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Communities to vote on CPA proposals

At a time when rising taxes are a concern statewide, four towns south of Boston will vote next Tuesday on adopting the Community Preservation Act or altering their current program.

Voters in Milton and Canton will decide whether to launch a local CPA arrangement and its property tax surcharge, while residents in Duxbury and Kingston, two longtime participants, will consider reducing their surcharge to ease the tax burden on property owners.

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The act, which has been adopted by 148 communities statewide, allows them to establish an annual surcharge of up to 3 percent to provide money for local open space, recreation, affordable housing, and historical preservation efforts.

The local fund is supplemented by distributions from the state, and while those matches dwindled to about 28 percent in recent years from the initial 100 percent matching grants, recent adjustments to the law will add an annual $25 million to future distribution pots.

Stuart Saginor, executive director of the Community Preservation Coalition, a statewide advocacy group for the program, said that in the CPA’s 12-year history, three communities have reduced their surcharge rates and four have increased them.

“One of the attractions of the CPA is it is completely subject to local control,” Saginor said. “Communities can adjust it upward and downward to reflect their needs.”

In the program’s early years, communities were eager to sign on, but the additions have dwindled as the economy has slumped. In 2001 and 2002, 53 communities adopted the CPA, compared with 13 since 2009. Many communities also set the surcharge at the 3 percent maximum in those early years, while since then lower percentages have become more common.

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Milton’s CPA proposal calls for a 1.5 percent surtax on properties valued at more than $100,000, and includes an exemption for low-income property owners. The charge would increase the average residential tax bill by $86, and the average commercial and industrial bill by $218, said the town’s chief assessor, Jeffrey d’Ambly.  

The Citizens for Milton Community Preservation group has vigorously promoted the initiative, which also carries the endorsement of the Board of Selectmen, while Milton Preservation Without Taxation  has campaigned against the measure.

Proponent John Cronin said the CPA program provides communities with the discretionary income they lost under the state’s Proposition 2½, which generally limits annual increases in property tax revenue to 2.5 percent, unless residents vote to override the law.

“You’re not going to have an override to work on an historic section of a cemetery or restore a library’s art collection,” Cronin said. “Duxbury, Cohasset, and Winchester have all been able to do these things, while Milton has not.”

But CPA opponent Robert Hiss said Milton’s budget is sufficient. “New taxes never die,” Hiss warned. “Once it’s in, we’ll never get rid of it.”

In Canton, voters defeated Community Preservation Act initiatives in 2006 and again last spring. But proponents collected more than 900 signatures to get the option back before voters Tuesday. 

The proposal calls for a 1 percent surtax on properties valued at more than $100,000, and includes an exemption for low-income property owners. The measure would increase the average residential tax bill by $43 and average commercial bills by $354, said Canton’s finance director, James Murgia.  

Local history buff George Comeau said supporters have been “pulling out all the stops, working on a strategy so voters will understand and embrace” the initiative. “We’ve been using Facebook, Twitter, and good old-fashioned face-to-face talk with neighbors,” he said.

Local opposition is stiff. “A lot of people are out of work,” said Selectwoman Avril Elkort, who is among the four members of the five-person board who oppose the tax increase.

The Canton Association of Business and Industry also opposes the CPA initiative. “We want to stay in town,” president Gene Manning said. “We ask people not to add this tax burden onto our businesses.”

CPA supporter Bruce Rohr said leaving Canton won’t solve the problem for business owners, however. “All the communities around us are CPA communities,” he said.

The first area community to adopt the CPA was Duxbury in March 2001, and Kingston followed in April 2005. Next week, both will be voting on whether to reduce their 3 percent surcharges.

In Duxbury, the owner of an average home is facing more than $1,000 in new taxes, with the funds going for a crematory, new police station, fire station expansion, and new high school and middle schools. Those looking to reduce the surtax say the measure will ease the tax burden.

Duxbury’s ballot includes two proposals. The first, promoted by the town’s Community Preservation Committee, which oversees the local program, would save the average homeowner $42 annually by excluding the first $100,000 of property value from the surtax. The second, the result of a citizens petition that narrowly passed Town Meeting, would drop the surcharge to 1 percent.  

If both questions pass, the owner of a property with the town’s average assessment would save about $140. 

Those opposing the proposed surtax reduction say it would gut a program that has restored historic buildings and preserved open space, but promoters of the lower rate say taxpayers need a break.

“No one is at war with the CPA,” said Duxbury resident James Sullivan. “We’re just saying, ‘Let’s take a sabbatical.’ ”

In Kingston, Community Preservation Committee chairman Craig Dalton said reducing the local surcharge to 1 percent would save the average property owner just $66, “about a tank of gas.”

“It would be a shame to reduce it,” Dalton said. “A number of the large projects we’ve done couldn’t have been done at 1 percent.”

Kingston’s Finance Committee chairwoman, Elaine Fiore, said her panel backs the reduction. “We’ve gotten a lot of comments from taxpayers saying something’s got to give,” Fiore said. “This is an opportunity to lower taxes.”

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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