Annual Town Meeting: Citizen’s Petition on CPA

Above: At the outdoor Town Meeting in 2021, almost half of voters opposed using CPA funds on a project to preserve the St. Mark’s Church Clock Tower. If a Citizen’s Petition passes, “private” projects like those would face a higher bar in the future. (images L-R from SAM video and Facebook post)

Annual Town Meeting is coming up at the end of next month. There’s a lot on the Warrant that I’ll need to cover between now and then. One interesting Article that just popped up is a Citizen’s Petition Article to change a voting threshold for committing Community Preservation Act funds.

The Article would require that:

any petition to the [Community Preservation Committee] for funding for a project, asset, or service on private land, or for private benefit and use, being not town owned or operated, should require a 2/3 majority passing vote tally for approval at Town Meeting.

The concept of a higher threshold for public money used for private properties was previously floated to the Select Board meeting by Town Clerk Jim Hegarty. The board discussed a possible Warrant Article at their January 2nd meeting.

Currently, only 50% approval is required for any CPA project to pass. That was a cause of upset for some who opposed using funds from the Town’s tax bill surcharges to help pay for the restoration and preservation of the clock/bell tower at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was also cause for rejoice by the supporters who won the approval in 2021 by a single vote. (The project was recently successfully completed.)

While that project may have caused some residents and officials to think about the issue, it may have been future projects potentially in the pipeline that prompted action.

This year, the CPC received applications from owners of 21 Boston Road and the Southborough Historical Society for help with their privately owned properties.* Those applications were rescinded for this year’s Annual Town Meeting. If the Petition Article passes, it would impact those projects if the owners reapply for a future year.

The Select Board appeared to drop the idea of submitting an Article after only two members voiced support for bringing the question to voters. (And only one of those was full throated support.) 

Al Hamilton pointed out that using the public funds on private property is controversial. He thought the question was “worthy of being put in front of voters”. He said he would be willing to compromise with a 60% threshold. He stated that Town Meeting has a history of vote stacking (voters popping in and out just to support one specific Article) and he would like to give a little push for those voters that are there for the full meeting.

Sam Stivers was a bit more hesitant, but thought it might make sense and that voters should get the chance to decide. He warned that if they didn’t back it, a Citizen’s Petition was likely to be submitted. He noted that  And he believed it would be a better assessment of the Town’s will if the Select Board placed it earlier on the Warrant when more voters are usually in attendance.

Member Kathy Cook was not interested in backing the change. She noted that CPA funds have been used on other private properties in the past. She cited the success of the Burnett House/84 Main Street and Chestnut Hill Farm.

It’s worth noting that the two referenced projects involved the Town purchasing a property interest (Preservation Restriction and Conservation Restriction) and required bonding. Therefore, a supermajority was actually required for both of those Articles to pass.

Chair Andrew Dennington said his position was closer to Cook’s than the others. If he supported it, it would be at 60%. But then he followed that if the threshold was just a little higher, he wasn’t sure that it made sense to make a change. He said the fact that CPC requires Preservation Restrictions before they fund preservation projects provides balance.

Resident Patricia Burns Fiore urged the board to submit the Article. She argued that there should be a clear delineation when it comes to spending public money on private property. She stated that Articles brought forward by the board are given a different level of credence by Town Meeting than Citizen Petition Articles, which the board usually doesn’t support.

She echoed Hamilton’s concern about vote stacking. She highlighted that in recent years, proponents of Articles used Facebook to tell people when to go for one specific Article:

If there was a super majority and it passed, it would prove to me that the majority of the town was interested in having that money proceed out of their taxes to pay for private property to be publicly funded.

At member Marguerite Landry’s request, Historical Commission Chair Kevin Miller shared his opinion. He said his gut was that 60% would be reasonable, giving people a feeling that preservation projects have stronger support. He qualified that he hadn’t discussed it with the commission yet and was open to persuasion.

At last night’s Select Board meeting, the board was informed that a Citizen’s Petition Article on the subject was in the process of being verified. CPC Chair Ben Smith told the board that he was against the change:

Most of the history in town is in private hands. . . I hope we don’t hamper our Town’s ability to preserve history.

During Smith’s discussion with the board on CPC’s Warrant Articles that are headed to Town Meeting in March, members raised their ideas for other changes that should be made to the Town’s bylaws for the CPC.

Hamilton said he would like to ask voters to recommit that they still want to pay the surcharge dedicated to CPC. He would like to take the question to a Town Meeting in the Fall, giving voters the chance to reduce their tax bills by 1%.

Hamilton stressed that the state match for funding was much higher at the time it was passed. Now the match can be just 15% (as it looks like it may be for this year) and yet it pays for projects that voters probably wouldn’t fund out of the general fund. 

Smith and Cook rebutted that they saw the funding of projects that the general fund wouldn’t pay for as a good thing. Cook reiterated her position that she would like the CPC surcharge to actually be increased.

Based on issues that the CPC ran into recently, Stivers would like Fall Town Meeting to consider adopting language the state approved after the Town adopted the bylaw. Under current bylaws with the older language, the Town isn’t allowed to add “outside revenue” to its CPC fund. That is one of the issues prohibiting the CPC from providing an essentially zero cost loan to the Golf Course Committee. They had hoped to grant funds for an updated irrigation system which the club would pay back over time out of the Town’s Revolving Fund for the course (funded by user fees). 

Today, I received confirmation that the Citizen Petition Article has been verified to proceed to the March 23rd Town Meeting. The lead signatory is listed as Joe Palmer. (It’s not Palmer’s only Petition Article, but coverage of his others has to wait for another day.)

*The 21 Boston Road building, a red bricked building around the corner from downtown, is the old grist mill/feed and grain store that was built in the late 1800s. SHS’ project is related to their renovation project underway for a History & Arts Center in Fayville Hall, which was sold by the Town in 2018/19, and taken over by SHS in 2022.

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John Kendall
25 days ago

I’m all for raising the bar to 2/3. I was against funding St. Mark’s clock tower restoration. I’m a member of St. Matthew’s parish. We put on an addition and upgraded the church, with funds from the diocese as well as private donations. I don’t think we should be handing taxpayer dollars over to private concerns

Al Hamilton
24 days ago
Reply to  John Kendall

I agree with you but I think we need to go further. The CPA has changed over time and Town Meeting should be asked if it still wants to participate.

When we first passed it, for each dollar we raised in local property taxes we got about $1.00 from the state. Now, we are getting about $0.15 for each dollar we put in. Given the limited number of things we can spend what is essentially now our own money on, perhaps we should reconsider.

This year the budget situation is not pretty and we are looking at a significant increase in property taxes. The continued existence of the CPA puts us in the perverse position of struggling and perhaps lacking the funds for some basic public safety services while being able to subsidize golf. Any outside observer might question our priorities.

Perhaps the CPA surcharge on our tax bill would be better devoted to the general fund where our tax dollars could be on a level playing field. Or, perish the thought, the surcharge could be returned to the tax payer to offset the substantial increases coming this year and next year. Town Meeting should be asked if it wants to “Sunset” this program.

Carl Guyer
21 days ago

The town was enticed to establish the CPA program with a dollar for dollar matching fund offered to the town by the state legislature. Seemed like a good deal at the time. Now, if I understand the contents of this article, the legislature has backed away from the idea by reducing the matching funds to $0.15 for every dollar the town contributes. The legislature has clearly indicated the program is no longer worth funding, it has problems, the least of which is enriching individual, private or religious organizations at community expense. We have far greater problems to deal with than trying to preserve structural relics from the past.

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