A day after three Mercer County mayors filed suit against the state over money they say they are due from the turnpike widening, a Democratic assemblyman has joined their cause.
Statehouse commission member Assemblyman Joe Cryan, (D-Union Twp.) has called for a revote by the commission on land purchases by the Turnpike Authority for the road widening. The contracts for the land purchase from the towns of Hamilton, Robbinsville and East Windsor called for more than $9 million to be paid to the towns for replacement of trees felled for the widening.
But that money has since been diverted by the State Department of Environmental Protection to its general fund for use in park operations. Cryan’s commission approved the purchases on July 2, but the Democrat says members were not informed that the money had been diverted and was no longer headed to the towns for reforestation.
Had he known, Cryan said, he would not have approved the purchases.
“Under the parameters of our approval, was a no net loss of trees for the municipalities where the widening project is occurring,” Cryan wrote in a letter to commission members. “Since our last meeting, it has come to my attention that the money that was supposed to be used for the tree replacement was instead diverted to the state budget. In light of this recent development, I request that we put these purchases up for a revote at our next meeting… now that we have all the information available.”
Republican Mayors John Bencivengo of Hamilton and David Fried of Robbinsville, together with Democratic Mayor Janice Mironov of East Windsor, filed suit against the state Wednesday in an attempt to collect the funds originally slated for tree replacement. The trio said they had been promised the money and intended to collect from the state.
For their part, state officials say they are working on a deal with the three mayors, but to date nothing has been settled.
It’s unclear what a revote would mean to the deal because work has been going on in all three towns for some time. Were the commission to reverse their approval of the land sale it would likely halt all work. Fried has already kicked turnpoke workers off the land since, he said, the sale of the land has not yet closed and the terms of the contract have not been met.
Despite their prior support for Gov. Chris Christie and his agenda, the two Republicans say they have seen enough cuts in aid to their towns. The diversion of funds was illegal, the men say, and the money should be restored.
An interesting side note to the debate: Christie earlier this week decried the use of one-time revenues to balance budgets when he nevertheless said he would apply for federal aid to the state approved by Congress Tuesday.
“While Governor Chris Christie believes that using this type of non-recurring funding for operating expenses is ill advised because it will disappear after one year, the Governor will apply for the education funding passed by the House today in order to ensure it is managed and distributed to local school districts by the State of New Jersey, and not the federal government,” said Press Secretary Michael Drewniak of the federal aid.
The mayors say their tree money is just that – a one time injection to the DEP’s budget that will no longer be there next year.