Chicopee eyes Community Preservation Act tax for historic preservation, recreation, open space

CHICOPEE — City residents are considering adding a tax surcharge to real estate bills that would help raise money for recreation, historic preservation, protecting open space and improving community housing.

Two decades ago the state adopted the Community Preservation Act, which allows communities to increase tax bills from anywhere between 1% and 3% and earmark that money for a variety of uses. The state also provides a partial match to the amount raised, estimated at about 17% this fiscal year.

About a year ago the Historical Commission formed a committee to examine adopting the act in Chicopee. City Planner Lee Pouliot is now assisting the group and working with the Law Department to find the best way to move forward with the idea, said Joshua Clark.

“I am, as chairman of the historical society, really, really excited about this,” Clark said. “It can raise a lot of money and raise awareness for historic preservation.”

The only way the act can be approved is if voters pass a ballot question, according to state law. The City Council and mayor can agree to place the question on the ballot, or supporters can collect enough signatures to bring the issue to the electorate, which is done less often.

If the act is adopted, a committee is appointed to review proposals and vote on how to spend the money raised each year, according to the state law.

A total of 186 communities in Massachusetts have adopted the act, including Springfield, which instituted a 1.5% surcharge in 2016 and raised about $1.4 million last year. Holyoke voters also approved a 1.5% surcharge in 2016 and raised about $579,400 in the last fiscal year. West Springfield, Westfield, Agawam, Northampton, Wilbraham, Easthampton and Pittsfield are also among those who have instituted the act.

The city funds a lot of projects the Community Preservation Act supports, such as park improvements, but it could be helpful to have money dedicated to recreation and historic improvements. If the city receives a grant that needs a matching amount, Community Preservation Act money could be used for that, Pouliot said.

The guidelines for how the money can be spent are broad, meaning that it can benefit the city in many ways such as funding a project that wasn’t anticipated in the budget, he said.

“I think we should look at all funding opportunities. Every dollar counts, particularly in this economy,” he said. “Once we better understand the administrative side there needs to be an educational campaign to dispel myths.”

The Historical Commission is hoping to join with other groups such as the Recreation Commission to work toward putting the question on the ballot and to educate voters. With a $500 annual budget, the Historical Commission will not be able to do the work alone, Clark said.

“People are going to be asked to increase tax money. Especially in a pandemic that is a hard ask, but we are trying to improve the neighborhoods in Chicopee,” he said.

Clark argued if historic properties are preserved, parks are well cared for and recreation opportunities are available, it improves all neighborhoods, raises the value of homes and benefits the city as a whole.

Each community can also tailor the act by adopting a variety of exemptions. A popular one is to exempt the first $100,000 of property valuation from the surcharge.

“I wouldn’t mind putting it on the ballot. It would be a community choice and I would like to hear from the people,” Mayor John L. Vieau said.

City Councilor Stanley Walczak, who worked 35 years for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and retired as its superintendent, said he would have to do more research about the proposal before endorsing it, but added he does see benefits for it.

“I think for the most part the city has been pro-recreation, but we have 33 parks in the city and there is always a need to try to improve every park in the city,” he said. “Recreation is not always a high priority in the city budget.”

City Councilor Joel McAuliffe said he would like to see Chicopee join many of its neighboring cities in adopting the act and is encouraged by the Historical Commission’s efforts.

“The CPA would be an important resource for our city in improving the quality of life for our residents and making Chicopee a more attractive location for new homeowners. Its implementation is long overdue and would allow the city to enhance our outdoor recreation, preserve our historic buildings and protect open space,” he said.

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