WAYNE, NJ – At Wednesday night’s virtual Wayne Town Council meeting, Second Ward Councilman Al Sadowski questioned what the Township receives in return for the taxes Wayne sends to Passaic County for the Open Space Fund.
This was not the first time the subject was brought up. See Story
Four bill resolutions were up for a vote at the meeting and Bill Resolution #23 included quarterly payments to both the Passaic County Open Space fund ($254,640.03) and for taxes due to Passaic County ($17,661,208.87).
Sadowski started the discussion, saying: “Our quarterly payments to Passaic County to their Open Space funds is $254,640.03. Multiply that by four since there's four quarters. That's over $1,000,000; and by design, we can only get a maximum of half of that back.”
The County Open Space funding rules state that Municipalities can make a maximum of two grant requests per year and each request can be for a maximum of $250,000.
He then mentioned the amount the Township pays the County in taxes and added: “If you do the math, we give more money to Passaic County each year than we do to Wayne Township.”
Approximately 25% of taxes collected from Wayne Residents goes to Passaic County while approximately 23% of taxes goes to Wayne Township. The balance goes to the Wayne Board of Education.
Sadowski challenged the Passaic County Freeholder Board. “I would love to see the Freeholder Director or one of her Freeholders come and explain to Wayne residents what we get for all of that money,” he said.
Sadowski finished by saying he couldn’t in “good conscience” vote to approve those payments.
The lone Democrat on the Council, Fifth Ward Councilwoman, Fran Ritter came to the County’s defense saying that the Township has received a “fair” amount back from the fund and added: “The open space we get from Passaic County is for everyone to enjoy, including Wayne residents. So, it’s not like we’re precluded from the benefit of what goes into the open space fund.”
Councilman-At-Large Joe Schweighardt chimed in, adding: “Wayne residents are charged based on the assessed value of their homes. That’s double or triple jeopardy with respect to Wayne homeowners in that we have the highest home assessment value in the County. So, we're not only paying and supporting that fund, but we're paying a disproportionately higher amount of money than other county residents.”
Schweighardt then mentioned that in Morris County, several of their municipalities appealed to their County to reduce the Open Space Fees and Morris County complied. “Couldn’t we do that here?” he asked.
Sadowski answered his colleague: "A few years ago we made that same request, and we got zero response from the Freeholder Board."
First Ward Councilman Rich Jasterzbski jumped in, askiing Mayor Vergano: “Do we have any County parks in the Township of Wayne that the residents can use without paying for services?”
Vergano replied: “I don’t know of any.”
Jasterzbski then asked rhetorically if there were any County Parks close enough for Wayne residents to enjoy, especially seniors and others who may not be able to drive. Then questioned the idea of a fair return on the money spent by the Township on County Parks.
Ritter rebutted Jasterzbski’s point about travel saying: “Seniors have busses.” She then mentioned County funding for Laurelwood Arboretum and various baseball fields throughout the Township.
Getting frustrated, Ritter said the discussion was unproductive. “We should put a punch list together and take it to the County and finally settle this. Instead of building bridges with the County and partnering with them, we’re telling our residents that they are not getting their fair share. Well, let’s go get it,” she said with vehemence. “Let’s go get it."
Both Sixth Ward Councilman Jon Ettman and Councilwoman-At-Large Jill Sasso stated that they sided with Sadowski on the issue. But, in the end, the vote to approve the payments to the County passed 7-2 with Sadowski and Schweighardt voting no.
Ritter added one other point near the end of the meeting: “There are some great Wayne historians in this bunch,” she said. “Dey Mansion gets a great amount of Passaic County funding. I think they even took it over. It’s a Wayne treasure and puts us on the map. I want to make sure that its mentioned in this conversation.”
The response from Passaic County
TAPinto Wayne interviewed Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Sandi Lazzara about the County’s Open Space Fund.
“Since the Open Space program began, we've given back to Wayne over $8M said Lazzara. “But we don’t just give to the Township. There are non-profits that we give money to such as the Wayne PAL, Little League and the Wayne Boys & Girls Club.”
“We put $5M into Dey Mansion, and millions of dollars has gone into the Preakness Valley Golf Course to make them enjoyable for everyone, not only Wayne residents,” she said, making the point that quality recreation is a valuable draw to any Township.
“Last year we collected a little over a million dollars from Wayne residents, but what we gave back is far more,” said the Freeholder Director.
Lazarro admitted that Wayne is a lot bigger than some other municipalities in Passaic County. So, it could be that Wayne is the largest contributor to the County, but she couldn’t confirm it as absolute fact during the impromptu interview. “It’s all based on the assessed values of properties and Wayne assesses their own properties,” she said.
The Director added that the average home in Passaic County has had negligible increases in the Open Space Tax. According to Lazarra, in 2000 the average yearly Open Space Tax collected per household was $17.19. In 2018, the average amount was $22.98. This is a 33% increase.
The Freeholder Director was asked if it was unreasonable for Wayne Township to expect to get back in Open Space funds the amount that they put in. Lazzara replied: “They are. Maybe not directly to the Township, but in so many ways. For example, the Boys & Girls Club gets a lot of money, as well as the Laurelwood Arboretum. And, we bought the rights to the former Kuehm Farm up by the Pompton Crossroads for over $2.7M so it will never be developed.”
“And, not only is it direct funding to open space in Wayne, but we take care of all the parks in the county and people from Wayne use all of our parks,” said Lazzara.
“If the leadership in Wayne called us and asked where the open space funds are going, we would be happy to tell them. We’re totally transparent,” she said in conclusion.
Ritter provided TAPinto Wayne with details on the Open Space grants given to Wayne. Over the past five years, the County has granted $1,584,300 in funds to preserve, update and upgrade open space in Wayne.
Since 2001, the County has granted $8,381,450 to Wayne open spaces.