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Repost: Walpole should stay away from the CPA

November 15, 2012

This week, The Walpole Times published an article discussing Selectwoman Nancy Mackenzie’s push to impose the Community Preservation Act in Walpole. This has been expected for years. The below article was published on 180 on July 2. It is being re-posted here since the issue is now apparently relevant.

Hold on to your wallets.

Just weeks after forcing the average local family to approve a $330 hike in their property tax bill with a $3 million Proposition 2.5 tax override, Walpole Selectmen are now exploring bringing the Community Preservation Act to Walpole.

If implemented, all property taxpayers would pay a surcharge on top of their tax bills of between 1 and 3 percent, depending on at what percentage town officials set it. The money would then be used for projects around town related to affordable housing, historical preservation, or open space and recreation. The state would provide a matching grant for those projects, using money from fees on real estate transactions at the Registry of Deeds. Walpole could also supplement their fund for a higher matching grant with local revenue from hotel taxes, linkage fees, zoning payments, and parking fines – though Walpole currently collects very little money from these sources.

Residents would have to vote to accept the CPA through a town-wide referendum. Selectmen will be consulting experts on the CPA over the next few months, in order to possibly eventually present a proposal to voters.

Since its creation in 2000, almost 150 cities and towns across the state have enacted the CPA. The list is mostly made up of wealthier communities, because poorer towns often have difficulty affording the property tax surcharge.

As Selectwoman Nancy Mackenzie – one of the CPA’s most ardent local proponents – herself admitted, the CPA is basically yet another tax that hits families struggling to make ends meet. As was shown with last month’s override and now this CPA proposal, Walpole officials seem have a bad case of the wannabes – desperately attempting to turn our town into the more affluent Weston, Wayland, and Wellesley by continually increasing already-exorbitant taxes.

Not only is the CPA a tax, but it resembles a clever way for the town to get more of your money, around the limitations of Proposition 2.5, to pay for work they would normally pay for out of the annual town budget. The rules restricting the CPA to only affordable housing, historical preservation, or open space and recreation projects are routinely stretched by municipal officials. Weston officials used CPA money in the past to install a new drainage and irrigation system, supposedly because it helped maintain their high school playing fields and qualified as recreation use under the CPA guidelines. Sudbury used CPA money to build new sidewalks. West Boylston recently spent CPA money on new stained glassed windows for a local privately-run masonic lodge – under the reasoning that it qualified as historic preservation.

Although the law has been clarified in recent years, the restrictions are still quite vague. Cash-strapped municipal officials have also put increasing pressure on state legislators to loosen the restrictions on CPA-eligible projects. Just last month, as part of the FY 2013 state budget, the legislature changed the rules so that CPA money can now be used to rehabilitate existing municipal parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields even if those areas were not originally acquired with CPA money. The previous rule allowed the funds only for recreation projects if they were for new recreational space or for revamping projects purchased with CPA funds.

The new rule, as Commonwealth Magazine reported in April, means that now, for the first time, communities like Walpole could actually use CPA money to do work they routinely fund through the normal annual capital budget process anyway.

More concerning, all projects funded with CPA money can be approved only by Town Meeting at the recommendation of a Community Preservation Committee that would be made up of mostly, if not entirely, appointed members. The CPA surcharge would be a permanent addition to residents’ property tax bills, yet decisions as to where that money is spent would be firmly out of those same residents’ hands. Both state legislators, through their ability to change the rules, and Town Meeting Representatives, through their ability to vote on where the money goes, would have unfettered access to spend tax dollars on any number of projects without direct approval from residents.

Supporters like Mackenzie argue that bringing the CPA to Walpole is a financial benefit for the town, because Walpole would qualify for matching funds from the state on all CPA projects – cutting the cost of those projects for local taxpayers. But Walpole officials know from past experience that there are already multiple other opportunities for public and private grants. For historic preservation projects, the town could qualify for grants from the Massachusetts Historical Commission or The National Trust for Historic Preservation. For open space or affordable housing, the town could pursue grants or public-private partnerships.

The lure of easy money through yet another state grant program is quite tempting, but that creates a situation where town officials will spend money just for the sake of spending money simply because a matching grant is available year-after-year. Without having to get voter approval on each project, Town Hall will probably go out of its way, just like the other communities currently in the program, to create new projects just to spend the money.

As it is, Walpole town officials have to get voter approval for a debt exclusion override to fund many of the types of projects that the CPA is used for. This process works, and there is nothing wrong with it. In the past, voters have shown a willingness to support open space acquisition, as with the Adams Farm override in the 1990s. More recently, voters might have had a chance to acquire the Sunnyrock Farm through a similar override, assisted in part by a public-private partnership and generous private donations, if Town Hall hadn’t been so greedy for more money that it put a general permanent override on the ballot instead.

Proposition 2.5 gives the voters a say on which projects they want to fund with a local property tax hike, and still allows the town to obtain grants. The system is fairer to taxpayers than the CPA.

The CPA matching grants aren’t always guaranteed, either. As more towns enacted the CPA over the years, it has become harder for the state to fund the matching grants as the money becomes diluted. The state legislature actually had to infuse $25 million in tax dollars into the program this year to make up for its unanticipated growth. Legislators also hope to entice more towns to join the program, which means the mad rush for the cash will only continue and the dilution will only get worse. If Walpole joins now, before long, Walpole may soon find itself getting less and less from the fund.

Mackenzie insists that at any point Walpole could simply repeal the CPA if the town finds it is no longer getting any benefit from it. That’s a nice thought, but it’s easier said than done.

It takes a vote of the community to get the town out of the CPA, and under the law that vote can not even occur until five years after the town has enacted it. But as with any tax increase, once government learns to depend on a new revenue stream, anybody who proposes to get rid of it will be attacked and labeled as a “threat” to the future of the community. Every tax increase inevitably becomes permanent, because government becomes too addicted to the cash. Even if the state CPA grants become harder to access, the property tax surcharge on local homeowners will still be there and town officials will find that money too inviting to get rid of the program altogether.

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