RARITAN TWP., NJ – Some residents have pleaded with officials here to hold an open space tax referendum next fall. The purpose, Mayor Karen Gilbert said at the Feb. 7 meeting of the Township Committee, would be to gauge public support of open space.

Among those who have asked the Township Committee for the referendum are former Township Committeeman Pete Kinsella and Amy Greene, who is on the township’s Environmental Commission and Open Space Advisory Committee.

The requests followed action taken in December to cut the open space tax. At that meeting, no one from the public spoke in favor of the tax cut. The mayor and Deputy Mayor Michael Mangin voted against the cut.

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Residents approved a dedicated township open space tax in a 1996 referendum. It set the rate at 2 cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value, but granted the Township Committee the authority to reduce that rate.

Last week, Committeeman Lou Reiner said the tax cut “was within the confines ... of the existing referendum. It did not thwart the will of the people.” For that reason, he said a referendum would be “pointless” and added “there have been egregious abuses of the (open space) program over the years, and they’re not isolated incidents. There are many.”

Committeeman Richard Chen said the township’s spends $695,000 a year in debt service, which consumes all of the township’s current open space tax revenue. He suggested a referendum would be a good idea to have for any future open space purchase that the township couldn’t fund from existing cash on hand, and Reiner agreed.

The mayor asked, “How will we scramble to get those funds?” if an open space tax is not already in effect. “I don’t think that’s a viable solution. However I do think it might be worth going back to a referendum and to measure the pulse of the community and whether they or not they support the 2 percent tax, and I think we should potentially enforce a lower limit, and not allow us to go below a penny, or 1.5” cent tax per $100 of a property’s assessed value.

“If the community wants us to take 2 cents on every $100 of assessed value, we should be taking that 2 cents,” Gilbert said.

Deputy Mayor Michael Mangin said his job to is do what voters ask. “I am for the referendum,” he said. “Let’s see what the taxpayers have to say.”

“It’s not the 2 percent,” Chen said. “It’s not the referendum. It’s that we should only spend money that we have. If we don’t have it, have a referendum.”

“All we’re asking is that you just give the people’s voice a chance,” Kinsella told the committee. “Put it on a referendum. I don’t know what the fear is from the governing body, why everyone wouldn’t want to hear what the people have to say. That would save a lot of trouble.”

Kinsella said it would take 1,770 signatures for voters to put the referendum on the ballot themselves, and, “We would be willing to do that.”

After lengthy discussion, a proposal to put to referendum continuing a 1.5 cent open space tax rate – rather than the declining rate the committee approved in December – failed to gain approval.

“I would encourage you folks to go out and get your  (referendum) petition started,” the mayor said.