West Newbury surcharge trim is up for 2d vote
This time, measure gets Town Meeting’s OK
For the second time in six months, a bid to reduce the property tax surcharge that West Newbury levies under the Community Preservation Act is stirring debate in town.
A Special Town Meeting on Oct. 24 approved a citizens’ petition article to lower the surcharge from the existing 3 percent to .5 percent. The vote was 113-89. To take effect, the reduction must also be approved by voters on the ballot of the annual town election next May.
Under the Community Preservation Act, which West Newbury adopted in 2006, municipalities can assess up to a 3 percent tax surcharge to support open space, historic preservation, affordable housing, and outdoor recreation projects.
The state kicks in matching dollars. To date, 148 communities have adopted the law.
By a single vote, 54-53, West Newbury’s annual Town Meeting on April 25 rejected a proposal to lower the town’s surcharge to .5 percent. Voters approved the measure as a ballot question, 780-440, at the May 2 town election, but the outcome was moot because the article had failed at Town Meeting.
Ann Bardeen, the Planning Board’s representative to the Community Preservation Committee, opposes the surcharge reduction.
“I think it’s a good way for West Newbury to leverage their tax payments and bring money back into the town,’’ she said.
Local CPA revenues are matched by a state trust fund generated from fees charged at registries of deeds. That match until several years ago was 100 percent, but has since fallen and in the most recent annual distribution, on Oct. 15, was 26.6 percent. But communities with 3 percent surcharges qualify for two additional funding rounds, so West Newbury’s overall match was 53.73 percent, or $124,485.
Bardeen noted that reducing the town’s surcharge below 3 percent would make it ineligible for the additional state funding rounds in future years.
Since adopting the law, the town has generated $1.1 million in local revenues that have been matched by $836,160 in state funds, noted Barry LaCroix, chairman of the Open Space Committee.
“That’s a very good rate of return on our investment,’’ said LaCroix, who like Bardeen opposes reducing the surcharge.
But Rene Guilmet, who brought the petition article before the recent Special Town Meeting, said he did so in part because “the management of this fund has not been where I’d expect it to be, given a fund this size.’’
“I’d like to see a better process, criteria for identifying projects. I’d like to see what their prioritizing is, what their plan is overall,’’ he said of the Community Preservation Committee, which is responsible for recommending expenditures from the Community Preservation Fund to town meeting. “It appears to be, frankly, first come, first served.’’
Bardeen said the CPA is still a relatively new tool in West Newbury so the town is still becoming familiar with how to use it.
“The money accumulated very gradually. There was very little in the first few years and the projects that came before the committee were fairly small. As the money grows and size of projects proposed is larger, there will be more lively debate’’ over proposed uses of the fund, she said.
LaCroix agreed that because the CPA is still relatively new to the town, “I think people have been seeing a surcharge on their taxes but have yet to see the value that the CPA brings.
“We think it is a good value for the town,’’ he said of supporters, adding, though, “We need to do a better job of educating the town on that value.’’
Guilmet said he was spurred to introduce his article when the committee voted to recommend funding for five projects but rejected the Page School renovation project. The building committee overseeing the project had asked for an appropriation to supplement the $10 million that Town Meeting authorized for the project last year.
Guilmet chaired a prior working group that developed plans for the Page School project, but he said that was not related to his objection. He said he questioned the Community Preservation Committee’s rationale for opposing the funds, noting that several members told him they did so because they believed funding the project through the CPA fund would have “supplanted’’ the prior Town Meeting’s action.
“That’s outside their jurisdiction,’’ he said of the Community Preservation Committee. “They deprived taxpayers of the right to make that decision.’’
Bardeen said she opposed the Page School funding request. “I didn’t feel it was up to the [Community Preservation Committee] on behalf of the town to allow that project to expand in scope.’’
Guilmet, whose Town Meeting article had the support of a majority of both the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee, said lowering the surcharge would also ease the tax burden on local residents.
“We have an awful lot of people living on fixed incomes,’’ he said.