Friday, March 30, 2001
Towns scramble to vote on Community Preservation Act
The strategy for getting a bigger piece of the
pie: get in early
As if their taxes were not high enough already, Bedford voters adopted the Community Preservation Act by a decisive vote of 809 to 483 (63%) in a town election on March 10. This action implemented a 3% property tax surcharge, with exemptions for the first $100,000 of real estate value and low-income status, and made the community eligible for state matching funds. The driving force behind Bedford's first-in-the-state adoption is the current wisdom that only a few towns will join CPA in its first year (FY02) and the $26 million state pot of money will be split by fewer communities. Just in the past week North Andover and Duxbury have become the second and third towns to adopt the CPA.
The Community Preservation Act, which became law last December, gives towns the right to place a surcharge on local property taxes of no more than 3%, creating a fund for local conservation, historic preservation and affordable housing. Towns approving the maximum 3% levy are eligible for up to 100% in matching funds.
The early bird gets the fatter worm
Without the carrot of a state grant, a tax surcharge would not be attractive to most communities. Like Bedford, many towns believe that their best chance to capture a sizable matching grant is in the first two years, 2002 and 2003. How much a town receives in state matching funds will depend mostly on how many communities adopt the CPA and qualify to compete for the $26 million reportedly available in 2002. Constance Foster, of the Boston office of the Trust for Public Land, believes that if no more than 30% of all towns and cities adopt the CPA, it is realistic to expect the state to match 100% of what the towns have raised. (This calculation assumes that the largest cities in the state are not competing for state funds.)
To pass the measure this year, most towns have faced a very tight timeline, with spring elections scheduled for March, April and May. In order to place CPA on the ballot, the measure must be approved by a Town Meeting 35 days before the election. Alternatively it can be placed on the ballot by citizen petition signed by 5% of registered voters. However, regardless of the route to the ballot box, communities have barely had enough time to understand and publicize the benefits and requirements of this complex act.
In later years it is likely that many more towns will compete for state funds. Rough estimates suggest that if all of Massachusetts' 351 towns and cities were to adopt the CPA, the average state grant would fall to 30-35% of CPA taxes collected. Moreover, if towns end up competing for a limited pot of gold, the act specifies a formula that favors the lower-valued communities.
When the CPA became law in December of 2000 the state placed $26 million into the CPA account. Going forward, the fund will be financed by fees of about $20 on recording a property deed, as well as gifts, grants and interest generated by the account. However, skeptics including some members of the Carlisle Finance Committee fear that there are no guarantees that the state will not divert these funds to other needs in the future.
If most of these arguments are correct, then the "early bird strategy" seems to be reasonable to proponents. Get in early with the maximum 3% levy, they say, while there is still money in the state's coffers and while competition is low. Then, as matching funds drop, lower the surcharge to a painless level. Once the town has adopted the CPA, the surcharge must remain for five years, but the level can be adjusted each year. How low can the surcharge go? The Act does not specify a minimum level, but guesses range from 0.5% down to a vanishing 0.01%.
There is no official list of towns voting on CPA in the first year, but Foster of TPL is keeping an unofficial tally (see table). Large cities, such as Boston and Cambridge, says Foster, will need one or more years to "sell" the concept to their large and diverse constituencies.
Nonetheless, smaller towns have organized quickly. Thus far, according to "the grapevine," voters in eighteen towns, including Chelmsford, Ayer, Boxford, Dracut and Harvard, will definitely decide whether to adopt the CPA later this spring. In seventeen towns, including Billerica, Carlisle, Groton, Tyngsboro and Westford, Town Meeting voters will soon decide whether to place the question on the ballot for town elections, and in at least eleven other towns, including Bolton and Sudbury, citizens are reported to be gathering signatures to place a question directly on the ballot.
Needs, fears drive CPA vote
While the prospect of state money is attractive, a tax surcharge is not. Any community pursuing CPA adoption is driven by a need or fear shared by a majority of its voters. Bedford selectman Gordon Feltman of Bedford said that the threat of an unfriendly comprehensive permit issued by the state under Chapter 40B, Massachusetts' anti-snob zoning law (see story on Chapter 40B on page 5), was convincing to many voters. Although Bedford has less than the mandated 10% of affordable housing stock, Feltman believes that passing the CPA will convince state regulators that Bedford has a credible plan for affordable housing and thus protect the town from punitive permits.
Sherborn selectman James Campbell sees the CPA as a mechanism for funding the inevitable repair of their Town Hall, an historic building that would qualify for CPA funds. "Lots of people see [the CPA] as a tax burden. Others see it as a way to ease the tax burden," he said. "We are trying to convince citizens that it's a good deal." Since Sherborn's Town Meeting is too close to their election to place CPA on the ballot, the selectmen are assisting a citizen group that is collecting signatures on a petition.
Harvard voters took the first step by approving a 1.1% surcharge at their Town Meeting, to be voted at their election on April 3. Town administrator John Petrie stated that the 1.1% levy was proposed by the selectmen "on a trial basis. Let's raise $100,000 and then see." Affordable housing and conservation are on the town's agenda.
Lincoln's board of selectmen and finance committee have decided to defer consideration of CPA to a future time. According to selectman Timothy Higgins, "The town is generally supportive of the CPA, but we need the regional high school reconstructed and our financial model shows that taxes will increase 30% over four years." However, a citizen committee has reviewed the Act and is recommending adoption. A citizen petition is circulating. "Over the long term [the CPA] is cost effective" Higgins continues. "Open space is a core value of the community."
Town Meeting is April 10
Carlisle selectmen have called a Special Town Meeting on April 10 to give citizens the opportunity to debate and vote to create a Community Preservation Committee and CPA fund financed by a property tax surcharge. The Warrant article specifies a 2% tax levy and exemptions for the first $100,000 of assessed property value and low-income status. At the 2% level, Carlisle will be eligible for matching funds up to 80% of collected CPA taxes. Town moderator Sarah Brophy has said that, during the Special Town Meeting, citizens will be able to make a motion to decrease the tax, but not to increase it. Voters will then need to approve the tax levy at the Spring Town Election on May 22.
A 2% tax with exemptions will allow the town to raise approximately $155,000, and qualify for an additional $125,000 from the state, for a total of $280,000.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito