On tax hike votes, Reading, Stoneham go different ways

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 last Tuesday.

On a vote 1,366 to 1,043 , Stoneham residents 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, 2,096 to 1,074 , accepted 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.

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Stoneham’s Town Meeting last October had unanimously approved adoption of the Community Preservation Act, 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 Community Preservation Act surcharge, but that percentage is expected to rise this year because the state added $25 million to its contribution.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Martha Panther Buckley, a leader of a local civic group, Support Our Stoneham, which backed 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.”

But R. Paul Rotondi, a former selectman who opposed the Community Preservation Act, 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 all low-income residents as well as moderate-income 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 revenue for the town.

For John Warren, who led the petition drive to place the Community Preservation Act before Town Meeting, last Tuesday was doubly disappointing. In addition to the Community Preservation Act’s 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. 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. 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,” she said. “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.

Urell 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.

Built 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 that need replacement, and exterior masonry in need of 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, 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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