an annual target in tough budget years,” said Senator Gordon. “I think DEP officials recognize that we can do a much better job utilizing existing resources and identifying new resources to give the parks a level of self-sustainability. Through dedicated funding, parks would ensure that they are off the table when it comes time to trim future State budgets.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.