Becoming the first Island town to pass the Community Preservation Act, voters in West Tisbury this week proved they could put their money where their mouth was when it came to affordable housing.
The proposal still needs to win approval at the ballot box, but voters at Wednesday night's special town meeting decided they were willing to pay more in property taxes to help fight the high cost of housing. After a lengthy debate, passage came on a simple voice vote, but it was not unanimous.
In fact, the naysayers had plenty to say as they questioned whether approving the CPA was premature when housing advocates are still waiting on a needs assessment, which promises to quantify the affordable housing dilemma in town and Islandwide. But ultimately, the voices pushing for the CPA were more persuasive.
"We have a crisis in affordable housing," said resident Linda Sibley. "Our community is under assault."
The CPA proposal, enabled by a new state law, would enact a three per cent surcharge on town property tax bills and that revenue would be matched by the state at a rate of about 75 cents to the dollar. In the first year, the town could raise roughly $225,000. The bite taken out of most taxpayers' pockets would amount to about $57 a year, voters were told.
An amendment to the proposal mandated that at least 60 per cent of the funds be set aside for housing initiatives. According to the CPA legislation, the funds would also have to go toward historic preservation and open space, which includes recreation. At least 10 per cent of the funds would have to be spent in each of those two areas.
But it was the housing issue that took center stage. "If this measure is passed, it would be the first dedicated source of funds for affordable housing," said John Abrams, the building contractor who has helped move this initiative forward.
One of the more impassioned pleas for support of the CPA came from Jeff Parker, a Chilmark resident, who has helped crunch the numbers for the tax surcharge plan. "When I was asked to get involved, my first thoughts went to my son, Mike, who moved nine times in one year here," said Mr. Parker. "He was priced out of the market, and he left. In the end, that whole generation left - young people, artists and musicians."
Several voters asked how the CPA funds would create affordable housing, and Juleann VanBelle, the director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, explained that the funds could be used for rental assistance.
"It could help people afford rent when fair market rent is now between $1,000 and $1,500 a month," she said. "For most people, the affordable range would be $600 to $800 a month. This could help a great number of people very quickly."
While that was a straightforward answer, some were still skeptical. The town finance committee did not endorse the CPA, and committee chairman Skipper Manter said the surcharge could overburden taxpayers who are already paying off many capital projects and anticipating more in the future. Mr. Manter reminded voters of the recently completed public safety building and the need to renovate town hall and expand the library.
Others worried that the CPA plan was an unproven approach to solving the problem of affordable housing. "The purpose is highly commendable," said Cynthia Riggs, "but the act is flawed. We've heard that this act is flexible and complicated and we don't know what the results will be."
And Don Keller argued that West Tisbury was not nearly as needy for these funds as some other towns in the state. "To take from the rich and give to the poor is altruistic, but there's a bigger picture," he said. "Other communities in the commonwealth are in harder shape than we are."
But Mrs. Sibley challenged Mr. Keller, pointing out that in recent years, Dukes County has ranked as the second poorest in the state in personal income. "In boom times, we've risen up to the median levels, but our cost of living here is 20 per cent higher than the mainland," she said. "We are substantially below the median income in our buying ability. Our need here is as critical as it is in most cities in Massachusetts."
A succession of voters stood up in favor of the proposal. Abbe Burt urged others to take a "selfless" stance and vote for the CPA. And Eileen Maley said passage of the article would show support for Island children and working people.
If voters approve the measure at the ballots, taxpayers would begin seeing the surcharge on tax bills as early as this summer, according to town treasurer and selectman Cynthia Mitchell. Under the plan, the first $100,000 in property valuation would be exempted from the surcharge. Eligibility for housing programs that evolved from a CPA here would be restricted to people earning 100 per cent of the Dukes County median income. Right now, for a family of four, that figure is $53,200.
A committee of between five and nine people would be formed from among town board members. While that committee would plan how to spend the funds, town meeting voters would have the final say about how the money is spent. Aquinnah, Chilmark and Tisbury will all be considering CPA plans in the next few weeks.
In other town meeting action, voters approved a proposal to allow the regional high school to spend $750,000 in state educational aid. The money will go to purchasing textbooks and to renovating school space to deal with an influx of students at the high school that could push enrollment as high as 840 next year.
The high school needs approval from four of the six Island towns. If voters agree to the proposal, then the high school will allow an additional $350,000 in state aid to go back to the towns.
While voters voiced almost no objection to the plan, finance committee member Sharon Estrella stood up to accuse school leaders of poor budgeting. She said school leaders budgeted for more teachers to lower class size before they had the funding. "You don't spend first and then wonder what's going to happen," she said. "If we all ran our households like that, we wouldn't be here."
School committee member Anna Alley explained that the budget was simply a response to greater numbers of students and the pressure to bring down class sizes. "This year's sophomores must pass the MCAS," she said. "Math and English skills are critical, and there's money involved in this happening."
Finally, voters approved more than $65,000 in money transfer requests, to cover expenses for police overtime pay, property revaluation and computer service.