State: Less Than 1 Percent Turnout in Brick's $2.3M Fire Election
Comptroller recommends moving fire election, budget approval to November
Each February, the township's fire commissioners and a budget are up for a public vote, but year after year, hardly any votes are cast. Despite the low participation, the votes are on multi million-dollar budgets that would likely receive more scrutiny if the ballot measure to approve them took place during the general election in November.
"Voter turnout for fire district elections is anemically low with less than two percent of the voters casting a vote," said state Assemblyman Erik Peterson, (R-Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren), who is sponsoring a bill to move the elections to November. "This is because the election is held with little to no publicity or notice on a Saturday in the middle of winter during very limited hours and typically not at the usual polling location."
An audit completed by the Office of the State Comptroller found that just 0.6 percent of Brick Township voters showed up to cast their ballots to approve a $2.3 million fire budget in 2012 for Fire District No. 1. Brick Township's second fire district has an approximately $1.5 million budget but was not analyzed in the report.
Similar to the way school budget approvals were previously handled in New Jersey, voters can defeat a proposed fire district budget, at which point it would be sent to the township council for review and, if necessary, cuts.
But few voters cast ballots in any of the three towns analyzed by the state – Brick, Cherry Hill and Woodbridge. None of the towns had more than 2 percent of voters participate, compared with an average of 67 percent who participated in the 2012 general election.
"Changing the election date could substantially increase voter turnout and would further promote awareness and transparency of fire district operations to the taxpayers," the report said.
In response to the audit, Steven Gerling, President of Brick Township Fire District No. 1, disagreed with the state's findings and argued against moving the election and budget approval.
Gerling said keeping the election in February would allow the fire service and the district to remain "apolitical" and moving it to coincide with the general election would "erode the apolitical foundation and have a negative effect on the fire service."
Despite the low electoral participation, Brick's per-household spending was a fraction of Cherry Hill's or Woodbridge's. Both of those towns have paid firefighters; all of Cherry Hill's are paid and two-thirds of Woodbridge's are paid. The average cost per household to provide fire service in Brick was $132 versus $591 in Woodbridge and $652 in Cherry Hill.