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Williamstown CPC Member Pushes for Restraint

By Stephen Dravis
Williamstown Correspondent
02:39AM / Sunday, March 02, 2014
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Community Preservation Committee member Jeff Thomas, right, has called for the committee to replenish CPA funds by reducing allocations.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Jeff Thomas spent the winter calling for fiscal discipline in the way the town handles its Community Preservation Act funds.
 
On Thursday, he said a deal struck at Tuesday's meeting is a step in the right direction.
 
"My reaction to Tuesday's decisions is that given the committee members' [healthy] differences in opinion, we made some good compromises," Thomas wrote in an email seeking his comments. "In the end, four out of six projects were funded. We've allocated another $175,000 to affordable housing, and we were also able to support an open space and an historic preservation project.
 
"Arduous process, good outcome."
 
Thomas started Tuesday's meeting by calling on his colleagues on the Community Preservation Committee to recommend town meeting allocate only half of the more than $266,000 in CPA revenue the town expects to acquire in fiscal 2015.
 
Thomas' argument was twofold: Half of new CPA revenue is not collected until May 2015 anyway, and the town's CPA accounts, which used to carry a healthy balance, have been drawn down to the point where the committee has less flexibility to make recommendations to the voters than it did when there was money in the bank.
 
CPA funds are generated from two sources. The bulk comes from a real estate surcharge of 2 percent (excepting the first $100,000 in valuation). The remainder comes from state matching funds which at one time neared 100 percent but in recent years have declined to less than 25 percent of the town revenue.
 
The town adopted the CPA provision of Massachusetts General Law in 2002. The act allows communities to collect money to support three areas: community housing, historic resources, and open space and recreation.
 
The CPC vets applications for the town funds and makes recommendations to May's town meeting, which approves the funding.
 
This year, the committee began its deliberations knowing there would not have enough revenues to fund all of the applications before it. At the same time, the town — whose CPA incomes hover around $300,000 annually — is committed to spending more than a million dollars in CPA funds to fund the Cable Mills housing project when it finally breaks ground this spring.
 
The specter of the bond to pay off the Cable Mills project was very much on the minds of the committee members as they began their annual review of applications this winter.
 
And although the town will not have to use FY15 revenues to retire that pending debt, the committee is recommending that it use $135,000 of its CPA funds to lower the principle of the bond when it is issued.
 
Committee member Chris Winters floated the principle reduction plan.
 
"My suggestion is to spend all the $266,000 but earmark half of that for principle reduction on Cable Mills, which hits all of our categories," Winters said, referring to the Water Street project's impact on affordable housing, its historic preservation of the mill and its creation of recreational access to the Green River.
 
"Chris Winters' proposal to use CPA revenues collected in May 2015 to partially fund our commitment to Cable Mills is a good example of productive compromise," Thomas said later in the week. "We're on the hook to fund that project no matter what, and this set aside will allow us to issue a smaller bond, which will reduce the payback burden on future CPCs."
 
Winters' proposal was quickly accepted by the other committee members, who passed it on a vote of 7-0.
It was one of the few motions to receive unanimous support during a lively two-and-a-half hour meeting that featured straw votes, last-minute pleas from supporters of various projects and an extraordinary offer to turn back CPA funds allocated at town meeting 2012.
 
That offer regarding $80,000 granted to Berkshire Housing Development Corp. to study expansion at Proprietors Field helped clear the way for CPC's approval of the $100,000 BHCD seeks to fund the new Highland Woods project.
Without the plan to take the $80,000 back, it is unlikely the $100,000 request would have received the 6-0 vote it did (Winters, as an abutter to Proprietors Field, recused himself).
 
As it was, one $75,000 request from the town's Affordable Housing Trust was rejected by the panel, and another from the same body passed on just a 5-2 vote with Thomas and CPC Chairman Philip McKnight voting against recommendation to town meeting.
 
McKnight opposed a similar proposal from the AHT last year on the grounds that the CPC should not be dispensing funds without a specific project in mind.
 
Thomas cited that argument and went a step further at Tuesday's meeting.
 
"The reason my vote may seem inconsistent [with his 2013 vote] is it reflects where we are now with affordable housing versus where we were last year," Thomas said. "Last year, the need was very dire ... the situation is very different now. We've got 53 units potentially coming to Williamstown."
 
Later in the week, Thomas declined to rank any of the CPA priorities ahead of one another, implying that proposals for historic preservation, open space and housing should be on an equal footing when they come before the committee.
 
"Once we've met the mandatory set asides in any given year, we need to look at relative strengths of the proposals in front of us in the context of community needs at that time," Thomas said in his email.
 
Long-term, Thomas indicated he will continue his fight to build up the the town's Community Preservation Act reserves.
 
"I was hoping that we could begin to build up CPA fund reserves this year," Thomas said. "That didn't happen. I question the CPC's ability to make impactful community investments if we allocate all or most of the approximately $275,000 in new revenues each year.
 
"In years past, the CPC did build its reserves and, as a result, was able to allocate $1.2 million (cumulatively) to the Church Corner affordable housing project. More than half of those moneys were allocated in FY2009. It'll be a long time before the CPC can do something like that again."
 
In the short term, Thomas indicated he is not worried that his calls for fiscal restraint will cast him in the role of Scrooge when it comes to allocating CPA funds.
 
"I take very seriously the responsibility of spending precious town tax dollars," he said. "I'll always be reluctant to support a proposal that has a weak project plan, weak rationale or lacks any sort of co-funding. That's true whether the proposal pertains to affordable housing, open space or historic preservation.
 
"If there ever is a significant reserve of CPA funds and I'm still on the CPC, I'll strive to keep the bar high."

Tags: community preservation,   Community Preservation Act,   

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