TOMS RIVER, NJ – Ocean County Freeholder Virginia Haines has been pushing to get her hands on the open space trust fund, which has over $50,000,000 in it, taxed by the county for the purchase and preservation of open space. Since being given the position of freeholder by former Ocean County GOP Chairman Joe Buckelew, Haines had her eye on the prize. It was in that downtown Toms River backroom deal that Haines was anointed by Buckelew and appointed to the board of freeholders. It was also in that room that Haines was given control of the Ocean County College and Open Space decision making.
Now, after years of chipping away at the open space funding, Haines finally has the access code to the huge bank account.
In 3-0 vote, in which Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari abstained because Haines and her political ally Gary Quinn would not afford the measure to be reviewed by the open space advisory committee, the board voted to allow the funds, which were taxed for use only to acquire new land to now be used for a slush fund for pet projects and political favoring.
Vicari voiced his opposition of using the funds for purposes other than it was intended when the taxes were collected.
In New Jersey, “fund raiding” as it is commonly called is when a government agency takes money from funds that were earmarked for specific uses and allocates those funds to other uses. One of the most prominent examples of fund raiding is the state pension fund in which the state has borrowed against for decades, leaving the fund unable to do it’s intended job of providing retirement payments to retired state workers.
Vicari feels the same can happen with the land trust fund, where so much is being spent on other projects, such as bailing out local mayors on municipal project and needs. Haines initially wanted to use the fund to purchase already protected government land from her political ally Maurice Mo Hill in Toms River. That measure was blocked in a landmark 3-2 no-vote, so Haines went to plan B, getting Mo Hill his money for undevelopable swamp land and getting the keys to the trust fund for her own pet projects going forward.
With the Haines inspired change to open space spending, there is no cap set on how much of that fund can be used for projects other than the acquisition of new open space in the county.
Britta Forsberg Wenzel, executive director of Save Barnegat Bay worried that now, the fund can be used for the exact opposite of its intent. Now, the fund can be used to raise acres of protected open space to build parking lots, playgrounds, etc. The vague language presented by Haines hardly defines what “recreation” even means, Vicari said last week.
Vicari closed in saying he is now worried about the future credibility of the fund, which was the brainchild of former Ocean County Board of Freeholder John Bartlett, who surely would not have approved of Haines’ behavior on the subject.