Medford resident, Executive director of Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, member of Medford Community Preservation Committee
Community Benefit Districts offer a tool to create more vibrant main streets, downtowns, and walkable areas throughout Massachusetts. These districts would solve a problem: municipalities lack the staff and resources to buy street furniture, clear sidewalks of snow, support arts and cultural programming, remove trash daily, and many of the other things needed to cultivate great places.
The most inspiring aspect of Community Benefit Districts is that they empower local people and organizations to solve civic problems. They can invest in their communities, create jobs, and invigorate main streets. These districts have proven successful in states like California and Maryland and hundreds of communities. It is time we approved legislation allowing them in Massachusetts.
The first step in creating a Community Benefit District is to bring people together to identify a neighborhood’s needs, and then draft a district management plan that transparently proposes solutions and creates a budget. Once there is broad support through a petition process, property owners in the district are asked to approve the plan and commit to paying their part of the budget through fees. Nonprofits and homeowners can be exempted, although the most effective partnerships include everyone. The fee is designed so each participant pays for benefits received, much like a condo association.
No community is required to adopt a Community Benefit District. The City Council or Board of Selectmen must approve or deny the petition after it is determined that property owners who would pay at least 50 percent of the budget are supportive. If established, everyone in the district participates, although hardship waivers are allowed.
Two frequent questions are whether this privatizes government and whether the fees are a tax. The answer is a clear “no” on both counts. The district and the city must agree to prohibit any public services from being replaced. Also, the fees stay in the district and fund only the improvements in the plan, so they are not a tax.
The Community Benefit District bill enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Legislature and is backed by the Baker-Polito Administration. We should support this legislation as an innovative way to energize our communities and encourage investment in our downtowns.
State representative, Somerville Democrat
I recently voted against a bill allowing private property owners to map out and create “Community Benefit Districts.” Once municipally approved, these district corporations would assume many powers, including to charge “assessments” that all non-exempt property owners in the district would have to pay, even those who do not support the district or its plans.
Proponents say Community Benefit Districts are a “local option.” While it’s true the districts would need municipal approval, cities and towns would have to hold hearings within 60 days and then vote within another 45 days whether to approve the districts. This tight schedule would demand local staff time and might require special town meetings.
If approved, these district corporations could build infrastructure and facilities; acquire property, including parkland; operate transit services, enter contracts, and incur indebtedness. Coincidently, these functions are ones governments usually perform. This commonality makes the districts look like vehicles for broad delegation of municipal powers to private parties essentially operating as shadow governments.
Some say district assessments would be a new tax. These fees also resemble small-scale eminent domain takings since they extract private property. But eminent domain takings must be for public purposes. Community Benefit District corporations would be privately initiated and controlled, their one-time local approval the merest lipstick of operating under color of law.
Local governments have the power to assess fees on specific properties to pay for special benefits. Municipalities use these “betterment assessments” to fund traditional property improvements like sidewalks, sewers, or even golf courses. To pass constitutional muster, though, municipal betterments must meet accountability standards. Yet the proposed legislation turns the work of providing betterments over to private corporations, with no clear accountability.
Human societies recognize that there are separate public and private realms, an essential distinction in government because it determines which rules apply. There is no legal clarity whether muddled hybrids of public and private power such as Community Benefit Districts and Business Improvement Districts are subject to public integrity requirements like the open meeting, and public records laws.
Aggrieved parties would probably have to go to court to get answers to the many questions that adoption of the Community Benefit District model would raise.
Steins will be hoisted on Saturday and Sunday, July 21-22, 17-7 p.m. at 2468 Washington St. The event is free.As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.