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Reading voters okay library tax hike, while Stoneham voters reject surcharge

Posted by Your Town  April 4, 2013 10:58 AM

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Stoneham residents rejected a 1 percent tax surcharge to fund preservation projects, while Reading residents agreed to a temporary tax hike for a library building project, in town elections held Tuesday.

By a 1,366 to 1,043 margin, Stoneham voters defeated a proposal that the town adopt the state Community Preservation Act, which allows a maximum 3 percent local property tax surcharge for affordable housing, open space, historic preservation, and recreation projects.

Reading voters, by a 2,096 to 1,074 margin, a debt exclusion — or temporary tax increase — to fund the town’s $9.8 million share of an overall $14.9 million project to renovate and expand the library on Middlesex Avenue.

Stoneham’s Town Meeting last October had unanimously approved adoption of the CPA, but the measure also required a positive ballot vote. A state trust fund generated from fees at registries of deeds currently adds 26.8 percent to the amount communities collect from the CPA surcharge, but that percentage is expected to rise this year because of $25 million the state added to its contribution.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Martha Panther Buckley, a leader of a local civic group – Support Our Stoneham – that supported passage of the question. “I think it was a reasonable proposal that would have benefited our community a lot.

“We missed an opportunity to improve our parks and recreation and historical buildings in a way that would have enhanced Stoneham and helped us keep up with our neighboring communities,” Buckley added.

But R. Paul Rotondi, a former selectman who advocated against the CPA, said he was very pleased with the outcome.
“I’m glad the voters of Stoneham realize that this was nothing but an override and that there are other ways to handle those issues,” he said.

The proposed surcharge would have exempted the properties of low to moderate income seniors and low income non-seniors, and $100,000 of the value of commercial properties. It would have added about $49 to the average annual tax bill for a single-family home, and generated about $400,000 in annual local revenue for the town.

For John Warren, who led the petition drive to place the CPA before Town Meeting, Tuesday was doubly disappointing. In addition to the CPA defeat, Warren lost a bid for selectmen, finishing fourth in a closely contested race for two seats.

“It looks to me like the incumbents won their elections and the CPA lost. That is a vote where people said they want to keep Stoneham the way it is,” Warren said.

“I really thought that people wanted to make an investment in the community to make improvements for things we are not funding out of the general budget,” Warren said. “The CPA was a good opportunity to have the outdoor recreational facilities you see in other towns.”

On average over a 10-year period, the debt exclusion in Reading will add $146 to the annual tax bill of a typical single-family home valued at $400,000, according to Bob LeLacheur, Reading’s finance director.

The state Board of Library Commissioners last October awarded the town a $5.1 million grant for the project, subject to the town appropriating its $9.8 million share by June 2013. A Special Town Meeting Jan. 28 authorized the full project cost, contingent on passage of the debt exclusion to cover the town’s share.

Ruth Urell, the town’s library director, in a statement called the outcome of the ballot vote “wonderful news.”

“We will be restoring a beautiful and cherished historic building to serve as Reading’s library well into the 21st century. The renovations and addition will allow for a library design that meets all of the community’s needs, as well as eliminating safety and compliance concerns,” she said.

She said the town can now proceed with selection of a project manager, and an architect to finalize the project design, as well as to plan for a temporary move of library operations.

Construction is expected to begin early next year. Selectmen recently formed a building committee to help guide the project to completion.

Constructed in 1896, the building served as the Highland School until it was converted to the library in 1983. Officials have said the building has significant deficiencies, ranging from a leaky roof and pipes to outmoded mechanical systems, windows needing replacement, and exterior masonry needing repairs.

The project calls for renovating the 31,000-square-foot building and constructing a 7,596- square-foot addition on the east side. The addition will create more space for silent study, quiet reading, children’s services and programs, and public computers and community use.

“It’s very exciting,” Urell said in an interview. “We are thrilled and we can’t wait to get to work.”

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