TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Shirley K. Turner and Senator Jim Beach allowing fire districts to move their election to November and encouraging them to do so was signed into law yesterday by the governor.
“An election at an odd time of the year, in the middle of winter, on a Saturday, is predestined to attract few voters,” said Senator Turner (D-Hunterdon/Mercer). “Fire district elections are not well publicized and are not held at a regular polling place. Fewer than two percent of voters are participating in these elections, and in some towns, it’s less than one percent. We need to increase voter turnout to ensure that more voters have a say in how fire district budgets spend millions in taxpayer dollars.”
“It just makes sense to move these elections, particularly given the extra cost of conducting a special election,” said Senator Beach (D-Burlington/Camden). “Moreover, having these elections in November will be more convenient for taxpayers, especially when they can get all their voting done at one time without having to worry about going back on an additional winter day.”
The law provides a process for moving a fire district election to November. Currently, fire district elections are held on a Saturday in February.
The date of the annual fire district election would be moved to November upon the adoption of a resolution by the board of fire commissioners of the district. The move would require the approval of the county board of elections, that would ensure the fire district that wants to move its election date to November has the same boundary lines as a voting district. The law will provide a process for adjusting boundary lines in case a fire district does not match with a voting district geographically.
The law would encourage fire districts to move their election date to November by giving them the option to adopt their budget internally rather than going to the voters if the budget is below the property tax cap and after a public hearing has been held. Furthermore, the law will also allow these fire districts to adopt limited capital expenses internally if they have the cash on hand. Fire districts that do not move their election to November must seek voter approval of their budget.
“If fire districts can show they work like other local government units, they should be treated like other government units,” added Senator Turner.
The State Comptroller issued a report in 2014 recommending that fire district elections be moved to November as a way to promote awareness and transparency of fire district operations. The idea is also supported by the governor who included moving the fire district election in his property tax reform “tool kit.”
S-660 cleared the full Senate 33-0 and cleared the Assembly 74-0-2.
The law takes effect January 1, 2019.