By Jesse Roman
The Salem News
PEABODY — What would you do with an extra $10 million?
Over the last decade, the city of Peabody has conserved about 80 acres of land; bought or rehabilitated 46 affordable-housing units; built and enhanced city museums; restored historic paintings and murals; fixed up City Hall and the library; and built climbing walls, playgrounds, parks, bike trails and hiking areas.
It’s all been paid for with $9.86 million collected over the last decade from the Community Preservation Act — a 1 percent surcharge on property taxes set aside to pay for land preservation, affordable housing and historic preservation.
Twelve years after the state created the program, residents in Salem and Beverly are set to vote this November on whether to adopt CPA measures in their own cities.
Critics have argued it’s just another tax at a time residents can’t afford it; others look at cities like Peabody and envy all the good the money has done.
In Peabody — among the first of the 148 communities to adopt the measure — it’s hard to find anyone to speak ill about the CPA, tax or not.
“Looking at my own taxes, for under $20 per year, I see all the great things we’ve done, and it’s a no-brainer,” said City Councilor Tom Gould, who four months ago joined the city’s Community Preservation Committee. “I’m glad that Peabody got on board.”
“Everybody knows it’s a tax,” said Michael Bonfanti, the former Peabody mayor who campaigned in favor of adopting the CPA during his first mayoral race in 2001. “But it’s a relatively small tax targeted at things the community really needs.”
Despite seemingly high approval now, it wasn’t a slam dunk when the city first considered adopting the Community Preservation Act. The Peabody City Council voted unanimously to put it on the ballot in 2001, and it barely passed — 7,936 residents voted in favor, 7,389 residents voted against.
Although it was close, the debate at the time was largely uneventful, said Bill Power, who now chairs the city’s CPA committee.
“It was nothing compared to what you read in the paper of what other communities are going through,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of (vocal) opposition. I think everyone embraced it as a good thing.”
Money for the extras
Some of the loudest supporters at the time were in South Peabody, where the last parcels of untouched land were being gobbled up by developers looking to cash in on the housing boom. In the first year, the city spent $70,000 to preserve 7.5 acres of farmland in South Peabody; $30,000 to preserve an original section of the historic George Peabody House; and $25,000 to restore the Sutton Room, a historic room that houses archives in the Peabody Institute Library.
Peabody civic leaders, including current Mayor Ted Bettencourt, have praised the law for allowing the city to invest in itself, even during tough economic times when nonessential projects can be cast to the wayside.
“During tough times, the priorities are police, fire, education and things that are essential,” Bonfanti said. “This gave us money for quality-of-life things, which I think are also essential.”
When the law was passed in Peabody, the average taxpayer contributed $18 per year. Today, with local taxes increasing as state aid dwindles, the average resident pays just over $34 per year toward the preservation fund.
When Gov. Paul Cellucci signed the CPA into law in 2000, the state matched every dollar that was raised locally, but that has shrunk as more communities have adopted the program and slices of the pie have become thinner. Overall, Peabody has collected about $5.5 million in CPA property tax money and received just under $4 million from the state — a 72 percent match over 10 years. Peabody has also raised about $640,000 in interest from CPA funds.
That CPA money has funded nearly $9 million worth of projects in Peabody so far. The most expensive was the $2.6 million acquisition of the 15.5-acre Tillie’s Farm in 2006, which the city hopes to keep an active farm, much like Brooksby Farm, while also opening it up to residents for recreation. The city has also preserved land on Lynnfield Street, Scouting Way and more; pitched in to help build a park at 45 Walnut St.; built multiple playgrounds; restored the portrait of George Peabody; fixed the windows at City Hall; built the Leatherworkers Museum; and much more — 49 projects in all.
“It’s a pretty good system, it’s not a lot of money every year for the benefits I feel we get,” Power said. “I think it’s money well-spent — and trust me, I’m not a big tax guy.”
The 18-member Peabody CPA Committee — composed of city councilors and members of various city boards and commissions — review a dozen or fewer applications for money each year. The projects they deem worthwhile must then be approved by the City Council’s finance subcommittee and then the whole City Council before going forward.
Since the law was passed, the complaints have been few, Bonfanti said.
When asked if he received many calls at City Hall complaining about the extra tax, he said, “No, not at all, maybe one or two. Conversely, when I talk to people, they are very much in favor and praise the projects we’ve been able to do.”
Gould, who was elected to the City Council last year, wonders if many residents are even aware of the CPA.
“I’ve been campaigning around the city the last two years, and I’ve never had anyone ever said anything good or bad about the CPA,” he said.
Salem and Beverly voters will cast their ballots on CPA at the Nov. 6 election.
PEABODY CPA MONEY
CPA funds collected from property taxes: $5,455,678
Interest collected from taxes: $638,888
State matching funds: $3,766,419
* Figures as of June 30, 2011
COMMUNITY PRESERVATION ACT FACTS
148 communities (42% of state) have adopted the law
Local towns that adopted: Hamilton, Wenham, Middleton and Boxford
More than $1 billion raised statewide to date
More than 5,000 projects approved
5,080 affordable-housing units created or supported
More than 14,900 acres of open space preserved
2,480 appropriations made for historic preservation projects
729 outdoor recreation projects initiated
Source: Community Preservation Coalition