One night after the leading Presidential contenders squared off in a highly contentious debate, the Mack Park Neighborhood Association Wednesday night held a public forum on the controversial Community Preservation Act, which would add 1 percent to the local property taxes to leverage state funds for parks, historic preservation and affordable housing.
Opponents and proponents were almost as passionate about imposing the the proposed CPA tax on Salem homeowners and businesses as President Obama and former Gov. Romney were about taxing millionaires.
"It is becoming unaffordable to live in Salem," said Ward 6 Councilor Paul Prevey, an opponent of joining the CPA program.
Tessie Riley Goggin, another opponent, said CPA should stand for "Cannot Possibly Be Allowed."
Other opponents said that Salem property taxes are high and will probably go higher and they cannot afford more taxes.
Proponents argued that Salem is "leaving a lot of money on the table" because it is not part of the CPA program.
In a program created by the state legislature in 2001, the state collects fees on every sale of property in the more than 300 communities in the commonwealth. But only 148 cities and towns that are part of the CPA program receive matching grants of about 23 percent from the state for local projects.
Estimates were that the average homeowner would pay about $30 more per year in additional property taxes. That would raise about $400,000 in local taxes, which could be leveraged to get an additional $80,000 to $200,000 from the state, depending on the level of state matching grants.
Vote on the CPA Issue Nov. 6
Voters get to decide on Nov. 6 if they want Salem to join the state CPA program.
Christine Sullivan, a supporter and Planning Board member, said, "The future of our city relies on having a good quality of life." She also said, "We are leaving $80,000 to $200,000 in the (state) pot for other communities to get."
Mickey Northcutt, a proponent, said improving parks, preserving historical sites and creating affordable housing options are "three things that make Salem a great city."
Proponents of joining the CPA argued that Salem needs the additional state money to help pay for a long and growing lists of projects, including several major park repairs, restoring City Hall and helping working people afford to live in Salem.
"If we don't do this (join the CPA), it does not change the fact that we will still be paying" into the state CPA trust fund, Northcutt said.
Salem currently gets nothing from the trust fund. Less than half of the cities and towns in the state are part of the CPA program and receive money.
George Fallon, an opponent of joining the CPA program, called it a "very cynical tax." He said the state was very clever in creating the program, which collects fees on real estate transactions, then offers to return the money to communities that agree to tax themselves.
The proposal on the ballot would increase the tax 1 percent, although state law allows the city to raise the tax up to 3 percent, if the voters approve it. The measure would also allow the maximum amount of exemptions for taxpayers.
Lower Income Homeowners Exempted
Northcutt said families of four would be exempted if they earned less than $78,000 a year. A single senior would be exempted if he or she earned less than $68,460 a year. To receive the exemption, a taxpayer would have to file for the exemption with City Hall.
For all taxpayers the first $100,000 of assessed value would be exempted.
Mayor Kimberley Driscoll, who was not at the Mack Park Association meeting, was said to be strongly in favor of joining the CPA.
Councilor-at-Large Thomas Furey proposed that the city vote on joining the CPA program in 2007, but the City Council voted six to five not to place the issue on the ballot for the voters to decide.
The proponents bypassed the council this year by securing enough signatures on a petition to have the question placed on the ballot. It will be the fourth issue on the ballot.
Spending money on the affordable housing issue seemed to be as controversial as raising taxes.
Mary Costello said she has heard a lot of people are opposed to joining the CPA because it would raise money for affordable housing in Salem. Opponents maintained that Salem already has enough affordable housing.
Proponents of joining the CPA disagreed, saying housing is needed for young teachers, firefighters and veterans of recent military service.