Somerville's Question 4: Is it worth it?

For most people in Somerville, once you pay the mortgage and do required maintenance there's just not much left over. Will passing Question 4 (the Community Preservation Act) be worth it?

I'm a Somerville homeowner and enjoy living here.  But sometimes homeownership can seem pretty expensive.  It feels like an endless stream of bills, fees, assessments and taxes come month after month.  For most people, once you pay the mortgage and do required maintenance there's just not much left over.

So when I first heard about a referendum to raise taxes for the Community Preservation Act, I thought, "Are you kidding me? More taxes?"

But I saw that the Mayor, the Board of Alderman and just about every other elected official from Somerville was backing it and so I decided to look into it.

It turns out 148 other Massachusetts communities are already benefiting from the Community Preservation Act that was passed in 2000.  The state program is financed by recording fees charged by the Registries of Deeds. 

Passing Question 4 would authorize the city to raise local funds with a 1.5 percent surcharge on our property tax bills creating a local dedicated Community Preservation Fund for open space preservation, preservation of historic resources, development of affordable housing, and the acquisition and development of outdoor recreational facilities.

In Somerville that could be as much as a million and a half dollars a year!  

Now I see Question 4 as a bargain for Somerville.  We double our money with the state match and it will only go for very specific – and much needed – community improvements.  It will create local jobs and improve home values.  

Patch readers can learn more about it by visiting www.investinsomerville.com.

I hope Somerville voters will vote "YES" on Question 4.  Invest in Somerville: It's worth it! 


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John Smith November 05, 2012 at 05:52 PM
My answer is no, it is not worth it. The fact is, this will only tax homeowners, and only those homeowners who don't fall into the elderly or low income category. People like myself who try to help out low-income tenants by not charging outlandish rates will be hurt. Unless, of course, we decide it's time to pass the cost along, and thus hurt the same low-income residents who are supposed to be exempt. Another problem is that you don't know what you are voting for. An unelected committee will determine where the money will be spent. Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. We are being told that it is such a small amount, it's really no big deal. Well, it is a big deal to those of us who are already struggling. And there's no guarantee that it won't go up every year with our property taxes. Also, if there are restoration projects or recreational projects that are truly needed and worthwhile, perhaps the Mayor could eliminate a few of his needless events that do nothing but cost the taxpayers money, and inconvenience the majority of taxpayers.
Jonah Petri November 05, 2012 at 05:57 PM
It's $3/month for the average Somerville home. Just $3/month, and it raises millions of dollars dedicated exclusively for our parks, playgrounds, and improving our community. It also gets free matching money from the state, which would otherwise go to other communities. I have never seen such an obvious "YES" vote.
John Smith November 05, 2012 at 06:13 PM
So for the first year it will be $36.00 per year. And what will it be the next year and the next? How will you feel when they decide they will use your money to fund a large low-income building in your neighborhood? What if they decide to only fund low-income housing? People are already fighting against such buildings in Union Square.
Jonah Petri November 05, 2012 at 06:28 PM
John, The average charge will not change unless our home values go up dramatically, or we vote to change the surcharge. I'm fine with that. They also cannot "only fund low-income housing". The law specifies specific minimum allocations of the funds to each of parks & playgrounds, community housing, and historic preservation. Personally, I think mixing low-income and market-rate housing is really vital to keeping Somerville a vibrant & affordable community. I would welcome subsidized housing in my neighborhood. I'm not buying that we should be afraid of people who don't make enough money to afford the half-million dollars you need for a condo around here. If we want to continue to build Somerville into a fantastic 21st century city, we need this dedicated stream of money for investing back into our community.
Rand Wilson November 05, 2012 at 07:00 PM
John, I think you are expressing the concerns that many people in Somerville may have about Question 4. And Jonah, I think you are providing solid answers about how the new Community Preservation Fund (or Trust) has built in safeguards for homeowners. Affordable housing is certainly a hot issue in our community. While I strongly support more affordable housing, I doubt this measure will generate enough money to make much of a difference. But it will improve the community overall and thus raise property values.
Lee Palmer November 05, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Just one factual correction here, John: there IS a guarantee (written into the law) that the rate CANNOT change AT ALL for the first 5 years after enacted and then after that it can only change if the voters of the city approve another ballot question, just like this one, to change the rate. And 1.5% of your current taxes really IS a small amount such that if you were to pass it on to your renters it will increase their rent by a dollar or two. Many renters I've talked to say they are willing to pay that increase to see better parks, etc.Makes our city just that much nicer to live in for everyone!
Lee Palmer November 05, 2012 at 07:41 PM
John, $36 is what the average Somerville homeowner will pay - what YOU will pay is calculated as 1.5% of your current tax bill. For example, if you pay $2K per year in taxes (which I do) then I will pay an additional $30 per year as the CPA surcharge. Well worth it to me for the city to get millions!
Dave November 05, 2012 at 07:42 PM
As a renter, I'm disturbed by some of the comments that I've read regarding Question 4. Some property owners think that we renters should not be voting on this despite being contributing citizens of Somerville. The 2br apartment across the hall that was going for 1,600 last year is now renting for 2,000 and my landlord has made it clear to me and my partner that ours will go up at least that much which is way out of our price range. My question is... if Question 4 passes and landlords pass along the increase to their tenants, what are people like me and my partner who have been living in Somerville for 10+ years and who are part of its creative economy supposed to do? Are we simply a casualty of progress?
Rob November 05, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Dave, I think you make a very valid point : renters and property owners are both valuable residents of Somerville, and as such each deserve to weigh in on Question 4. But I think that the other comments here also make a good point : the average charge from Question 4 is low enough that it shouldn't force anyone out of Somerville. Should landlords choose to pass it through to their tenants, then it would be a truly modest increase to monthly rent (~$3/month, as Jonah mentions...). Question 4 is not a reason for landlords to raise rents by significant amounts. With maintaining affordability as one of its main goals, the Question 4 low is designed to NOT be a burden to the cities that adopt it. Again, as many people have said on here, I see this as a no brainer. A truly modest investment given the size of the payoff. And other communities have already adopted it - we're missing out! I'm a YES on Question 4 for Election Day.
Marta Johansen November 05, 2012 at 08:17 PM
I don't know about others, but for me, every time I turn around the past few years, something is increasing a 'modest amount', the 'cost of a cup of coffee'. Well, all of those cups of coffee added together equal a large increase. My costs have been raising every year, yet my salary is not. This is just one more 'small' increase. And by the way, I don't often buy 'a cup of coffee', because it's beyond my current budget. I make mine at home, the old-fashioned way. And for those who say that this is good because it will increase your property values. Don't forget that that is only a plus if you sell your home or apply for a home equity loan. Otherwise, increase property values mean only increased taxes.....but don't worry, it's no more than 'a cup of coffee'.
Matt C November 05, 2012 at 10:21 PM
I can't vote yes for this on either. I would rather have the 1.5% surcharge and KNOW exactly what it will go towards. If the city were to propose something along those lines I would be happy to support it - but untargeted spending... not so much.
Alan November 05, 2012 at 10:50 PM
Perhaps it might be better if we could vote on actual projects right now but that’s just not how the State legislation allowing Somerville to adopt the CPA was formulated. I think it would be impractical to first develop and proposed projects with costs without even knowing whether Somerville will adopt the program! If adopted, there will be ample public input into proposing projects and getting them approved (or rejected) by the Alderman. Plus, we do know what 3 types of projects the funds will be spent on. Other than not re-electing our public officials, we really don’t normally get much input into the large range of issues that the rest of our taxes are spent on. I think this is a reasonable process and 3 very good causes.
Matt C November 05, 2012 at 10:58 PM
Alan, I know that - I guess I just can't in good conscience fund some of those that I fundamentally disagree with, in the end even if it is just $ coming from the state match it is still money that we paid in taxes. Had they asked for 100$ to put towards the community path, or projects they would like to target on a priority rank, or a commitment to what levels of funding they will give to the 3 categories I could feel comfortable... the way this is, i do not.
Paul November 06, 2012 at 09:39 AM
Cambridge put 80% of its funding from this to subsidized housing (I wish people would stop using the loaded term affordable housing). We have no guarantees that Somerville won't do the same. Everytime someone mentions that, we are told our concerns don't matter. I would pay 10 times this tax if I knew it was directly targeted to fund the Community Path extension.
SomervilleGirl November 06, 2012 at 03:49 PM
I had been opposed, but voted for it. I'm also a homeowner and will be subjected to over a hundred dollar increase or more--I too, have maintenance costs, etc. I'll expain why I changed my mind--"for open space preservation, preservation of historic resources, development of affordable housing, and the acquisition and development of outdoor recreational facilities". We must hold the politicians to these promises which will benefit the communities. If we vote, NO, what will happen then? More ugly, oversized condos taking the place of affordable housing? We need to maintain balance. Open space? Will that be eliminated at the scene of a greedy developer who shows up with cash in hand?
Francesca November 06, 2012 at 05:20 PM
I agree with you John. My parents are retired and are homeowners. With the inflated value of the housing market, they pay enough in taxes. This increase will hurt low income elderly. I vote NO on this and I agree with the Mayor eliminating a few of his needless events that cost the taxpayers money.
Rob November 06, 2012 at 05:33 PM
Francesca, if your parents are low income, they won't have to pay the surcharge! This is a smart program designed not to burden those residents that it would most help! It's such a modest amount per year but generates a ton if money. And this money is separate from the mayor's city budget. It's specifically for parks, housing, and historic preservation. A Yes on Question 4 would bring much needed funds into somerville. We can't pass this up!
SomervilleGirl November 06, 2012 at 05:47 PM
Rob, "It's specifically for parks, housing, and historic preservation". Let's hope that it goes there and not to hire more cronies.
glenn eastman November 07, 2012 at 06:23 AM
i have lived in somerville for over 50 years and we are fortunate to have joe as our mayor. the city of somerville has never looked better and while other cities and towns struggle we strive and move forward. we have a number of new police cruisers,so many road improvements and park improvements. 1.5 % is a small price to pay for the services we will get
Rand Wilson November 07, 2012 at 03:28 PM
I am happy to report that Question 4 passed, with overwhelming support from our community. While not all of the results were in late last night, it appears to have won with a 76% YES vote! That's a very impressive majority. Way to go Somerville! Now we have to work to make sure that those who will oversee how the new funds are used live up to the promise of more affordable housing, parks and recreation and historic preservation.


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