Friday, July 14, 2017

Burlington County to raise $8M for open space, farmland

Brian Woods reports for The Burlington County Times:

MOUNT HOLLY — Burlington County will collect more than $18.5 million in open space and farmland preservation taxes, dedicating most of it to enhancing its park system over the next year. 
The Burlington County Board of Freeholders on Wednesday unanimously approved collecting 4 cents per $100 of assessed property value to fund its Open Space, Recreation and Farmland and Historic Preservation Fund. The levy represents the full amount sanctioned by voters, who approved the taxation in three referendums since 1996.
Officials will allocate 3 cents to park development and maintenance and 1 cent to overall discretionary funding.
In 1996, voters approved a 2-cent open space tax. A 1998 referendum authorized the collection of an additional 2 cents. In 2006, voters approved the collection of up to 4 cents until 2036. Each year, the freeholders must approve the annual levy to support the program.
The fund covers maintenance of land for recreational purposes, acquisition of open space and farmland, historic preservation, and payment of debt service associated with those costs.
The tax will raise about $18.57 million for the program in 2017, officials said.
The balance of the open space fund at the start of the fiscal year was about $21.83 million, according to budget reports. After appropriations, the county expects the balance to be about $16.56 million.
"We're trying to end out each year with a balance of $15 to $20 million," said Mary Pat Robbie, the county's director of Resource Conservation.
Since the fund's inception, the county has preserved 29,332 acres of farmland, and for many years much of the allocation was dedicated to acquiring that land.
Officials said the county doesn't need to allocate any of the tax levy for farmland preservation this year because only two farms, totaling 260 acres, applied for the program. 
Also, the money spent on 2016's round, which included 804 acres of farmland, is expected to be refunded by the Department of Defense because of the land's proximity to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The two that applied this year are also in the joint base buffer zone and eligible for defense funding.
"Our farmland preservation program is voluntary. We can't compel farms to participate," county spokesman Eric Arpert said. "And for the two farms, most of that we'll get reimbursed, so we didn't need a large allocation."
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