SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 18, 2012

CPA faces grilling at forum

Residents on both sides give their take on ballot question

BY TOM DALTON STAFF WRITER
The Salem News

---- — SALEM — If the Community Preservation Act, a local ballot question in Salem, is going to be approved by voters in the Nov. 6 state election, it will have to fare a lot better than it did last night at a forum at the Moose Family Center.

Although the evening was billed as an information session and not a debate, some of the nearly 100 residents who attended had trouble keeping their opinions to themselves.

“What is it about ‘no more taxes’ that isn’t understood?” resident Tim Doggett asked near the end of the 90-minute program. “We don’t want any more taxes, period.”

Moments later, Pam Lombardini, a North Salem resident, raised her hand to speak.

“I can’t afford any more (taxes) — I’m done,” she said emphatically.

The Community Preservation Act, passed into law in 2000, allows communities to assess residents a “surcharge” of up to 3 percent on their property tax bills and use that money, plus state matching funds, to fix playgrounds, restore historic properties and support affordable housing. So far, 148 communities around the state have signed on.

In Salem, residents are being asked to approve a lesser amount, a 1 percent surcharge, which would amount to $30 for the average single-family home, according to city officials.

Overall, the CPA is expected to generate about $400,000 in Salem, which would be increased by state matching funds, for an estimated total of anywhere from $480,000 to $600,000.

Not everyone would have to pay the surcharge, CPA supporters stress.

Some residents, especially the low-income, elderly or those already receiving tax abatements, would be exempt or would pay a reduced fee. For everyone, the first $100,000 of property value would not count toward the surcharge.

The money can be used for to acquire open space, including land for parks or conservation; to fix up local playgrounds and athletic fields; to preserve or restore historic buildings; and to support affordable housing.

CPA backers contend it is an opportunity to get matching funds from the state for projects the city has to do anyway. To vote it down, they say, is akin to turning down free money.

“It drives me nuts,” said resident Steve Dibble, a CPA supporter. “We don’t have funds here to pay for our own park improvements in Salem. ... Since 2000, how much (money) has Salem left on the table?”

Nobody had an answer to that question. But Peabody, a local CPA community, has received $3.9 million in matching funds over the past decade, according to a Peabody official.

There was sentiment among some that they might be able to support the CPA if it didn’t provide funding for affordable housing. Some said Salem already has enough affordable housing.

“The main objection I heard,” resident Mary Costello said, “is the affordable-housing element.”

Mickey Northcutt, executive director of North Shore Community Development Coalition and a panel member at the forum, explained that affordable housing doesn’t necessarily mean low-income housing. Families of four, he said, earning up to $65,000, which could include new teachers and firefighters, could qualify for what is now known as “workforce” housing.

He said only 10 percent of the funds would automatically go for affordable housing, and that a local CPA committee would make recommendations to the City Council on how to spend the majority of the funds.

CPA opponents said the surcharge is one more bill for families in a predominantly working-class city who can’t afford it.

“There are people in this city who are actually hurting,” said panel member Teasie Riley-Goggin. She said “$30 or $40 will make a difference.”

Ward 6 Councilor Paul Prevey, another CPA opponent, noted that the city budget has increased from $107 million to $133 million in the six years he has been on the City Council. He appeared to be suggesting that some of those funds could go toward the long list of potential CPA projects.

“It is really incumbent upon people,” he said, “to ask where the money is going before folks in government tell you you’ve got to be paying more.”

Supporters countered that nearly half of the cities and towns in the state are taking advantage of the matching funds, which come largely from real estate fees paid across the state, and that Salem is missing an opportunity to use that money to help repair historic City Hall, fix the Salem Common fence or make other improvements.

They said a lot of these projects get put on hold because the city budget is tight and funds are limited. The CPA, they said, is an investment in retaining and improving what is best about Salem.

“If we can’t keep up our parks, if we have no open space, if we don’t support our historic fabric ... we won’t have the city we have today,” CPA backer Christine Sullivan said.

Tom Dalton can be reached at tdalton@salemnews.com.