Boston must spend its 1 percent tax hike wisely
Boston voters decided to hike their own taxes on Election Day — and now the city has to figure out the best way to invest the money. The landslide approval of Question 5, which added a 1 percent surcharge to most homeowners’ property taxes, was an expression of trust in city government that should improve the city for future generations if it’s implemented well.
Under state law, the new money — perhaps as much as $20 million annually — must be divided up by a municipal committee for three approved uses: affordable housing, open space and parks, and historic preservation. While the permissible uses of the money are limited, the city gets a lot of leeway in determining the committee’s size and composition.
City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Michael Flaherty got the ball rolling by introducing an ordinance establishing a nine-member group. In addition to the five members whose inclusion is mandated in the state law, their plan would also include four appointees by the City Council who would serve three-year terms.
Three potential improvements to their plan would be the addition of term limits, a requirement barring city employees or elected officials from holding any of the four additional seats, and a rule explicitly guaranteeing geographic diversity.
In a city the size of Boston, it’s crucial that the way the money is divided up be fair to every neighborhood — and be perceived that way. Other cities have built diversity into their ordinances. Newton, for instance, requires that each of the four additional community preservation committee members comes from a different district within the city.
In Somerville, the city’s ordinance requires that the four additional seats go to “members of the general public not city employees or currently holding elected or appointed positions,” a way of encouraging broad community support and participation.
Term limits would also be appropriate for an unelected position whose sole function is to dole out public money. Some other Massachusetts communities, including Somerville and Gloucester, have term limits for Community Preservation Committee members. In light of how much money may be flowing through Boston’s committee, it would be good to build in safeguards at the outset.
Once the ordinance passes, the council and Mayor Marty Walsh will also need to ensure that the committee does not become too closely associated with any one of the three areas Question 5 is intended to support. Historic preservation, recreation, and affordable housing advocates all pushed for the Community Preservation Act’s approval. One practical step would be to operate the new program out of neutral territory at City Hall rather than at an agency like the Boston Planning and Development Agency (formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority).
Allocating the money from Question 5 should do great things for Boston, but it’s also likely to lead to inevitable disappointment from rejected applicants. So far, the city is taking the right steps to ensure that the money is spent well, and that the program earns the trust the voters showed on Nov. 8.