Toms River Regional school district officials are so concerned about the financial future of the district that they are strongly considering a plan to sell off real property to plug multi-million dollar budget holes ripped open by state funding cuts. The buyer, very well, could be the township’s municipal government which would use open space funds toward the purchase.
The plan to sell off land developed during the day Wednesday, prior to a township council meeting where Superintendent Michael Citta pitched the idea to the governing body, who would be tasked with approving the sale. Though the district owns multiple parcels of land throughout the township, the most likely candidate for preservation would be a large swath of acreage adjacent to Silver Bay Elementary School. The property, located just east of the school, is located within the township’s R-90 residential zone and could support 49 homes if sold to a developer.
“Before we have to liquidate our assets through public sale, I am asking you … to purchase unused land for open space from our district,” Citta said while addressing the council.
The plans materialized, apparently, at the last minute. Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill said he ordered an appraisal to be completed on the land Thursday, while the council instructed Assistant Township Attorney Anthony Merlino to draft a resolution to effectuate the purchase in time for its next meeting, scheduled for April 26.
The exact specifications, metes and bounds of the land along Silver Bay Road was unclear. According to tax maps, the school property is divided between two lots, however the lots are combined on the tax list, and markings available on the township’s GIS system did not delineate where one lot ended and the other began. It was also unclear if properties would need to be subdivided before a potential sale, a measure that would require the approval of the planning board. In all, the unimproved land value of the entirety of the property was assessed at $3,391,000, though this represents the overall parcel rather than just the wooded portion, and reflects the assessed value rather than the market value.
“I’ve already met with the CFO and we already have adequate funds in the [open space] account,” said Hill, who added that the preservation of the land would ensure that it would never be developed and, simultaneously, represent an influx of funding to the school district, which is reeling from a proposed $14.4 million cut from Gov. Phil Murphy.
The $11.4 million cut was reduced to a $4.9 million cut after action taken by the state legislature, however a bloc of Democratic members of the legislature blocked a companion bill that would have restored the remainder of the funding. The $4.9 million cut from Trenton is still significantly more than the originally-proposed $2.8 million reduction the district was due to receive this year under a phased-in plan to cut funding that was hatched in 2017 as a result of a compromise between Murphy and former Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Camden).
While the preservation funding – if it is to materialize – will help keep the district afloat, it is not a permanent fix by any means, officials said.
“This is a one-year fix to stop the fiscal cliff,” said Council President Matthew Lotano. “I hope the council is in support of this, and we will draft it for our next meeting. This all transpired today.”
The council’s land use committee was briefed on the idea Wednesday and was in support of it, Lotano said.
“I hope that … we can all get together on this and help out the school system,” he said. “Because without the school system, the whole town is going to be in trouble.”
Citta said he and his staff have suffered sleepless nights brainstorming ideas to save the district from what he once termed a “fiscal apocalypse.”
“Trust me when I say I wouldn’t be asking if this wasn’t an emergency,” he said. “This is our family, you are our family, and we need to count on each other.”