Somerville Voters to Decide on Community Preservation Act

The Community Preservation Act puts aside money—raised by a tax surcharge and matching state funds—for open space, historic preservation and affordable housing.

In November, Somerville voters will decide whether or not to adopt the state's Community Preservation Act.

The Community Preservation Act, known as the CPA, is a tool cities and towns use to fund open space, historic preservation and affordable housing projects.

The Somerville Board of Aldermen voted Thursday to put an initiative about joining the CPA on November's ballot.

What is the Community Preservation Act?

Communities that adopt the CPA raise money through a surcharge on property taxes. The surcharge can be up to 3 percent of the real estate tax levy, but Somerville is proposing a surcharge of 1.5 percent.

As stated above, the money raised must be used for open space protection, historic preservation and affordable housing, and communities that join the program receive matching funds from the state for CPA projects.

About 148 cities and towns in Massachusetts have joined the CPA, including Belmont, Cambridge, Quincy, Waltham and Wellesley.

As an example, according to the Community Preservation Coalition, an advocate of the Community Preservation Act, Quincy has raised nearly $6 million from the surcharge and received about $3 million from the state.

Communities that join the CPA establish a community preservation committee that allocates at least 10 percent of the money raised to each of the three permitted categories—open space, historic preservation, affordable housing.

How much would it cost?

In presenting the Community Preservation Act ballot initiative to the Somerville Board of Aldermen Thursday, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said, "Fee, surcharge, tax: That can be a lightning-rod issue."

The mayor, who supports joining the CPA, said, "We're not a city of great resources" and, "We have so much more as a community that we want to achieve."

Marc Levye, Somerville's chief assessor, spoke Thursday about how much joining the CPA would cost average households.

  • The average condo, valued at around $324,000, would pay around $17
  • The average single-family home, valued around $405,000, would pay around $33
  • The average two-family home, valued around $487,000, would pay about $49
  • The average three-family home, valued around $550,000, would pay around $62

That's after the residential exemption is taken into account.

Levye told the aldermen he was still working out how much money the CPA surcharge would raise, but a ballpark figure—Levye emphasized it was a very rough figure—would be around $1 million to $1.2 million, he said.

How much money would Somerville get from the state?

The CPA was signed into law in 2000, and from 2002 to 2007, communities in the program received dollar-for-dollar matches from the state.

In 2010, the average state match was down to 31.5 percent of the local surcharge revenue, according to The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs's CPA website.

Voters decide

"This is a matter, ultimately, that will be decided by the voters," Curtatone said. The mayor added later, "I feel very excited by this opportunity."

"The long-term benefit will pay off," said Alderman At-Large John Connolly, who also supports the CPA.

It will be on the ballot on Nov. 6.

SML September 28, 2012 at 01:32 PM
Like others, I'm happy to pay for open space and historical renovations, but I think housing should be at market rate. Do we have any sense of what percentage will be spent on open space vs. affordable housing?
Joe Lynch September 28, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Jonah - love your enthusiasm, like the theory of more money for certain programs, but. It's more or our own state tax money coming back to us. That, in my book, is not necessarily FREE money. It's kinda like we pay a surcharge to get more of our own money back from the state. Almost like a BJ's rewards program. Only it's cash back for the city.
Jonah Petri September 28, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Hi Joe, What you say isn't really true... it's not our state tax money. The State's CPA trust is funded by a surcharge on real estate transactions, so it's not really the same as the a state income tax, nor does it deplete the state's general operating fund. Also, the entire State CPA fund will be emptied each year to reimburse those communities who have adopted the CPA, so if we don't adopt it, we're really just missing out on that money. That's part of why the CPA was originally criticized as a wealth transfer from urban communities (who didn't have open space to preserve, but still transferred lots of real estate) to suburban ones (who were a large part of the initial CPA adopters). This has been fixed by the recent changes to the CPA laws to allow the funds to be used for improvement of open space (like building the Community Path Extension!) rather than just land acquisition.
Jonah Petri September 28, 2012 at 02:21 PM
SML: The CPA mandates 10% of a city's CPA fund will be spent on each of the 3 main areas: (1) open space, (2) historic preservation, and (3) affordable housing. The remaining 70% of the fund is allocated by a panel of 5-9 members. See more details in the "Who Decides How the Money Gets Used?" section here: http://www.investinsomerville.com/how-the-cpa-works/
SML September 28, 2012 at 02:36 PM
I did read that. I'd be MUCH more likely to vote for this if some of the advocates came out with what their spending priorities will be like for the first few years. Like, if they said the next 2 years would be 10% historic preservation, 10% affordable housing and 80% allocated to the community path (open space), I'd probably be able to get there on voting for it. I'm interested in how they plan on spending the 70% that's flexible.


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