Voters face state, local questions

In addition to two state questions, voters in many area municipalities face questions on open space preservation and benefits for emergency volunteers.

By: Jennifer Potash
   Voters in The Packet coverage area will face several statewide and local referendum questions on the ballot next week.
   Public Question No. 1 proposes a constitutional amendment that would authorize the Legislature to replenish the state Transportation Trust Fund with dedicated revenues from the sales tax and the gross-receipts tax on petroleum products.
   The New Jersey League of Women Voters appealed to the state Supreme Court to have the question removed from the ballot, arguing it really dealt with the dedication of two separate and distinct taxes despite the state Constitution’s mandate that no proposed amendment may deal with more than one issue.
   The court ruled the question could remain on the ballot.
   If approved by the voters, the minimum dedicated from the petroleum product tax in the current fiscal year, ending June 30, 2001, would be $100 million, with $200 million in each fiscal year after. For the sales tax, the minimum amount would be $80 million in the fiscal year following approval of the question; $140 million in the next fiscal year; and $200 million in each fiscal year thereafter.
   Public Question No. 2 , also a constitutional amendment, proposes allowing the Legislature to pass a law authorizing the disclosure of information about the identity, whereabouts, physical characteristics and criminal history of convicted sex offenders. The Legislature would establish "the scope, manner and format of any such disclosure."
   Opponents criticized the provision in the question that would eliminate any portion of the state Constitution that might protect the privacy of a person convicted of a sex crime.
   The municipal questions in Princeton Borough and Princeton Township deal with open-space taxes.
   In Princeton Borough, the issue is the establishment of a 1-cent open-space tax.
   If approved, the tax of 1 cent per $100 of assessed value would mean the owner of a home assessed at the borough average of $340,962 would pay $34 in open-space taxes in 2001.
   Under the proposed question, the borough would use the proceeds from the tax for the acquisition of lands for recreation and conservation, maintenance of lands, historic preservation and to pay off debt service for acquired lands.
   Princeton Township adopted an open-space tax in 1998. Now voters will decide whether to increase the existing tax by a penny to 2 cents per $100 of assessed value.
   The tax also encompasses the purchase and conservation of farmland and historic properties within the township.
   If the tax is approved, the owner of a $404,600 home, the township average, will pay $80.92 in 2001 in municipal open-space taxes. In 2000, the owner of the same home paid $40.46.
   About $240,000 is collected annually at the 1-cent-per-$100 rate.
   Princeton Borough and Princeton Township officials have said if the two municipalities were to leverage the proceeds from their respective open-space taxes jointly, the two Princetons would likely receive higher priority for state Green Acres matching funds.
   That is the most likely scenario, as most available tracts of land are located in Princeton Township.
   West Windsor Township and Plainsboro Township have Emergency Services Volunteer Length of Service Award Programs on their municipal ballots.
   LOSAP empowers municipalities to adopt a system to provide tax-deferred income benefits to active volunteer members of emergency-services organizations. State enabling legislation was signed in 1998 to help municipalities retain and attract new volunteer members. According to the law, each volunteer organization may have its own LOSAP program.
   West Windsor, which has a nonpartisan form of government and elects a governing body in May, will consider a LOSAP to provide pension benefits for volunteer fire, first aid and emergency personnel at age 59½.
   If approved, the program would cost taxpayers about $102,350, less than 1 cent on the local tax rate, in its first year and would decline after that, according to figures provided by Director of Emergency Services James Yates.
   The maximum annual benefit per individual under the program would be $1,150, with a maximum of $500 for the current year of service and $650 for each past year of service up to five years.
   Each of three township volunteer organizations – the Princeton Junction Fire Co., the West Windsor Volunteer Fire Co. and the Twin W First Aid Squad – would administer its own program.
   Plainsboro Township, if LOSAP is approved by voters, would adopt the program on a continuing basis, although it can be amended at any time by another public referendum. Mayor Peter Cantu has said the LOSAP program could cost township taxpayers $17,000 to $20,000 annually. But, he said, the annual cost would vary depending on how many volunteers are enrolled in the squad, and how many had earned enough credits to be eligible for the yearly benefit payments.
   Under the terms of the plan, $1,150 would be awarded to each volunteer member as tax-deferred income, much like a retirement plan. This income could be withdrawn after the member is 60 years old and only if the member has met the program’s requirements for at least five years.
   Unlike the West Windsor program, which would offer LOSAP benefits to members of volunteer fire companies and the first aid squad, the version in Plainsboro would apply only to members of the rescue squad. The volunteer fire company in Plainsboro is covered under a different benefit plan administered by an independent fire district.
   Montgomery Township has no local ballot questions.?
Staff members David M. Campbell and David Weinstein contributed to this report.