The FY2016 Budget and that other anaconda at Lake Hopatcong

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This is a tale with more moving parts than a Lake Hopatcong weed harvester.

It also offers the opportunity for some bad puns about being lost in the weeds, which is where Lake Hopatcong region officials hope to avoid finding the  summer recreation season come August.

The simple version is this: It costs an estimated $250,000 to cut weeds on Lake Hopatcong through the summer recreation season to open boating and swimming areas, clear boat channels and maintain water quality. The state budget allocated $155,000.

In June officials from Jefferson, Roxbury, Mount Arlington and Hopatcong, and Morris and Sussex County met to discuss how to possibly close the funding gap with municipal funds and shared services.

Failing to do so would mean the weed harvesting program would end in mid-August, the middle of the summer recreation season.

So what?

This: The lake is home to 65,000 residents, a couple hundred lake-dependent businesses and represents an estimated annual economy of $400 million.

The circumstances also provides a glance at the below the surface impacts of the annual state budget tug-of-war that are lost in the glare of the pension fight and the casino wars.

Significantly  it also raises the questions about the future ability of the state to manage and maintain its recreation facilities in light of the successful change to the open space funding program approved by voters last November.

Beyond the complexity, it is also about roughly $100,000, which in a $34 billion state budget should have been easy to find.

Some basics.

Lake Hopatcong, at 2,600 acres, is the state’s largest freshwater lake. It is also a state park, managed by a division of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The lake sits at the border of Sussex and Morris counties and its watershed includes Jefferson, Roxbury, Mount Arlington and Hopatcong.

It is home to Lake Hopatcong State Park, which draws thousands of visitors each summer.

Beginning in 2001, the weed harvesting program was operated by the Lake Hopatcong Commission, but by 2012, after a decade of budget cuts and jurisdictional and political fights, the program was turned over to the officials at the state park and its funding shifted into that budget line.

For the past two years, DEP set aside $155,000 for the weed harvesting program. When adequately funded the program runs from roughly June to October.

Last year the program started late because funds to repair the machines were delayed in the annual state budget approval fight, and it was ended a month early to preserve some funds to enable the restart of the program this June.

This year, the lake commission said in June, it has $155,000, enough money to keep the program operating until the middle of August. Weed harvesting began in early June.

Just as important, noted Jefferson Mayor Russell Felter, who is also chairman of the lake commission, is the reputation of the lake itself.  Felter knows. As a Jefferson native, he has seen the lake community suffer when questions about the quality of the lake water surfaced in the past. And he cautioned nay-saying business owners in June about how they discuss the potential weed problem.

“If you say the lake is in bad shape,” he told them, “they won’t come.”

Which disguises the fact that the lake is in better shape than it has been in years, for the one thing that the lake commission was able to accomplish before it became irrelevant to politicians and budget writers was to foster environmental programs that improved the water quality.

As the focal point of the effort, the commission was partner to grant and loan programs that helped add new drainage facilities along lake roads to keep pollutants out of the lake, supported sewer projects and septic improvements to the same effect. It also led the effort to ban phosphorus based fertilizers which help promote plant grown in the lake.

One note before we get to the Damocles Sword hanging over the situation: Senators Steve Oroho of Sussex County, and Anthony Bucco of Morris County once filed legislation to create a special Lake Hopatcong fund using boat fees as the source. But the state constitution says all such fees must be sent to the state’s general fund for disbursement. So that effort was left high and dry.

Which leads to another constitutional amendment and concerns about the future all state environmental clean-up and park maintenance programs.

The Sword is the successful Green Acres referendum on last November’s ballot that called for an increase in funds allocated from the Corporate Business Tax – from 4 percent to 6 percent by 2019 – solely for preservation of open space, farmland and historic preservation. The CBT raises $2.5 billion annually, $100 million of which is designated for open space uses

The change also cut funds for all other environmental programs.

This was not an unadvertised consequence: The ballot question stated plainly: “The amendment would end the current dedication of 4 percent of that revenue for environmental programs.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, in Legislative committee hearings on the DEP budget, said this: “The amendment was well-intended but requires costly tradeoffs, diverting funding from other existing programs that protect the environment and create conditions necessary for economic growth.”

Such programs include publically funded hazardous waste clean-ups, watershed management, park maintenance, where there is a $400 million backlog of projects,  brownfield clean up and removal of underground storage tanks.

It was, Martin explained to the committee, Gov. Chris Christie’s ability to shift funds around in the new state budget that “avoided damaging cuts to several environmental programs.”

Costs for park management, or “stewardship” and the new amendment calls it, was shifted to CBT funding, which allowed DEP to allocate funds for publically funded clean-ups and water resources.

Which still leaves the Lake Hopatcong community about $100,000 short to cut weeds for a full season, unless the towns and counties find a way to cover the costs.

Numerous studies have shown the positive impact of well-designed environmental programs.

Sadly for New Jersey, the feel-good grab of buying open space and the subsequent shift of funds could mean that by the end of August the only green growing on Lake Hopatcong could be weeds.

Michael Daigle is a journalist and writer from Warren County.

The FY2016 Budget and that other anaconda at Lake Hopatcong