Keeping the Garden State Preservation Trust afloat may require asking New Jersey voters to approve additional debt for now as opposed to implementing fees to fund the trust on a permanent basis.

The GSPT will run out of funding at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, and needs additional support for open space and farmland preservation initiatives and historic conservation plans.

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, who chairs the General Assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee, recently voiced his concerns about placing fees on water consumption this year, a change from his prior position. Earlier this year, he proposed a fee of 40 cents per every thousand of gallons of water used for consumption, which would generate $125 million to $150 million per year to help support the trust.

That plan could be difficult to implement in the current economic environment. The state’s unemployment rate reached 8.3% last month and municipalities may turn to property tax increases to help meet operating costs.

McKeon now believes the state may need to issue bonds to keep the GSPT alive in the short term while officials could take up the issue of permanent funding in the future.

“I’m hopeful that we can all collectively cobble together some level of [funding] and we proved it in the past to be successful — and in the hands of the voter a bond referendum — so as we can continue the progress of GSPT,” McKeon said during a public hearing on the program’s future. “And then perhaps in a year, two years look to the permanent source when the economy is such that it might support, whether it be a water fee or ... alternative funds to make that permanent source be in place.”

Lawmakers have until June 30 to approve a ballot initiative for November’s general election. In 2007, voters approved $200 million of state-appropriation borrowing to support the trust in fiscal 2009 after a 10-year, $1.2 billion bonding program expired. The debt is backed by yearly $98 million from sales tax revenue.

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