TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers are considering substantial changes to the state’s low-turnout fire district elections, including moving the election date to November and eliminating the annual vote for budgets within the state’s 2 percent tax cap.
Lawmakers this week discussed legislation to move the elections during a meeting of the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee.
Of the three bills discussed, one was quickly discarded because it sought to move the fire elections to the April school election date, which is becoming obsolete as nearly all school elections have moved to November.
The other two bills would move the elections to November, although only one would eliminate the budget vote.
The committee did not vote on any of the bills, but during the discussions lawmakers expressed unanimous support for the idea of moving the election date, noting that turnout during elections is traditionally dismal, despite fire districts being in charge of millions of taxpayer dollars.
During this year’s election, fewer than 100 votes were cast in five of the 19 fire districts in Burlington County.
“We really want to see greater voter turnout when you’re spending that kind of taxpayer money,” said Sen. Shirley Turner, D-15th of Lawrenceville, who is the sponsor of the two bills allowing the district elections to be moved to November.
Under Turner’s bills, elections would be moved if the governing body of a fire district’s municipality passes a resolution supporting the move, or if voters approve a referendum in support of the move.
The referendum would be required if more than 15 percent of the registered voters in a fire district signed a petition in support of moving the date.
Once an election is moved to November, it cannot be switched back to February for four years.
Although the procedure for moving elections is the same in both bills, only one would eliminate the vote for district spending plans below the state’s 2 percent tax cap.
A bill introduced in the Assembly by Ronald Dancer, R-12th of Plumsted, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, also eliminates the budget vote for fire districts that choose to move their election date to November.
Eliminating the budget vote was a key component of a 2012 law giving school districts and towns the option of moving their annual school elections to November.
Nearly every school district in the state opted to make the move, including all in Burlington County.
Roger Potts, vice president of the New Jersey State Association of Fire Districts, said eliminating the budget vote would be a strong incentive for most fire districts to abandon the February date.
“I’d bet any money that more than 50 percent would opt to move if they get the right to not vote on their budget,” Potts said. “I think that’s where we should start instead of demanding all 187 to move to November.”
He warned that there would be logistical problems with the move, particularly in municipalities with more than one fire district, because those boundaries often don’t match the lines of voting districts.
“The issue with moving the fire districts to November is the district lines as opposed to the voting districts, the conflict. You may have two fire districts in one voting district or three. How do you separate those ballots? It becomes a nightmare,” Potts said.
There are also questions surrounding whether the voting machines can accommodate the additional candidates during crowded election years.
“We’ve been led to believe that the voting machines will not accommodate presidential elections, state elections, county elections, local municipal elections and school board, along with fire districts,” Potts said. “If that is accurate, we’re all spinning our wheels here for nothing if the machines can’t accommodate.”
Senators on the panel said the logistical issues would need to be researched before a final bill is moved. However, they voiced support for the idea of moving the date, although there was some debate about whether fire districts should be given the choice or if the budget vote should be eliminated.
“I’m not sure permissive would work. I think maybe we need to just go ahead and get this done and give (fire districts) a time frame,” said Sen. Jim Whelan, D-2nd of Atlantic City.
The committee’s discussion came in the wake of a report last month by the New Jersey Comptroller’s Office critical of the fire districts in Cherry Hill, Woodbridge and Brick for allowing large retirement payouts, excessive longevity benefits and substantial annual raises.
The report did not examine any of Burlington County’s 19 fire districts.
Among the comptroller’s recommendations was that fire district elections be moved to November.