The doors of historic Emmanuel Church in Boston’s Back Bay tell the story far better than any dry piece of legislative budgeteering ever could. One door already gleams in the sunlight, handsomely restored. Its companion is still under wraps, covered over with a sign telling passersby it too will be a beneficiary of the Community Preservation Act.
The CPA, which helps communities fund affordable housing, open space, and historic preservation, has been around for nearly two decades, with about half of the state’s cities and towns participating. Boston is a relative newcomer to the program, opting in in 2016 by assessing a 1 percent surcharge on residential and business real estate tax bills.
A booming economy, new construction, and rising property values in the city have helped fill CPA coffers, providing $42 million for affordable housing efforts in Brighton, East Boston, the North End, Mattapan, and Roxbury; playgrounds in Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and the South End; even refurbishing part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace in the Fens. This week Mayor Marty Walsh announced $11 million in grants to historic preservation projects, like Memorial Hall in Charlestown, the Old State House, and those doors at Emmanuel.
Walsh’s well-timed announcement surely helped drive home the point that the other partner in the Community Preservation Act — the state of Massachusetts — has failed to live up to its end of the bargain. The idea was for the state to provide a 100 percent match for communities that had opted in to the program with their own property tax surcharge. And for its first six years or so, that was exactly the case. But as more communities adopted the program, the state’s CPA Trust Fund — funded by fees on certain real estate transactions at registries of deeds — was stretched far too thin.
The state only provided a 17.2 percent match in fiscal 2018, and without a last-minute appropriation of an additional $10 million from surplus funds, the state match would have reached a record low of 14 percent, according to the Community Preservation Coalition.
This year the House Ways and Means Committee crafted a fiscal 2020 budget rider to increase those statewide fees — from $20 to $50 for most documents filed and from $10 to $25 for municipal lien certificates. The increase would provide an additional $36 million a year to the trust fund. Walsh and several-dozen legislators have supported a more ambitious bill to increase the fees to $75 and $35, respectively.
Perhaps a two-step fee hike is in order: the Legislature could pass the Ways and Means proposal now, along with language to phase in the higher fees over the next few years. That would help the state keep up with what will certainly be growing demand by the 173 cities and towns currently making use of Community Preservation funds.
Bostonians can walk down just about any street in town — and let’s include the Esplanade in that too — and see those funds at work. And from Prospect Hill Tower in Somerville to affordable housing in Amherst, from a senior center in Northborough to a dog park in Kingston, CPA is a program that has proved its worth in ways big and small.
But it has also become a victim of its own success with the state now unable to provide its fair share. Lawmakers on Beacon Hill can and should fix that this year.