By Cate Blancard
Somerville’s voters head to the polls in less than three weeks to decide if the city should participate in the Community Preservation Act (CPA), a Massachusetts law that enables municipalities to impose a property tax surcharge and collect funds from the state’s CPA Trust Fund to support affordable housing, open space, historic preservation and recreational projects.
After being signed into law in 2000, the CPA earned a reputation for predominantly benefiting wealthier, suburban communities seeking to protect open spaces, often, according to a 2007 Kennedy School of Government paper, at the expense of poorer, urban cities and town. However, the Metro Mayors Coalition, of which Mayor Joseph Curtatone is a member, and several other groups led a dramatic overhaul to the CPA this summer in an attempt to make the Act more attractive for urban communities. The CPA funds can now be applied to a broader range of projects, and lawmakers agreed to earmark an additional $25 million for next year’s CPA Trust Fund. These changes prompted Somerville and eleven other communities to put CPA on the November 6 ballot.
CPA in Somerville
“We are one of the most densely populated cities in New England, so the opportunity to create new open space doesn’t really exist,” Curtatone said in a recent Boston Globe article. “What’s attractive about the amendments are that they now allow us to use the Community Preservation Act to renovate parks and open space. We have an aggressive recreation plan in the city and this will greatly enhance those efforts.” Curtatone also added the CPA would make it easier for the city to achieve the goals it established in its recently adopted 20-year SomerVision plan.
The Somerville proposal calls for a 1.5 percent surcharge on property tax, with an exception for the first $100,000 of residential and some commercial properties. Low-income homeowners and low- and medium-income senior homeowners would be completely exempt. The CPA would cost annually an average of $17 to $61 to owner-occupied homes, $123 to landlords of buildings with four to eight apartments, and more than $400 to large apartment-building owners and those who own commercial or industrial property.
Officials estimate the surcharge would generate $1.2 million for Somerville in fiscal 2014, excluding the contribution from the state CPA Trust Fund, which would add approximately $264,000. Municipalities originally received a 100 percent match from the state’s CPA Trust Fund, which is generated from fees at registries of deeds. Today, due to the decline in real estate transactions and an increase in participating communities, the state now matches only 22 percent.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly which projects would receive funding, local supporters have created a list of examples CPA funds could be used for including: extending the community path, improving neighborhood parks and athletic fields, helping to fill funding gaps for new affordable housing, and repairing the West Somerville Library or Prospect Hill Tower.
Concerns in Other Communities
Somerville’s Board of Aldermen unanimously approved Curtatone’s request to put CPA on the ballot, and the press for Question 4 has generally been positive. The reception was not so warm in nearby cities and towns.
Beverly has a long, dark and stormy past with CPA. In 2001, the Act lost by nearly 2,000 votes and was surrounded by heated debate. This year, the fight is no less intense. The CPA would add a one percent surcharge and bring an estimated $750,000 per year to the community, but in tough economic times, some residents argue this is another burden for property-owners to bear, that there should be more spending cuts than increases, and that the 22 percent match from the state is too low to make the Act worthwhile.
According to Councilor Thomas Furey, Salem’s proposed one percent surcharge could raise $700,000 to $1 million annually to “help preserve and protect things we can’t do now because the city budget is so constrained,” and yet it almost didn’t make the ballot. City councilors voted against it in late August. At the time, Councilor Arthur Sargent said he could not support putting CPA on the ballot because it allows residents who don’t own property to vote on whether to increase property taxes. The CPA will be voted on thanks to a group of residents who acted quickly to collect the roughly 1,000 signatures required to put it on the ballot via citizen’s petition.
Why some see CPA as a “No-Brainer”
Mayor Curtatone is not swayed by the naysayers elsewhere. To Councilor Sargent’s feedback, he noted that most landlords factor property taxes into rent, so renters are in a way paying property tax. “And would he argue the reverse? Should non-resident property owners be allowed to vote in Salem based solely on their ownership of Salem real estate?”
“We have to accept the fact that the state is never going to return cities and towns to the level of local aid they received prior to 2002 when Governor Romney balanced the state budget by shifting costs to cities and towns,” Curtatone added. “The CPA offers us a prudent way to invest in the future of our city at a very modest cost. A portion of the fees collected on real estate transactions in Somerville have been going into the CPA Fund for years without our property owners getting anything in return. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised through these fees statewide, including the contributions from Somerville, but so far only 148 communities have gotten their share of the pot. The only way Somerville can gain access to those funds is to pass Question 4.”
“At a 100 percent match, or at 27 percent match, or even a 22 percent match, it’s still a good deal,” he concluded.
Many of the 42 percent of Massachusetts’s cities and towns that already adopted the CPA would agree that it’s a good deal, including three nearby cities: Gloucester, Newburyport and Peabody.
Gloucester adopted the CPA by popular vote in 2008 with a one percent surcharge. In the two funding cycles implemented so far, the CPA spent almost $1 million on approximately twenty projects. “It’s been very successful,” said Debbie Laurie, Gloucester’s CPA senior project manager. “It’s received overall good PR, and a lot of great projects have happened because of it.” The city is in the midst of its third funding round.
The CPA has been similarly well received in Newburyport, where it was adopted in 2003 with a 2 percent surcharge. When asked if it was generally liked, Dianne Eppa of Newburyport’s Planning & Development Department laughed warmly. “We definitely don’t hear a lot of opposition,” she said. The local Community Preservation Community has appropriated almost $5,900,000 to more than sixty projects across all four CPA categories.
When the one percent CPA surcharge was put to vote in Peabody in 2001, former Mayor Michael Bonfanti was campaigning and supporting it as a way to support “quality-of-life things” during tough times when funding priority is given to essentials like police, fire and education. It barely passed then, but support has grown after a decade of results. “I see all the great things we’ve done, and it’s a no-brainer,” said City Councilor Tom Gould, who recently joined the city’s Community Preservation Committee. “I’m glad that Peabody got on board.”
For more information on the Community Preservation Act go to http://www.somervillema.gov/cpa.