TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Shirley K. Turner to establish procedures for moving annual fire district elections from February to November to save tax dollars and increase voter interest in elections that decide how millions in taxpayer dollars are spent cleared the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Preservation Committee today.
“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.”
The bill provides for two options to move a fire district election to November. Under the first procedure, the question would be presented to the voters for their approval whenever a petition is filed with the clerk of the board of fire commissioners, signed by not less than 15 percent of the number of legally qualified voters who voted in the fire district at the next preceding annual election for members of the board of fire commissioners. The question would then be submitted to the voters of the district at the next annual election, provided that at least 60 days have lapsed since the date of the filing of the petition. Under the second procedure, 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 bill would eliminate votes on annual fire district budgets where proposed spending is within state authorized limits known as caps. Spending requests above the cap and capital expenditures funded by bonds would be subject to voter approval in November. Fire districts that do not move their election to November must seek voter approval of their budget.
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.”
“This is a win-win for taxpayers,” said Senator Turner. “Not only will the consolidation of elections increase participation and give taxpayers a stronger voice in fire district election outcomes, it will also save them the costs of an extra election during the year.”
S-660 cleared the committee 4-1 and now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.