Outside the Whale: April’s Tax QuestionsBy Tanya Willow
When it comes to taxes, politicians and voters alike tend to break into two simplistic camps: “No new taxes” and “save the children.” Taxation and whose interests the collected dollars will serve are usually complex. The more complex an issue and the more at stake, the more likely the dialogue will degenerate into simplistic slogans, killing off any rational discussion that can help fair-minded people arrive at a reason-based conclusion. “Reasonable,” after all, isn’t good for the ratings.
Canton voters will be asked in April to vote on taxes at the booth and on town meeting floor. Fortunately, in a small arena like Canton, political “reason” has a fighting chance, even when dealing with taxes.
On April 3 in the voting booth, residents will be asked whether they support a real estate surcharge for the Community Preservation Act. It is an increase in property taxes, done by formula that mitigates the impact on homes with abatements, etc. Simply, it’ll cost about $44 a year for a person who owns a $450,000 home. That pool of money has to be spent in specific ways but includes affordable housing, preserving historic sites, recreation and walking trails. Currently that pool of money is matched by the state at 25 percent. Before money from CPA can be spent, a panel of what might be considered pragmatists and idealists (selectmen, Planning Board members and conservationists) will put various ideas of spending the money through a vetting process, and the final proposals must be approved at town meeting floor.
The Canton Association of Business and Industry (CABI) asked the Board of Selectmen to take a position on CPA. CABI President Gene Manning said the organization opposes CPA, arguing that the timing is bad and that it will have a negative impact on business growth. It seemed that local businesses were looking to the selectmen for support against the CPA. The CABI president wanted to be clear that the association supported the override in 2008 (businesses pay $24.23 per thousand in property taxes while residents pay $11.91) and feels Canton may require another override in the future, but he seemed to hint that the money brought in by CPA is too restrictive in how it can be spent.
Despite the business plea for support, Selectman Victor Del Vecchio said he felt that unless the vote has a huge impact on the town, it isn’t really the place of the selectmen to take a stand on how residents should vote in the booth. He said articles on town meeting floor are different — there the selectmen have a duty to take a stand — but philosophically he seemed to feel the voting booth is a kind of sanctuary where the opinion of the board has no place. Selectman Sal Salvatori agreed with Del Vecchio, saying that the board made its opinion clear when CPA was an article before town meeting last year.
Then, to use a line from “A Christmas Story,” Selectman Avril Elkort made a slight breach of etiquette, going straight for the triple-dog dare. Rather than discussing whether the selectmen should take a stand on the issue, she went right into why the CPA is a bad idea, saying too many people are hurting right now for it to pass. Chairman John Connolly agreed, saying the board made a stand on the override vote and that he too felt the CPA was a bad idea, citing in the past that he did not like the strings attached as to how the town can spend the money. The floodgates opened, a vote as to whether the selectmen should take a stand on CPA now irrelevant, and both Salvatori and Bob Burr said that they too opposed CPA.
Del Vecchio, his voice of metered reason trampled in the emotion of his impassioned fellow board members, was now caught in the terrible dilemma of having to contradict himself. He said he was for the CPA, saying the town had already lost $4 million from not passing the measure when it had the chance a few years ago, and while that was a lost opportunity, it would be better to take advantage of the funding late rather than never.
Manning is a reasonable man. So is Del Vecchio. It is not as if the CABI is against all taxation. And Del Vecchio is no tree hugger. They both would have to be categorized as pragmatists. But philosophically they come from different places. Manning does not like the idea that CPA restricts the way it allows you to spend money. For Del Vecchio, the strings attached in exchange for the state funds is not an issue.
The local meals tax, which comes up again this year on town meeting floor, is exactly the opposite. In a way, it’s a “match fund” because sources will include dinners from outside of Canton. The Finance Committee sponsored it. Some members would like to see that money for OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits), which is an obligation to retired town employees that is currently unfunded. Because it is an outstanding obligation, funding OPEB will help Canton’s bond rating as lenders become more nervous about these kinds of outstanding municipal obligations. Dave Emhardt of FinCom doesn’t like the meals tax precisely because it doesn’t do what CPA does — you can’t earmark it for a specific purpose. He would support the meals tax if he knew the money would go to OPEB, but he seems to hate the idea of just another tax sinking into the abyss of the general fund.
The chairman of the School Committee, John Bonnanzio, faced a similar dilemma when he recently came before FinCom. FinCom Chairman Alan Hines asked that the School Committee take a vote on the meals tax so that they might present themselves as a united front on town meeting floor. But Bonnanzio is philosophically against the meals tax, with feelings similar to Emhardt. He would love to see the money earmarked for the special education stabilization fund — another prudent fiscal move — but he seemed much less enamored with the idea of the tax plopping into the general fund.
CPA money, estimated at $525,000 annually, will be earmarked toward specific goals after a very long vetting process and have state matching funds of about 25 percent. The meals tax, estimated at $300,000 annually, has to go into the general fund and can be used for anything the town sees fit, yet will be subsidized by non-residents eating in Canton. The good news is that Canton voters can make a clear decision based on good information and their personal interests and philosophy — something very different from the usual ideological arguments on taxation.
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