June 18, 2006

Rocks in our Heads
The 'Open Space' fund 6 years later

Above: Worker installing a fiberglass rock in the Trailside Museum. The real rock can be found in the open space outside of the Trailside Museum.

Union County voters approved the Open Space Trust Fund by a 60-to-40 percent margin in a November 2000 referendum that established a tax of $0.15 per $100 of assessed value dedicated to open space, recreation and historic preservation purposes.

Voters, myself included, must have had rocks in our heads when we voted to be assessed an extra tax by the Union County Freeholders. I doubt any one of us could have imagined some of the questionable uses of this fund.

One use would be the renovation of the Trailside Museum building which is located in the Watchung Reservation, a 2,000-acre preserve containing forests, three ponds, swamps, streams, springs, fields and more than 13 miles of color-coded hiking trails.

The museum is being renovated to be three times its original size so it can be more open and filled with natural light. Along with the natural light it will be filled with $1 million worth of exhibits including fiberglass replicas of rocks and trees that can be found in the open space right outside the building’s doors. The county boasts that visitors to the museum will be able to look out of large windows which will provide a view of the reservation's surrounding 2,000-acre forest.

The trust fund will also be used for the planned Children’s Museum of Central Jersey, the progress of which has had a long delay and is slated to be located on the Kean University campus.

Earlier this year residents of Scotch Plains were able to rally and block the county from building a petting farm, which would have included a paved black top parking lot for visitors on open space that was acquired by the fund.

The fund is also used to award one-time grants to municipalities of about $50,000 in Field of Dreams funding which is used to update playing fields. These grants are given out with much fanfare during the campaign season.

The taxpayers can easily spot these fields because the county places a billboard-sized sign on the entrance to all of them featuring their slogan that was designed for their image building campaign which reads “This is a service of the Union County Board of Freeholders. We’re connected to you!” If the municipalities charged the county for the campaign advertising space they’d easily recoupe $50,000 a year.

In 2002 the fund was used to get Union County taxpayers into the entertainment business by purchasing the Union County Arts Center in Rahway. At the time of the purchase, the Arts Center was running deficits of over $100,000 a year. Freeholder Mingo was quoted as saying, “Rahway needs this renovation for the revitalization of their downtown." The arts center Interim Executive Director Donna Sandorse was reported to have said, “by the county taking over the center it can pour in money to refurbish the facility."

The first of three phases of renovations to the Arts Center is projected to cost $6-million. It will include the installation of air-conditioning, the expansion of the stage and contruction of a new load area among other things such as the upgrading of plumbing, electrical and fire protection equipment, the modernization of the dressing room areas, the expansion of the lobby, the creation of an organ lift and the relocation of administrative offices in the 75 year old facility.

It’s no doubt that the 4,000 patrons who attend performances at the arts center yearly are seen as 4,000 voters in the eyes of the all-Democrat freeholder board. This was evidenced in a taxpayer funded 2004 pamphlet mailed to residents featuring a campaigning freeholder. The mailing asked residents to fill out a form with their name and address, as well as mark off a corresponding box relaying how they felt about the county’s no- yet-proposed plan - but obviously done deal - to acquire the arts center with trust fund money. The two choices were:

( ) YES! I enthusiastically support the plan to revitalize the Union County Arts Center as a premier performing arts destination!

( ) I would also like some more information.

There was no box that said:

( ) “No! Stop spending my money. We’re not stupid. We’ve caught on to this Trust Fund Scam and it’s not what I voted for".

Below: Union County Staff and The Holbek Group, the designer of the exhibits for the new Visitors Center at Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside, discuss progress on the 34-foot tall American Beech Tree that will be the focal point at the renovated Center. The Holbek Group is fabricating the elements of the exhibits at their studio in Orange, Mass. A fall 2006 opening is anticipated.