Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Voters Can Decide

The letter below was submitted by Carol Childress and Dave Holland for posting.  --  ed.

February 17, 2012
RE: Voters Can Decide! 
Dear Editor: 
Thank you for graciously printing a letter from us on February 5th regarding a petition drive to place a question on the April 9 2012 Town Election ballot in Sturbridge. The petition requires roughly 350 signatures and the question asks voters if they wish to revoke the Community Preservation Act (CPA). 
Our primary motivation behind the petition is to stop further debt build-up and to stop spending on new projects that deter funds away from our current debt. It’s pretty simple: no new projects equal no new debt, and we’re wondering if taxpayers want to cut up the town’s CPA credit card. If enough signatures are gathered by February 27, voters can decide at the April 9th Town Election. 
The current property tax rate of $17.63 does not include the tax impact on the initial $9,000,000 debt service and the remaining $5.7 million debt service for the Burgess Elementary School. The average single family home share could be as much as $306 or more per year for fiscal year 2013, until the debt is paid (source: Sturbridge Assessor’s office; subject to change.) Also, we hear rumblings that Well #1 is being prepared to go online, so users of public water may see another increase in their water bills. The larger picture is this: the CPA portion is $4.3 million of the town’s overall $49,000,000 debt. We strongly feel that if anymore debt of any kind has to be incurred by the town, it should be for new infrastructure, repairs and new equipment, natural disasters, and other necessities.
While we’re at it, we wish to make a couple clarifications, as we had received some incorrect information that was printed in our February 5th letter. In our earlier letter, we had stated that CPA state-matching funds was 23%. We were referring only to the first round of state-matching funds from the state, which is distributed evenly to all communities in the Commonwealth that adopt the CPA; the final numbers are in and it is actually 26%, for a total of $96,363; that 26% a drastic reduction from the 100% match that used to be distributed, and it reflects the adoption of the CPA in 147 other communities across Massachusetts. That is how the current match works: as more towns adopt the CPA, the percentage of matching funds decreases. However, because Sturbridge adopted the CPA surcharge at the 3% level, the town also received an additional 16% in matching funds ($57,671) for a total match of 42.58%. Other communities that adopted the surcharge at 3% also receive second and third rounds of state-matching funds and the amount varies depending on a town’s ranking. 
Regarding state-matching funds, we wish to address a statement by Penny Dumas, Chairperson of the Community Preservation Committee, in the Tantasqua Town Common on February 16. Ms. Dumas stated that a House Bill is pending to amend the CPA so that municipalities are “guaranteed” a minimum state match of 75%. Our first question was – who will foot that bill? If one reads that bill, it proposes tacking on a surcharge for real estate transactions at Registries of Deeds across the Commonwealth, and those additional funds will be used to provide 75% matching funds in the first round of distributions to all communities that adopt the CPA. The language in the bill does not “guarantee” a match; it says if not enough funds are raised, the first round will be less than 75%. There are numerous proposed amendments to the Community Preservation Act and we suggest that people read it:
Although our primary reason for asking voters to revoke the CPA is a financial one, other concerns have surfaced since the CPA was passed 11 years ago that have caused us to question how the CPA is managed in Sturbridge. For example, our annual CPA debt service is $413,482, which exceeds the surcharge revenue amount of $354,225. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) has rendered Legal Opinions 2006-50 and 2004-464: "The amount of debt that a municipality may authorize under the Community Preservation Act is limited in amount to that payable from estimated SURCHARGE REVENUES over the life of the borrowings. (3/6/2006)." The numbers above inform us that the CPA debt exceeds the surcharge revenues; the Community Preservation Committee responded and said this discrepancy is due to the decline in the state match – and this is exactly our point: no more spending, no more borrowing, and no new CPA projects until the existing debt is paid.  
Also in our February 5th letter, we had erroneously stated $58,000 had been funneled to new projects in 2011 instead of paying down the debt. The correct figure is $23,050 plus $15,000 for administration. The difference in the numbers is due to Warrant Article 7, which was voted at the June 6, 2011 Town Meeting. The wording of Article 7 is as follows: “to amend the vote taken under Article 62 of the April 28, 2008 Special Town Meeting, which article authorized an appropriation of $20,000 for the purpose of designing and constructing two bridges to span brooks” at the Leadmine Mountain Conservation Area, “to provide that such funds may also be used for the design and construction of additional bridges” in that same area, “or take any action thereto.” The Summary Box under the warrant article reads: This article would expand the use of previously approved funds, specific to two bridges, for use in the design and construction of additional bridges in the Camp Crusoe/Leadmine Mountain area. The amount totals $8,101.24.” Although the Community Preservation Committee has explained that the warrant article merely asked voters to appropriate the $20,000 as voted in 2008, that’s not how the text of that warrant article reads, nor does the Summary Box make it any clearer. However, this is not the first time the town has used ambiguous CPA warrant articles. 
We wish to share some additional information with voters because much of this is invisible unless you spend inordinate amounts of time researching this stuff: 
  • Many people don’t see their property tax bills because they are sent from the town directly to a mortgage holder. Take a look at how much you pay in property taxes each year and what the surcharge costs you. 
  • Sturbridge’s “Community Preservation Fund” is not a pot of money just sitting there waiting to be spent. Actually, we feel it should really be called the “Community Preservation Borrowing Fund” because it’s used mainly to pay the $4.3 million dollar CPA debt. The bottom line: the town took out loans to do four expensive, worthwhile projects, and we’ll be paying on them until the year 2030. The bad news: the 3% surcharge does not go away until the debt is paid. The good news: the state-matching funds will continue as long as there’s a surcharge, or until there is no more state funding; also, the CPA can be brought back in the future if voter’s wish. 
  • The town completed five land acquisitions using CPA funds – four of which still require Conservation Restrictions on them. We, the voters, approved those acquisitions and simultaneously authorized the town to place permanent Conservation Restrictions on them; however, the town has not completed them, thus making them vulnerable to conversions to uses other than conservation. Town officials have been asked to complete them several times since last May and a handful of times since 2005; but so far, none have been completed.  
  • Voters at the 2011 Fall Special Town Meeting will recall the controversy over the town’s attempt at inserting “active recreation” into the Shepard deed, a property purchased by voters for conservation purposes with CPA funds in 2004. This was an attempt by certain town officials at shoehorning a multi-sports complex onto a conservation parcel by doing a “deed correction,” a tactic that completely bypassed the proper process. This property should have had a Conservation Restriction placed on it after it was purchased. And worthy of note: the very same people who talk about preserving our town’s character and using our vast open spaces for hiking, biking and kayaking, never said a word publicly about that conversion, which would have taken place on top of rare turtle habitat.  Voters are hereby advised that all of the so-called “conservation” land purchased in our town is at risk of conversion because the CPA warrant articles contained ambiguous language – the same thing that happened to the Shepard parcel can happen to the other parcels.  
  • Certain town officials completely wasted $72,000 of CPA funding for recreational field designs on the Shepard parcel because no one did the required due diligence to determine what uses were legally permissible on the parcel. The vote to convert the Shepard parcel’s use should have come BEFORE that money was spent, using the proper Article 97 process. 
When town officials are dealing with taxpayer dollars, there has to be accountability. As concerned citizens, we bring this information to taxpayers so they may make an informed decision on April 9th. Please contact to sign the petition.    
Dave Holland
Carol Childress

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