Before measure goes to Worcester polls, council panel takes up Community Preservation Act

WORCESTER - The city has missed out on $16.5 million in Community Preservation Act funds since the measure was rejected in 2018, City Auditor Robert V. Stearns said in a report issued to the Municipal and Legislative Operations Committee Wednesday night.

That includes roughly $13.7 from a property tax surcharge and approximately $3.7 million from a state match.

Worcester voters will be asked to adopt the Community Preservation Act on the Nov. 8 ballot.

More: Community Preservation Act awaits voters in Worcester, Boylston and Westborough

The measure would add a 1.5% surcharge on residents' annual assessed property tax beginning in July 2023. The first $100,000 of residential and commercial-industrial property value will be exempt from the surcharge. Low-income families and low- to moderate-income senior citizens who own homes will also be exempt from the surcharge.

The money collected through the surcharge will go into a dedicated fund – a percentage of which is matched by the state – that could be used to finance historic preservation projects, open space acquisition and park improvements, and community housing.

CPA on table in 2018

But the proposed measure has divided the community, as it did when it was last debated in 2018. That year, the City Council ultimately voted 6-5 not to put the measure on the ballot.

“While the chamber agrees with the initiatives that the proposed ballot question would potentially help, this is not the year to add new property taxes to our residents and business owners,” said Alex Guardiola, vice president of government affairs and public policy for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Guardiola noted that the average resident will pay $44.45 while the average commercial taxpayer will pay $604.58 if passed. And this comes while residents already face higher heating, electric, and food costs brought by inflation. Furthermore, he said, the American Rescue Plan Act has provided $149 million to the city, portions of which can be applied to community projects similar to those covered by the CPA.

“The Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce is not opposed to the goals of the CPA, however, we believe that with the inflow of dollars that the city and state treasuries are both currently sitting on; increases on property taxes to our hard-working residents and businesses is not responsible policy at this time,” Guardiola concluded.

Alicia's Spice owner

Meanwhile, Alicia Haddad, owner of Alicia’s Spice Co. said the additional tax surcharge “will cripple small businesses like mine.”

“My roots are here, my heart is here, I love Worcester,” Haddad said. “But if I can’t afford to stay here, I’m going to have to make a hard decision, based not on what my heart says but based on what financially makes sense.”

District 3 Councilor George Russell, vice chairman of the committee, agreed that now was not the time for the CPA.

“This year, a year that we have more money than we have ever had in history, to go back to (taxpayers) and say ‘a little more;’ it isn’t right,” Russell said.

He also objected to the matter coming before the committee for a public hearing in the first place, saying he would have preferred a forum put on by a third party.

But committee chairman and at-Large Councilor Khrystian King said it was important for residents to have all the information they needed to determine whether to vote for the proposed act.

“Folks need to know and the elected body needs to know what the numbers are on both sides,” King said, adding that the issue was brought before the committee in good faith.

In support of the CPA

He and other members of the public also touted the CPA as a way to address community initiatives, particularly Worcester’s housing crisis.

“I feel that Worcester is behind in the process,” Frank Callahan of Yes for a Better Worcester, a group in favor of the CPA, said. He noted that 189 of the state’s 351 communities have adopted the measure, including half of the state’s Gateway Cities. “I think it’s time we keep our money here and get our share of the pie.”

Jenny Pacillo said that she was “more than happy” to dedicate roughly $44 a year to a sustainable funding source for community projects.

"The ARPA funds are not sustainable, they will dry up,” Pacillo said. “And by the time they dry up, we will have CPA funds.”

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: On Worcester ballot: Council panel takes up Community Preservation Act