‘Yes,’ at last, on Question 5
For Boston voters, Question 5 might be the best tax increase voters could support.
The ballot question — which would raise property taxes to pay for affordable housing, open space improvements, and historic preservation — might also be the one that has received the least attention, which its proponents don’t consider all bad.
Question 5 would add 1 percent to property taxes on both residential and commercial real estate. The city estimates the cost to the average taxpayer at $24 a year. Much of the money it raises — 60 percent — would come from commercial real estate.
In Boston passage of this is long overdue, and the story of why it’s never happened here is a classic local political tale.
The Community Preservation Act was passed by the Legislature in 2000. But it was conceived from the start as a measure that local communities would have to vote to opt in to. It’s been on the ballot in Boston only once, in 2001.
Back then, its proponents made some rookie mistakes that annoyed Mayor Thomas M. Menino. First, they didn’t make sure they had secured his approval before they launched their campaign. Second, they didn’t realize that he didn’t want a tax increase on the ballot on a year in which he was seeking his third term. Menino also thought they should have waited until 2004, when a larger, more progressive turnout due to a presidential election would have made it easier to pass.
Menino couldn’t kill it, and didn’t want to publicly oppose a measure that could bring money to the city. So he did the next best thing: He endorsed it on the weekend before the election, when it was too late for his support to do any good. (The too-late-to-matter endorsement was a Menino specialty on matters on which he was ambivalent.)
It lost, of course, and its resurrection had to wait for another mayor to be elected.
Since then, the measure has been enjoying considerable success outside Boston. More than 160 cities and towns have approved it, and used the money to improve quality of life. And in Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has been a full-throated supporter of passage Nov. 8.
“We’ve put a lot of money into open space in the past two budgets but we need more, and historical preservation is something we always need more of, given all our city’s history,” Walsh said.
Passing this is such an obvious good that it has aroused virtually no organized opposition.
The business community, which usually rallies against property tax increases, has been supportive. It doesn’t hurt that Jack Connors and John Fish, probably the two most powerful members of said community, have both been lobbying for support for months. Their message to their fellow executives has been to either support it or remain neutral, and they have.
“There’s a psychology to ballot initiatives,” said Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, which supports the question. “It’s hard to get a ‘yes’ vote because yes is change, yes is unknown. But this time we have a lot of things working for us.”
State law requires that housing, open space, and preservation each receive at least 10 percent of the funds raised. Beyond that, there is considerable leeway in how it is spent. Communities that pass it have to create nine-member committees to make recommendations to the local city council, which then votes on the appropriations.
When you get right down to it, the Community Preservation Act is a way to circumvent the cap on property taxes imposed by Proposition 2½, allowing cities and towns to raise money by earmarking it for specific, voter-friendly uses. There’s nothing wrong with that.
There’s a strong argument that Boston should have taken this step years ago. It’s nearly painless, and the city needs the improvements it will pay for.