Considering Question 4

On October 17, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

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


17 Responses to “Considering Question 4”

  1. A Moore says:

    I will pass on this one. Enough already. Even though I will be exempt. Extra tax and matched by fee money. City is wasted enough money as of late and it’s getting crazier. We don’t need it.

  2. teelesquaremayor says:

    For the love of God do we not pay enough in taxes already? How about we try a little fiscal responsibility instead of the knee jerk tax approach. I like the mayor, I really do but we’re being crushed by all these taxes and fee’s.

  3. Charlie says:

    Somerville is very fiscally responsible. The City operates on fewer property tax dollars per capita than any city in Massachusetts with a population of 50,000 or more. If the CPA funds could help to complete the Community Path Extension, which the state refuses to fully fund, then I’m all for it!

  4. j. connelly says:

    Start @ the bike path/Cedar Street follow it to Cambridge, then into Arlington and all the way to Concord. That is more than plenty enough Pathway to travel on. These Tough Fiscal times warrant that the Community Path Extension should be at the bottom of the list.

  5. A Moore says:

    How did I get along without the bike path for 70 years? There are things to be taken care of first before frivolous stuff. People want a bike path, let them take up a collection for it and volunteer to take care of it. There are much more important things to do with our money.

  6. Ron Newman says:

    That’s like saying that I-93 is enough highway to drive on, so we don’t also need Route 2.

  7. Jonah Petri says:

    We want to connect the path to Boston, Mr/Mrs Connelly. This would be a superhighway for bikes and pedestrians to get safely to Boston. Where should we walk and bike now? McGrath? Mass Ave? 93?

    Vote YES on question 4, and we’ll finally have the money to complete the Community Path to the Charles River!

  8. Somerbreeze says:

    @Jonah Petri – If the path would be a “superhighway for bikes,” how would pedestrians get SAFELY to Boston?

  9. j. connelly says:

    So we already spent $millions for bicycle paths, then the bicyclists demanded space on the streets…these people cannot make up their minds and do not believe in fairness and common sense. there is no money for frivolous projects in the present economy

    A. Moore is correct….They want it…Let them pay for it and maintain it.

    Vote NO on question 4 !

  10. MarketMan says:

    j.connelly & Amoore: The bike path is not frivilous. That’s like arguing that any other infrastructure (roads, trains, etc) is frivolous. If we want more job growth, then we’ll need more infrastructure for commuters. Just because you don’t understand why someone would want to bike to work, there are many that want to do it. It could be for health/recreational reasons, but could also be for practical reasons. For example, I bike to my job because it is the *fastest* way to get there… faster than driving, faster than the T, faster than walking.

    Also, if you want to improve Somerville’s finances, you have to improve Somerville’s desirability. And one way is to provide more infrastructure and more recreational facilities. The bike path accomplishes both.

    I’m curious… how would YOU invest money in Somerville? You seem to complain about any investment. So clearly you have better ideas of how to invest in the city. What are they? Or maybe you don’t think Somerville should invest in itself. If so, that is the sure way for Somerville to wither away.

  11. Somerbreeze says:

    Every time I walk the bike path in Somerville, I have to be on guard against the butthead cyclists who careen down the path at breakneck speed, disregarding the safety of pedestrians…

    Until clueless jokers like these cease their endangerments, as a senior pedestrian, I oppose any furtherance of this Community Path!

  12. A Moore says:

    It is about paying down the debt. We are in over our heads When there is extra left over from the budject from being carefull then use the money then for such things. Common sense. As for biking I had no problem biking out to Lexington and many times to Woburn, so it is not about me being against bikes. Even though the bike path only benefits a tiny percentage of Somervile taxpayers that will make use of it. I wish I knew the percentage but I do know it has to be pretty low. Maybe 1% would be my guess.

  13. j. connelly says:

    Best common sense & correct way to invest! Pay off all existing debt and do not float bonds to incur additional debt till all existing past debt has been paid off.

    There should be higher fees for the developers for permits. etc. They reap Big Buck$ from these projects with mayor joe’s Developer Bond Assistance Program, at our expense, they proifiteer & disappear and are not around when the problems occur.

    Aldermen Bob Trane and Sean T. O’ Donovan do a good job having gone after Developers/Contractors for doing shoddy work and making them correct the problems.

    I would demand tax-exempt Tuft’s University, which costs the taxpayers million$ for city services they derive at our expense. (DPW, Fire/EMS, Police, etc.) Either pay [A] Somerville in lieu of taxes like the universities in Cambridge do -$18+ million a year. [B] a user fee everytime city services are provided.

    Then I would invest when the taxpayers could afford it…Not force them into financial hardship like the mayor is doing now.

  14. brooke says:

    How on earth is Somerville going to create more open spaces when they want to create 6,000 new housing units?

    Sounds like Agenda 21/ICLEI wrapped up in a nice little package that the taxpayers will pay for.

  15. John Wilde says:

    I am opposed to this proposal for several reasons:

    1. The real cost for this proposal will fall squarely on the shoulders of property owners, like myself, who live in their home and do not receive rents. Landlords can simply raise rents to cover any tax increase, but we can’t.
    The city is already extremely aggressive in taxing and increasing assessments on single-family home owners. Over 10 years, the city has more than doubled my assessed property value resulting in 30% higher taxes with no change in city services. Although the tax increase may be modest, the costs will be borne by single-family home owners with the money going to no specific project or plan. This continues a bad (but typical) tactic in Somerville of continually coming back to home owners to pick up the vast majority of tax revenues for the city. Those who are renting will also see their rents increase. Landlords will not be hurt by this. They will raise rents.

    2. Without a clear definition of what project this will serve, how can we know if it is worth supporting? One proposal is to support low-income housing. However, tax funds that typically support low-income housing, go directly to big-time developers to offset development costs in order to make units available at lower rents. I don’t know about others, but I’m not prepared to voluntarily have my taxes raised to be put in the pockets of millionaire developers or wealthy landlords.

    3. The state’s concept of this matching fund plan is discriminatory toward lower income communities like Somerville. If the state has funding available, it should be available to all communities. Why should we have to have our taxes (and rents) raised to get this funding? Wealthy communities, whose property owners pay a far smaller percentage of city tax revenues, can more easily agree to having their tax increased, but in Somerville, home owners’ taxes are already too high.

    4. We can not trust government bureaucracy to wisely use our tax revenues. The result of this will likely be greater bureaucracy with the money being wasted or given to political cronies.

    Proposal: If the city wants these funds, I propose we lower our current property tax by 1.5%. Then they can add back in the required 1.5% increase, (keeping our property tax unchanged), and apply the money for this fund. This is the right proposal for a community like Somerville. The city will have to tighten its belt to make up for the 1.5% decrease, (just like the rest of us who have seen a decrease in our real take home pay, while our taxes and cost of living continue to rise!)

  16. Jimmy B says:

    Surprisingly, I agree with J Connelly and A Moore here. For many of the same reasons, but also for some others. The CPA is designed to assist communities who want to rebuild infrastructure, open space, and affordable housing.

    Infrastructure – The city has already borrowed tons to rebuild infrastructure. It can shuffle priorities (more parades and festivals, please!) or seeking other money from state or federal grants.

    Open Space – This city’s idea of “open space” now is urban plazas and a smattering of strips of green on Assembly Row and the Community Path. I will give them credit for updating existing public space like Hodgkins Park and Perry Park, but they are removing real open space at Lincoln Park, potential parks at Max Pac, allowing additional units everywhere, and what will inevitably be condos in the Teele Square Hole.

    Affordable Housing – The city tolerates affordable units when developers begrudgingly add them. But the city was largely absent for the Boys & Girls Club project, several aldermen opposed a small affordable conversion on Highland Ave), and allowed a developer to knock down inexpensive housing next to Market Basket for the creation of luxury condos.

    Finally, on John Wilde’s excellent points – this should have been on the ballot last year or next year when municipal elections occur. We are going to have every grad student who’s passing through coming out to vote for Obama and Warren, and they’ll be voting on whether to increase our taxes, and then will jet off back home. Let the people who actually live here and invest themselves in this community vote on it (both newer folks and long time residents – if you vote in a muni election, you’re invested regardless of how long you’ve been here).

  17. Oldgrrrl says:

    Don’t be surprised if the bulk of this money goes to affordable housing, while open space, recreation, and historic preservation projects get left with the scraps.

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