PATERSON, NJ – Over the past 12 years, Paterson property owners paid $7 million in taxes to the Passaic County open space fund, according to city finance reports. In return, the city has received $2.3 million worth of grants from the program, the reports show.
In 2012, Paterson taxpayers will kick in another $752,808 to the county open space fund and the city will get no new projects this year, the result of municipal officials’ inability to spend about $1.3 million of the money they previously had been awarded.
It doesn’t take a calculus professor to crunch these numbers.
“We are the ones that contribute the most to this program but I’m here to tell you we didn’t get those dollars back,’’ said Councilman Rigo Rodriguez.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Rodriguez suggested Paterson hold a public referendum in its next election to ask voters if they want the city to try to drop out of the open space program. Other city officials have said they don’t think that’s a good idea, but they also said they want to see Paterson do a better job participating in the program.
“We can’t complain that we’re not getting paid if we’re not applying and not utilizing the money when we get it,’’ said Councilman William McKoy.
Overall, Paterson has 15 county open space grants that remain fully or partially unused. Among them are $97,000 for Wrigley Park in the 4th Ward, $57,000 for the West Side park tennis courts and $20,000 for Federici Park in the 1st Ward.
But most of the city’s unused open space money involves projects in and around the area of Paterson’s new Great Falls national park: about $350,000 for Mary Ellen Kramer Park, $195,000 for Overlook Park and $545,000 for the raceways.
Paterson Public Works Director Christopher Coke, who oversees the parks division, said projects at the Great Falls had been held up as officials awaited the designation of the national park. “Now we’re moving along,’’ Coke said.
The city took a major step getting that work done two weeks ago when it reached a contract with the Passaic River Coalition, the nonprofit environmental group that was the joint recipient with the city on several of the stalled county grants. “We’re ready to roll,’’ said Ella Phillapone, the executive director of the river coalition.
Over the years, the county open space program has awarded about $27 million in grants.
This year, the Passaic County freeholders passed a resolution saying that any towns that had unspent open space money from grants more than two years old would be ineligible for new grants until they used what they already had, according to Freeholder Theodore Best, who oversees the open space program. The two municipalities affected by that policy are Paterson and Bloomingdale, Best said.
Best said the policy stemmed from the competitive process for open space grants. In general, only about 20 percent of the funding applications every year get approved, he said. Under those circumstances, he said, it didn’t seem fair to give money to municipalities that have not been using what they had.
In addition to the money given directly to municipal governments, the open space program also awards funds to nonprofit groups. The Paterson Veterans Council, for example, has gotten more than $100,000 over the years for its projects, according to Best.
Nonprofit groups in Paterson were not affected by the freeholders’ decision to deny the city’s open space applications this year, he said. In fact, Best said he told city officials they could work with a nonprofit group to partner on an application this year for county money, as long as the proposal was submitted in the private organization’s name. But that didn’t happen, he said.
When asked about the discrepancy in how much Paterson has paid to the open space fund versus how much it has gotten back, Best said the situation should be viewed in a broader context. He pointed out that one of the county’s largest parks, the Garret Mountain Reservation, is partially located in Paterson. Moreover, he pointed out that Patersonians can use all county parks, including nearby facilities like Goffle Brook Park in Hawthorne and the golf course in Wayne.
The county open space program isn’t the only park program for which Paterson has left money unspent. The city also has about $7 million in New Jersey Green Acres money that has gone unused, according to state records. Again, much of the Green Acres balance involves projects around the Great Falls.
Later this year, officials expect to take some significant steps in spending the unused county and state park money when they hope to break ground on improvements at Overlook and Mary Ellen Kramer parks.