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High court rejects Newton's use of tax money for parks

Posted October 24, 2008 07:52 PM

In a case stemming from Newton, the state's highest court ruled has ruled that a property tax surcharge collected by communities under the Community Preservation Act cannot be used to improve existing parks, a decision that will likely impact park and recreation area improvement projects across the state.

More than 130 communities participate in the Community Preservation Act, a law that pools a surcharge from participating communities to pay for the acquisition of new park land, affordable housing, and historic renovation. Since its inception in 2000, the Community Preservation Act has funded more than 3,000 open space and preservation projects, from the purchase of 27.5 acres of open space in Weston to the construction of artificial turf fields at Lincoln-Sudbury and Acton high schools.

"I'm sure every community in the Commonwealth is watching this decision," said David Luberoff , executive director of the Rappaport Institute at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The Supreme Judicial Court's decision Friday upheld a lower court ruling in a lawsuit brought by 10 taxpayers in Newton two years ago. The group challenged the city's appropriation of $765,825 in Community Preservation funds for improvement projects at Stearns Park and Pellegrini Park, including a new basketball court, tot lot, and baseball diamond.

Many of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are current or former members of the Newton Taxpayer's Association, a tax watchdog group that has advocated for lower taxes. Their lawyer and cohort, Guive Mirfendereski, called the ruling "very, very good."

The CPA was enacted in 2000 and allows communities to vote on whether to adopt a 1 to 3 percent real estate tax surcharge. Money collected locally is matched by the state from a trust fund subsidized through $10 and $20 transaction fees imposed statewide at the Registry of Deeds. Communities may use the funding for income-linked housing, open space, historic preservation and recreation projects.

Mirfendereski said many Newton residents spoke out against the city's passage of CPA because it increased the city's tax rate. But Mirfendereski said he and the plaintiffs were later outraged to see the city spend CPA money on questionable projects. For example, the city proposed spending $2.9 million in CPA funds to install an artificial turf field at Newton South High School. And the city did spend $180,000 in CPA funds to fix windows at the local YMCA.

"The YMCA charges fees, why can't they go to their members for this?" Mirfendereski said of the funding. City officials "were dipping into this honey pot and there were all sorts of misappropriations."

-- Megan Woolhouse and Brian Benson

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