While most cities and towns have four questions to answer during the general election on Nov. 8 including the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” changes to dental insurance, changes to liquor licenses, and whether or not to uphold a vote by the state legislature to allow undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license, the Town of Burlington decided to add one more when May Town Meeting approved a warrant article that will give residents an opportunity to vote to become a member of the Community Preservation Act (CPA).
The CPA is a state program that could help Burlington preserve open space, historic sites, affordable housing, and develop outdoor recreation facilities. Burlington can become a CPA community through a Town Meeting vote and/or ballot question.
If passed at Town Meeting, the question must go on the ballot at the next regularly scheduled election, meaning the town can’t hold a special election to vote on the question.
Funding sources come from a surcharge of between .5 and three percent on a resident’s property tax bill or a commercial property tax bill and a matching grant from the state, which currently sits at more than 40 percent (and has been as high as 67 percent in the past decade).
Conservation Commission Chair Larry Cohen proposed a 1.5 percent surcharge, which he called the most common tax rate for CPA communities.
“The CPA trust fund would give the community whatever the match is in November by check, regardless if a project is initiated in a given year,” explained Cohen during Town Meeting in May. “The state collects $24M to $53M per year, based on revenue from real estate transactions at the Registry of Deeds.”
If the question passes and the town sets the rate at 1.5 percent, then residents would pay an extra $75 on a home valued at $600,000 and an extra $750 on a building valued at $2M. This, plus whatever the state matches (40 percent would mean an extra $0.40 for every dollar collected) goes into a CPA trust fund to spend on specific projects and initiatives.
Cohen said more than 180 Massachusetts communities adopted the CPA raising more than $2B for various projects, creating more than 5,000 affordable housing units, supported 8,200 more, preserving 27,000 acres of open space and 4,700 for historical preservation projects, and initiating 2,000 outdoor recreation projects.
Any community involved in the CPA has to create a Community Preservation Committee with the objective of conducting studies for a community’s needs and preservation. The committee would have at least one public hearing each year where they would hear proposals from the public and vote on projects deemed worthy of being moved forward to Town Meeting.
The various aspects of the CPA - open space, historic sites, affordable housing, and outdoor recreation facilities - would each have to get at least 10 percent of the funds, so no category can get more than 70 percent.
Cohen called the surcharge more than a tax, saying it’s a “steady funding source for preserving and enhancing our community’s character and quality of life.” He added how those residents who can least afford it won’t pay a surcharge at all as long as they qualify for the necessary exemptions (this includes seniors and a couple making less than $77K per year).
The Conservation Commission chair mentioned the “benefit of having these funds available for open space, recreation, historic preservation, and affordable housing should be evident to anyone who cares about these issues in our community.”
A member of Town Meeting called placing the question on the November ballot a “painless vote,” wanting to give residents the chance to decide.
Cohen also went in front of the Select Board last month to ask for their
“We are asking for the Select Board’s endorsement at this level recommending citizens vote yes on this very important ballot question,” explained Cohen. “Our goal is to just educate people. We are not trying to influence how they vote. This is informing people what this means and what it could do for the community so they can make an educated decision.”
Board members backed Cohen’s request and unanimously endorsed a “yes” vote this November. However, even with the support of Town Meeting and the Select Board, getting the question passed is no slam dunk.
Yeses and nos
Over the past several weeks, many residents wrote in to the Daily Times Chronicle to voice their support or opposition to the question.
Town Meeting member Gary Kasky warned residents if they support the ballot question, “an annual surcharge of 1.5 percent of your real estate taxes will be assessed on all tax invoices going forward.”
He added, “It also means that as your tax bill increases, as they always do, the amount of this assessment will also increase. There is no opting out of this mandatory tax for the average taxpayer.”
He noted how the state match can always change, including via a reduction, or even disappear entirely without any of the collected funds being returned to the taxpayers.
“At a time when a possible recession is looming nationwide that will financially impact all taxpayers,” Kasky wrote, “we need to give serious thought to whether or not the average taxpayer can afford this added tax.”
He pointed out the new Burlington police headquarters at an estimated cost of $30M and a potential new high school as other projects taxpayers could be asked to fund.
“I urge you to vote your wallet and vote NO on CPA,” the Town Meeting member stressed.
Another Town Meeting member, Matt Frost, also opposed the ballot question. He offered nine reasons voters should reject the proposed CPA initiative. He pointed to the surcharge, the idea the money would pay for “unspecified, potentially unnecessary projects,” the fact the surcharge grows as your taxes do, the “non-guaranteed matching” grant, the potential for a tax increase to pay for ongoing expenses to maintain and operate CPA facilities, spending “up to five percent … on ‘administrative’ expenses,” additional expenses, Burlington not being “as well-known for its history,” and higher taxes being antithetical to recent “initiatives to make Burlington more affordable and diverse.”
“Thus,” Frost concluded, “the costs of this boondoggle would exceed its benefits and further aggravate Burlington’s declining affordability, warranting your “no” vote.”
On the flip side, several residents wrote in expressing their support for the ballot question.
Kevin Sullivan said, “As a Recreation Commissioner for 20 years, and Town Meeting member for 10 years, I admire the cooperation among our Town Meeting, Ways & Means, Capital Budget, department heads, boards and commissions.”
He continued, “Our Recreation Department offers great programs, but our parks, fields, and facilities lag behind neighboring towns, many of whom are CPA members. Bike paths, improved fields, pickle ball courts, restrooms, updated playgrounds and a pool are often requested by our residents.”
Sullivan pointed out how CPA funds could have helped renovate Simonds Park basketball courts, and with the matching state grant would have saved the town $48,000. He went on to note how the Simonds Park playground will need a “complete makeover at a potential cost of over $500,000.” With the current state match, the CPA would save the town $150,000.
“Yes, CPA is a tax increase, but comes with a state match (last year 40 cents on the dollar). There are exemptions for seniors and those mak(ing) less than 80 percent of area wide median income. Burlington is a wonderful community, but it could be even better with CPA,” Sullivan finished.
Monte Pearson, also in favor of the CPA, wrote about traffic issues and how the CPA could offer funding to help support other means of transportation besides automobiles.
“Burlington can reduce the number of cars on the road by making bicycle commuting a viable alternative,” Pearson suggested. “The obvious place to start is improving the Minuteman Bikeway (the Lower Vine Brook bike path) so it provides an alternative transportation route into town from both Bedford and Lexington.”
He also expressed support for another bike plan, a protected bike lane down Cambridge Street.
“If implemented,” he wrote, “we would get a whole different population out and bike riding in Burlington. From kids to adults, it would make Burlington’s central business area more accessible and people friendly.”
Knowing that, he asked residents to “take advantage of the CPA program. Please vote to accept the Community Preservation Act (Question 5) on the November 2022 election ballot.”
(Materials from Mark Biagiotti were used to compile this report)
Over the last five years, Arlington has received close to 1 million dollars from the state under the Community Preservation Act. Burlington has received nothing since they are not certified for the program. Arlington is supported by residential property taxes that represent 99% of levy revenue so the 1.5% CPA tax fell upon non-commercial property owners. Overall Arlington has generated about 9 million dollars during these last five for Community Preservation which includes the 1 million. Burlington generates 62% of its tax revenue from commercial property while non-commercial represents 38%. Effectively commercial property will cover 62% of the 1.5 CPA increase. Isn't it time to say "YES"? resident of district 3.
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