“Secret” Fire District Elections

File Photo

Believe it or not, Election Day is next month! The “secret” elections often have more than a million dollars at stake, and they affect your property taxes.

Voters in Brick, Jackson, Lakewood, Little Egg Harbor, Plumsted and Toms River should pay attention. These Ocean County towns have fire districts that can raise money above and beyond the fund-raising solicitations they send you, and beyond any money provided in municipal budgets. The districts raise most of their money by holding little-known elections on the third Saturday of February, probably at a firehouse near you.

Most voters are unaware of the elections because fire districts are not required to mail sample ballots. You have to go to a firehouse to get information about your district’s budget, ballot questions for big-ticket purchases, and candidates for fire commissioners. No wonder these elections have the lowest voter turnouts of the year! For example, Lakewood, with over 100,000 people, had a special fire election in December that attracted only 109 voters to approve $1.3 million in spending.

The president of the New Jersey State Association of Fire Districts admitted, “The Legislature has always had issues with not enough people voting in our elections, and people say it’s only the firemen voting.” That’s why Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Ocean) sponsored legislation, recently enacted into law, enabling (but not requiring) fire districts to move their elections to the November, as was done with school board elections years ago.

That would save taxpayers the cost of February elections and shine some sunlight on the fire fiefdoms that have kept property owners in the dark.

The new law also encourages (but doesn’t require) districts to keep tax increases within the state’s 2% cap. Districts with November votes no longer have to offer a budget referendum, as long as increases don’t exceed the limit.

We all recognize that firefighters, whether volunteers or paid, do a great job that’s essential to the community, and they do it bravely. It’s the commissioners who have to stop operating under the radar, bring their pseudo-public operations into the 21st century, allow transparency so taxpayers will have adequate information to vote, and let them vote during the November general election.

It’s time to press your town’s fire districts to hold their annual elections on the real Election Day, notify taxpayers who the candidates are for the paid commissioner jobs, and explain how they want to spend your money. Ask your mayor and council to press them, too.

Be sure to vote on Saturday, February 17th between 2 and 9 p.m. at your local firehouse. Maybe next year it will be in November.

Rich Wieland
Toms River

 

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