A proposal that the town adopt a 1 percent property tax surcharge to raise revenue for affordable housing, open space, historic preservation, and recreation projects is stirring debate in Stoneham as it heads for a ballot vote next month.
Town Meeting last Oct. 1 unanimously approved the town’s acceptance of the Community Preservation Act. But to be adopted, the measure must be approved by voters at the April 2 annual town election.
If passed, the CPA would add about $49 to the average annual tax bill in Stoneham, while generating about $400,000 in local revenues for the town, according to John Warren, who led the petition drive to place the proposal before Town Meeting.
“I think if people actually get the information about how this works, they would understand this is a tremendous deal for the town,” said Warren, a candidate for selectman in the April election.
“We have these deteriorating resources and historic artifacts that never get funded in the general budget. Here’s an opportunity to preserve the town’s culture, its history, and to do so with state aid,” added Warren.
Local CPA revenues are matched by a state trust fund generated from fees at registries of deeds. That match was 26.8 percent with the annual distribution last fall, but is expected to rise this year due to $25 million added by lawmakers to the state contribution.
But former selectman R. Paul Rotondi is strongly against the town adopting the act. And selectmen have voted against the proposal.
“It’s just an override. It’s just another way to circumvent [Proposition] 2½,” he charged, referring to the state law that limits annual property tax growth.
Rotondi said he also objected that the law would allow for “an independent, nonelected board to make priorities on how the town’s money is spent,” referring to the Community Preservation Committee that would recommend CPA expenditures to Town Meeting.
And Rotondi questioned if the CPA would bring more state dollars overall to the town, saying he believes the state would simply cut aid in other areas.
To date, 155 cities and towns have adopted the CPA, which allows for a surcharge of up to 3 percent. Most recently seven communities, including Beverly, Salem, and Somerville, adopted the law last November. Two rejected it.
The state last year overhauled the law in part to make it more attractive to urban communities. One change made it easier to use CPA money for recreation projects.
Another allowed communities adopting a minimum 1 percent surcharge to opt for a “blended” approach, in which they can place other revenues in their CPA fund that would be eligible for state matching dollars.
Salem and Somerville were the first communities to adopt the blended approach, and Stoneham would join their ranks.
The Stoneham proposal calls for the 1 percent surcharge, with exemptions for low- to moderate-income seniors and low-income residents. And tapping another new option under the law, it exempts $100,000 of the value of commercial properties. It does not offer that exemption for residential properties, an option the law has always allowed.
Warren said CPA dollars would help the town carry out such varied projects as upgrading athletic facilities, renovating low-cost housing, and developing a bike path.
“It just seems this is a vehicle to get some projects done so that we can build a better community,” he said.
There are no official ballot committees for either side. But Support Our Stoneham, a local civic organization that supports candidates and issues it feels will move the town forward, is urging residents to vote for the ballot question.
“It’s a very reasonable and modest approach to helping our community and receiving state aid,” said Martha Panther Buckley, a leader of the group, adding that it would fund projects “that we don’t get to address because we just haven’t been able to afford them.”
Rachel Meredith-Warren, another Support Our Stoneham member, said that since moving to town four years ago, she has been struck by the poor condition of the town’s community spaces, including its playgrounds and library.
“Everything seems to be falling apart,” said Meredith-Warren, who sees the CPA as one way to remedy that problem.
But the proposal has split the Board of Selectmen, which voted 3-2 recently to oppose it.
Selectman John DePinto said he voted to oppose the project in part to fulfill a promise he made to residents prior to last spring’s ballot vote on a debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, for the middle school building project.
DePinto said members of the Tri-Board, a joint panel that comprised selectmen, the School Committee, and the Finance and Advisory Board, all agreed at that time that they would “not support any override for five years with the exception of the debt exclusion for the middle school.”
He said he also believes it is “the wrong time to be asking people to kick in,” noting that as a certified public accountant, he is aware of added taxes and fees many residents face or might be hit with at the state and federal levels.
Selectman Thomas Boussy, who joined the board after last year’s debt exclusion, voted in support of the CPA.
“For years, the town hasn’t properly funded the creation and maintenance of our most basic assets,” Boussy said. “With the CPA, we have an opportunity to finally address our fields and playgrounds, our 97-year-old fire station, and our other historic buildings in the town, including the library, to make improvements to our open space as well as our low-income housing.”
He said the town could make those improvements with the state picking up 27 to 40 percent of the costs.
“I’m just not willing to turn a blind eye to that kind of money,” he said.