In January 2012 when Governor Christie signed the law that permitted New Jersey School Districts to move elections from April to November to coincide with the general election, we knew it would not be long before a similar change would be available to New Jersey Fire Districts. On August 7, 2017, Governor Christie signed into law State of New Jersey Assembly Bill No. 1690 (A1690). This law, which takes effect on January 1, 2019 allows fire district elections to be moved to November and eliminates certain budget and capital purchase referendums. Will New Jersey’s 186 Fire Districts choose to move the election to November?
Only time will tell. To put this in perspective, as of 2017, the number of school districts that have moved the election from April to November is 528, with only 15 elections still held in April. Moving the election may not be available to all fire districts, due to some provisions in the law. Once the election is moved to the time of the general election in November, it cannot be changed. Boards of Fire Commissioners and other stakeholders should follow guidance that will be issued in the form of a Local Finance Notice from the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services to determine if the move of their election is feasible and to comply with the law. In this article, I will explore the impact from the signing of this law which was derived from the review performed by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services.
What costs are incurred in order to hold a separate election each February? The state does not have statistics compiled on these costs statewide; however, if the election is moved to November, a fire district should see these costs reduced as most would be absorbed into the general election. Counties may incur additional costs. If the fire district election boundaries are not the same as those for the general election, counties will incur costs for redrawing election boundaries and the production of election district maps. For fire districts affected by these differences in boundaries, the move to November cannot occur without the County redrawing the election boundaries. There is a possibility that the redrawing is not feasible, which would prevent some fire districts from taking advantage of this new law.
Impact on Budget Approval
Under current law, a fire district’s budget is approved by voters at the annual election held in February. These budgets must be compliant with the 2% levy cap that is placed on local governments in New Jersey. With this 2% levy cap, the amount to be raised by taxation to support the budget is limited to 2%, with a few exceptions. If the fire district needs to exceed the 2% levy cap, a separate question, called a "levy cap referendum", must be placed on the February ballot. In addition, any capital appropriations included in the budget must have been approved by the voters at the previous annual election or at a special election held prior to the adoption of the budget.
When this new law goes into effect in 2019 and a fire district is able to move the election to the time of the general election in November, budgets that do not exceed the 2% levy cap will no longer require voter approval. In addition, voter approval is no longer required for capital appropriations that do not involve financing. There are rules for capital appropriations that will be discussed later in this article.
What if the fire district moves the election to November but needs to exceed the 2% levy cap? In these situations, the question to exceed the 2% levy cap will be put before the voters at the election held in February. This is the date when elections for fire districts that have not moved the election to the time of the general election are being held.
When the fire district budget is no longer subject to voter approval, the budget shall be adopted, by a vote of a majority of the full membership of the fire commissioners, not later than 25 days prior to the third Saturday in February. The budget shall be advertised after adoption. The advertisement shall contain a copy of the budget and shall be published at least once in a newspaper circulating in the fire district at least 7 days prior to the third Saturday in February.
Impact on Capital Appropriations
Under current law, a fire district’s capital appropriations, regardless of how they plan to finance them, must be presented to the voters in the form of a separate question at the annual election held in February or at a special election. If financed by taxes, capital appropriations cannot exceed 5 mills on the dollar of the last assessed valuation of the property in the fire district. If these capital appropriations are financed all or in part by debt such as bonds or capital leases, the Board of Fire Commissioners of the fire district must present the financing arrangements for approval by the Local Finance Board in the State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Once approved, the capital appropriations and the financing arrangements are presented for approval by the voters. The cost of financed capital appropriations cannot exceed $60,000.00 or 2% of the assessed valuation of property in the fire district, whichever is larger.
In 2019, when the change in law becomes effective and a fire district moves the election to the general election in November, all of these requirements remain unchanged except when capital appropriations are financed by tax dollars. If the capital appropriations are financed by tax dollars, there is no voter approval required. But what about the 2% levy cap? Under current levy cap law, increases in capital appropriations are one of the exceptions to the levy cap. Although the requirement of voter approval has been eliminated when there is no debt financing, there are procedures that fire districts must follow in order to comply with the law:
- At a regular meeting or at a special meeting called by the commissioners, the Board of Fire Commissioners may, by resolution adopted by a vote of not less than 2/3 of the full membership thereof, raise money for capital appropriations.
- The cost of such capital appropriations cannot exceed 5 mills on the dollar of the last assessed valuation of the property in the fire district.
- Prior to the meeting, the resolution (or a summary thereof) shall be published together with notice of the time and place of the meeting, the opportunity of the public to be heard at the meeting, and the availability of copies of the resolution to the members of the general public of the fire district from the date following such publication up to and including the date of the meeting. If a summary is published, the summary shall contain a clear and concise statement prepared by the clerk of the Board of Fire Commissioners setting forth the purpose of the resolution and the amount to be raised by the additional levy being authorized.
- If at a regular meeting, the clerk of the Board of Fire Commissioners shall, at least 10 days prior to the date of the meeting, post the information required to be published pursuant to this subsection in five public places in the fire district and shall advertise this information in a newspaper, published in the fire district (if any), otherwise in a newspaper circulating in the district.
- If at a special meeting, the clerk of the Board of Fire Commissioners shall, at least 21 days prior to the date of the meeting, post the information required to be published pursuant to this subsection in five public places in the fire district and shall advertise this information in a newspaper, published in the fire district (if any), otherwise in a newspaper circulating in the district. The clerk shall, not more than 20 days and at least 10 days prior to the date of the meeting, again advertise this information in that newspaper.
- All interested persons shall be given an opportunity to be heard at a meeting subject to the provisions of this section of the law.
- Copies of a resolution shall be made available to the members of the general public of the fire district who shall request such copies from the date following such publication up to and including the date of the meeting.
Impact on the Election of Fire Commissioners
In 2019 when the change in law becomes effective and if a fire district moves the election to the general election in November, the term of a member of a Board of Fire Commissioners elected at the time of the general election shall commence at 12 o’clock noon on the first Tuesday in December, and shall expire at 12 o’clock noon on the first Tuesday in December of the third year following the year in which such member was elected. Any vacancy in the membership shall be filled by the remaining members until the next succeeding annual election held at the time of the general election, at which time a resident of the district shall be elected for the unexpired term. The terms of the fire commissioners already in office at the time that the election is moved to the time of the general election in November are extended until 12 o’clock noon on the first Tuesday in December of the years in which their terms expire.
Important Final Points
The Board of Fire Commissioner may by resolution move the time of the annual election for the fire district to the time of the general election once the law becomes effective in 2019. However, the feasibility of doing so is highly dependent on the county board of elections ability to certify that the election may be conducted in accordance with section 1 of P.L.1976, c.83 (C.19:4-10). If the election district boundaries need to be revised or readjusted, this process involves the Board of Fire Commissioners, the governing body of the municipality, the County Board of Elections and may involve the Local Finance Board if such revision results in consolidation or subdivision of a fire district. The movement of the election to November may be a complex process, so it is important to maintain communication between all stakeholders and seek assistance from professionals, including the guidance that will be provided by the Division of Local Government Services throughout the process.