27th Middlesex District
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
A perfectly beautiful Saturday a few weeks ago was one of those rare occasions when Prospect Hill Tower was open to the public. I joined many others who were to enjoying the tower’s panoramic views, and its historic significance; it proved to be a great place for reflecting on Somerville’s past and its future. As I had climbed up into the tower – for the first time ever – I noticed the plaster and mortar crumbling from its walls, the paint scaling off the rusted wrought iron of the balustrades on the spiral staircase.
We are a city dreaming about our potential, and yet one of our most treasured historic landmarks is still sliding into disrepair. Somerville has made many improvements in the last thirty or so years, but our small land area and modest tax base have kept us a city of limited resources. Our city government has been careful about keeping taxes relatively low, and we have not spent what we might over the years to improve our parks, to take care of our historic properties, and to help make sure that people in Somerville are able to live here affordably.
Many of us would like to see the Community Path fully extended, but a funding gap keeps us stuck at a dead end. There are those who dream about repairing the steps Prospect Hill, renovating our libraries, or fixing up the run down playground on Central Hill, but projects build up on our wish list, waiting for an opportunity, a grant, a few more dollars. Meanwhile, more and more people struggle with the cost of housing in Somerville, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to pay for the development or renovation of decent and affordable housing, as resources dwindle.
Making Somerville a truly great 21st Century city will require investing more in our public amenities. Yet this challenge comes at a time when federal spending is about to be massively cut, and our state struggles with a sputtering economy. Fortunately, we have on our ballot this year a fairly painless way to invest in the kind of improvements that have gone unmade from lack of sufficient funding: the Community Preservation Act (CPA).
Since 2001, many other communities have been able to achieve items on their wish lists by using funding from CPA. The CPA raises revenues through a modest surcharge on the property tax, which then qualifies communities for additional funds, distributed from the State’s CPA Public Trust. We all pay into this trust fund, through fees at our registry of deeds, and through state taxes – and now is our opportunity to claim Somerville’s share of those funds.
Wealthy communities have long taken advantage of the notion that by investing a little bit, you can multiply your returns. Many towns have used annual cash disbursements from CPA to increase their capital budgets for treasured projects, like parks, or renovations of historic or affordable properties, without increasing bonding and paying the cost of debt service. CPA money can also be used to leverage additional funding from state, federal, and sometimes private sources. The 148 cities and towns that have already passed CPA are benefiting from public funds that those of us who haven’t passed CPA are leaving on the table.
Now it’s our turn to take advantage of CPA resources, and make sure that this public funding doesn’t continue to go to other communities without Somerville getting our fair share. Legislative changes to the CPA signed into law this year particularly benefit Somerville: under the amended law, communities can count existing funding streams, like Linkage Fees, as part of their contributing share. This change allows Somerville to charge a lower surcharge, but still reach our maximum match from the state’s CPA Trust Fund. Also, we are now entitled to use CPA funding for repairs and improvements to parks and open space; under the old law, these monies could be spent for land acquisition only.
There is a simple notion behind the Community Preservation Act: everyone benefits from investment in our community. Paying a modest surcharge – $20 or $30 or even $60 dollars a year – is a small price to pay for turning Somerville’s wish list of projects into up-to-date parks and buildings on the ground. It’s not a one-time grant, but an infusion of over $1.5 million each year, dedicated expressly for open space and parks, historic preservation, and affordable housing.
Somerville has a chance to claim its share of these funds, or let others take it instead – let’s take this opportunity while it’s in our hands.