|John Stoffa proposed half mill open space tax|
when he ran for office, "and they voted
for me anyway."
Charles Cole who lives on a preserved farm in Upper Mount Bethel Township that has been in his family for 120 years, stated that if not for farmland preservation, his farm would be developed as residential housing, adding to traffic woes and burdening schools.
Glenn Borger, a Plainfield Tp. Supervisor, said he was "astounded" that no money was set aside for farmland preservation in this year's budget. "You really pulled a snow job, I'll tell you."
Council President John Cusick told speakers to come back in October, when the budget for next year is introduced. But Plainfield Township's Don Moore, who has appeared for the past two years, said that "[t]his is the appropriate time. ... When you come in October, it's already too late."
According to Moore, the half mill tax for open space translates to $3.8 million that historically has been set aside for for farmland preservation ($1 million), municipal parks ($1 million), county parks ($900,000), and r environmentally sensitive lands ($900,000). But for the past two years, Brown has budgeted nothing for farmland preservation. Two years ago, Council set aside $750,000 in table games revenue for farmlands, but this year's budget set aside nothing.
Moore said that brown's refusal to set aside money means that townships with their own taxes for open space are unable to get matching funds. "He pillaged the entire fund and says, 'Look at how financially responsible I am." That's not financially responsible. The county puts in $1, that allows us to put in $1. In 2015, it was 89 cents on the dollar. You put in $1 each, and the state gives you $1.70, and you have $3.70. Turn $1 into $3.70 to preserve farms. It's a no-brainer. That's what's being responsible, maximizing our taxpayer dollars.
Moore claimed that townships felt they had a partner with the county "until Mr. Brown came along." He also noted that the farmland preservation office is undermanned. "He claims to be open space advocate, but yet he left [Farmland Manager] Maria Bentzoni's assistant position remain open from January 21, 2015, and didn't advertise it, until Thanksgiving."
Patrick McInerney, a Lower Mt Bethel. Planning Commissioner and member of its Environmental Advisory Board, said his township has both an open space income tax and the largest number of acres preserved in the county. "Without support from the county, our matching funds that we collect in our EIT don't end up multiplying in the state," he complained.
Brown, who left the room as he was being criticized, returned with a binder to support his defense.
He condemned the "misinformation" and said, "We are finding 100% of the farms that qualify for the program. End of story."
Brown explained that each year, about 20-30 farms, apply, and about half of those that end up qualifying are purchased over a two-year period. He said the funding required averages between $800,000 and $1.2 million per year. He said that the program peaked a few years ago, and has been in decline. He added that if the demand is there, he will find the money. But as of right now, the program is "overfunded." He added that once money is committed to farmland preservation, it is impossible to use it for anything else.
Over the past six years, Northampton County has spent $22 million for farmland preservation, including the matching money received from the state. That'dnearly three ties as much as the $8 million spent in Lehigh. He said Northampton is "wellon its way" to preserving 25% of its land for open space, as recommended by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
Brown acknowledged that townships have set aside about $5 million for land preservation, and nothing prevents them from using their money to preserve open space.
"Show me the demand," he challenged his critics. "We're being financially prudent. We're funding to the level we need."
Moore stated that rumors abound that Brown intends to set aside no money for farmland preservation in next year's budget.