Warren County agrees to 1-cent reduction in open space tax, saving towns nearly $1.4 million

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

By BILL WICHERT

The Express-Times

Warren County officials plan to reduce their open space tax burden this year by nearly $1.4 million after receiving pleas from more than a half-dozen municipalities to hold off on collecting any open space taxes.

Critics argue that reinstating the tax to its current level would be difficult down the road and, with state funding in doubt, county open space money may be all that's available.

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County Freeholders Rick Gardner and Angelo Accetturo agreed last week to reduce the open space tax from 6 cents to 5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The tax has provided roughly $8 million annually for farmland preservation, open space acquisitions and grants to local organizations and municipalities.

The one-year reduction will help all taxpayers, not the budget of any one municipality, Gardner said. The county has adequate funding in its accounts for those programs, he said.

"I don't think we're hurting ourselves there," Gardner said. "We're on a very successful track in preservation."

County Freeholder Everett Chamberlain, who opposed the 1-cent reduction, said a one-year suspension is not realistic because returning funding to its current level will be difficult in terms of public perception.

Chamberlain added, "If the state preservation trust fund is not refunded this will be the only money that this county has to operate on and that money will be depleted very, very quickly."

With the 1-cent reduction, the open space tax rates in each municipality are expected to decrease, but specific impacts vary according to the ratio between assessed and market values, said Dan Olshefski, the county's fiscal analyst. Reducing the open space tax rate by 1 cent will result in a savings of nearly $1.4 million, Olshefski said.

Warren County is slated to close buying development rights to 10 farms before the summer, bringing its total number of preserved acres past 20,000, according to Bob Resker, county land preservation administrator.

"That's our goal and I think we're comfortably on track," Resker said.

Mitchell Jones, a Harmony Township farmer and president of the Warren County Board of Agriculture, said the 1-cent reduction will mean minimal savings for the average household at a time when open space dollars are going further.

Property appraisals are down and contractors are bidding less for renovations to historical structures, Jones said. More farmers also are looking into preservation because of a lack of buyers or they are in need of the money, he said.

"If they were going to reduce (the open space tax), that's a compromise," Jones said. "We definitely didn't want to see it eliminated."

Reporter Bill Wichert can be reached at 610-258-7171, ext. 3570, or bwichert@express-times.com. Talk about issues in your town at lehighvalleylive.com/forums.