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Abuses of the CPA are common

November 26, 2012

The Community Preservation Act, as its name suggests, is intended to help communities preserve important assets like recreational properties and historical resources and also to improve communities through manageable affordable housing. Cities and towns that implement a 1 to 3 percent surcharge on their property taxes can use that money, along with lucrative state grants, to help fund specific projects in only four specific uses: acquiring open space; acquiring, preserving, and rehabilitating historical resources; acquiring and maintaining recreational land; and creating and supporting community housing.

Unfortunately, as economic storms batter our state, municipal leaders have faced increasing pressure on their budgets. That means that town officials are finding ways to use community preservation funds for other areas of the budget, liberally applying the money to other projects that are only slightly related to the CPA’s intended purposes.

In a previous blog post, 180 explained why the availability of CPA grant money, supposedly a way to cut the costs of projects for towns, isn’t as great as it seems, as the grant money is becoming diluted and the state increasingly finds itself leaving some CPA projects without grant money or funded with lesser and lesser amounts of grant money.

But the abuses of the CPA in other municipalities, using money for projects that are only loosely tied to the four specified uses, provide some other warnings about the dangers of instituting it in Walpole.

Some towns use CPA funds for otherwise routine capital projects that just happen to be done at historic town facilities. Because the CPA allows for spending money on historical resources, the expenses are permitted even though state grants aren’t always offered to cut the costs of the projects.

In 2002, Rowley spent $10,000 in CPA funds on a handicapped lift at their “historic” Town Hall. In 2011, Hopkinton spent $20,600 on a handicapped ramp at their “historic” town library. In 2009, Bridgewater spent $26,000 in CPA funds on the “design and installation of HVAC system for the library historic documents’ room.”

In 2010, Hopkinton used $300,000 in CPA funds for “renovations and preservation” of their local historic Town Hall. In other words, Hopkinton property taxpayers, thinking their CPA money would actually be used for community preservation, instead paid for an expensive, full-scale renovation of their Town Hall, the type of project that would otherwise be paid for with a Proposition 2.5 debt exclusion override or through the capital budget.

In 2010, Hopkinton also used $9,850 in CPA funds for “restoration of Town Hall landscaping in keeping with the historical district & Town Hall.” They also spent $7,500 in CPA funds, qualifying as recreation use, for a “design and landscape plan for the town common.”

In 2010, Hadley used $7,500 in CPA funds to repair ceilings at their historic Goodwin Memorial Library.

In 2008, Hadley spent $84,000 in CPA funds for “engineering and repairs” for a dike, supposedly so a “historic” neighborhood could be preserved. You read that right. Yes, CPA funds were used for a dike!

In 2012, Hadley spent $8,500 in CPA funds to “replace and paint” columns in the steeple of a local historic church – a private organization.

Some towns are even more ambitious with CPA cash, using it to pay for consultants and other services.

In 2010, Bridgewater spent $60,000 in CPA funds on a “CPA Consultant/Preservation Planner and Grant Writer.” According to the online CPA project database, the purpose was “to enhance CPA goals and objectives by securing additional grant funds and helping with preservation planning.”

In 2007, Bridgewater used $28,000 in CPA funds to hire a liaison to “support the CPA committee in all town activities pertaining to Community Preservation – historic preservation; open space; affordable housing; active and passive recreation; and related matters.”

The CPA also allows communities to spend up to five percent of CPA cash per year on what are termed in the law as “administrative and operating expenses of the Community Preservation Committee.” Between 2007 and 2011, Bridgewater spent more than $160,000 on administrative expenses related to the CPA.

In theory, we all should support the types of uses that the CPA allows towns to fund. Recreational properties, open space, modest investments in historical resources, and modest efforts to establish affordable housing are all things that the government should provide. But, as other towns have demonstrated, implementing the CPA simply opens the floodgates for town officials to find other ways to spend CPA money. They will go to great lengths to find a way to tie their capital budget needs, like building renovations and landscaping projects, to the CPA. In essence, the CPA becomes a permanent property tax override.

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