Greg Bean

Coda

An election where the few

spent the money of many

The next time you think your vote doesn’t count, just look at the recent Fire District No. 1 election in East Brunswick, where each of 30 votes was worth about $200,000 in bonding.

Fire district elections in New Jersey are notoriously low-turnout affairs. They’re held at odd times of the year, and even if a voter knows what fire district he or she happens to live in, it’s unlikely the voters know any of the people involved, or any details of the proposed budgets or projects.

Because fire districts don’t do a very good job of informing voters of the issues beforehand, and usually don’t send out sample ballots or informational packages, voters may not even know an election is being held, or what is at issue. The result is that they stay home in droves, and the majority of the people who vote are firefighters or people who have a direct, sometimes vested interest in the outcome.

That’s what happened in East Bruns-wick Fire District No. 1, where fewer than 100 people voted in the February election. Of those, 61 voted to approve the district’s operating budget, and 35 voted against.

On the question of whether to allow the district to spend up to $6 million on building a new firehouse, however, the results were much more telling. In the end, about 30 people voted to approve the fire station, and 20 voted against. Divide $6 million by 30, and you get $200,000. That’s how much in bonding those few people obligated community taxpayers to with their vote.

I won’t argue whether a new firehouse is actually necessary. It might be, it might not. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the issue to say either way, and as an East Brunswick resident, I feel guilty about that.

What I do know is that there is something drastically wrong in an election process that allows so few to make such important spending decisions for so many.

I’ve spoken to several people about this in the last few days, including former East Brunswick Councilwoman Meryle Asaro, and we all agree something needs to be done. The most simple remedy, of course, would be to move fire district elections so that they coincide with general elections in November or school board elections in April. Those elections usually have a higher turnout, and if fire district questions appeared on the same ballot in one of those elections, at least more taxpayers and voters would have a say in the outcome.

Nothing like that is ever simple in New Jersey, however.

A bill sponsored by state Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) that would have moved fire district elections and school board elections to November won Assembly approval in December, but was killed by the Senate in January. Opponents apparently believed that moving school board and fire district elections to the general election would somehow politicize them.

That sounds like a fairly specious argument to me, because I can’t understand why having an election where fewer than 100 people vote is ever a better idea than having one where thousands are eligible to vote and get a convenient chance. And even if fire district elections become a little more contentious, where’s the down side? At least people are discussing and considering the issues.

Then, when we get the bill for those new fire stations and equipment, we’ll at least know why we needed it in the first place. We’ll also feel better about spending the money.

Maybe we can talk some of our legislators into re-introducing and supporting that legislation in Trenton for another shot.

Barbara Buono, Peter Barnes and Patrick Diegnan, come on down!

+ + +

Early in 2006, I received an e-mail from a young marine from East Bruns-wick who was serving overseas and wondered whether I was aware that people like him in the military – many making less than $20,000 a year – are still required to pay New Jersey state income tax while they are enlisted or deployed.

I didn’t know that, so I contacted state Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Middlesex and Monmouth) to see if she could enlighten me on the details.

Turns out, there was a lot of confusion even in the state legislative service office, which first said people like my young friend didn’t have to pay state income tax, and then said it looked like they had to pay it after all in most cases. There are some vaguely written exemptions, but nobody can figure them out and few soldiers successfully apply for, or obtain them.

At the time, Handlin implied she would consider sponsoring legislation to clarify the law and exempt active duty soldiers, but maybe she got busy, because nothing happened.

I was happy, therefore, when I got a call from Assemblyman Michael J. Panter’s (D-Monmouth and Mercer) office last week to see if I’d write about a bill he introduced recently (A3988) to exempt New Jersey soldiers based out of state and overseas from having to pay state income taxes on their military earnings.

Panter’s office said he became interested in the issue after learning that Pfc. Paul J. Newell – an Oceanport resident currently stationed in Germany – was having New Jersey state income taxes deducted from his Army pay.

“It strikes me that New Jersey needs a better, seamless system to ensure that New Jersey military personnel stationed beyond our state get their tax exemptions,” Panter said in a press release. “Our state’s men and women in uniform are already sacrificing enough. To have the state reach into their paychecks is unfair considering all they are doing on behalf of our nation for already modest wages.”

Amen, Brother Panter!

This is good legislation, and cutting active-duty soldiers a break on their state income tax is the least we can do for people who give years and put their lives on the line for our country’s service.

If you agree, I urge you to call or write your state assembly representatives and senators today and ask them to get on board with Panter’s bill.

In the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Let’s git ‘er done.”

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.