By: Mike Plaisance

Holyoke -- They agreed that adopting the state Community Preservation Act would result in a tax.

Where the groups No On Question 5 and Yes For A Better Holyoke diverged at a forum last week was over whether the city would be hurt or helped if voters on Election Day Nov. 8 reject or approve the ballot question about the Community Preservation Act (CPA).

Passage of Question 5 would establish funding by assessing a surcharge on home and business property owners which, combined with triggering availability of state funding, could be used for projects related only to open space, historic restoration or affordable housing.

But that would come with Holyoke already charging the highest commercial property tax rate in the state at $39.86 per $1,000 valuation, said Daniel B. Bresnahan of No On Question 5.

"Who wants to pay the highest business tax rate in the state of Massachusetts, and then on top of that, pay another tax?" said Bresnahan, an at large member of the City Council.

"If this act was such a good idea why didn't Beacon Hill pass a bill that mandates it?" he said.

Adopting the CPA would provide revenue in the form of a minimal increase on most property owners. And its adoption would release to Holyoke state funds available only to communities that accept the CPA for projects the city now is unable to afford, said Jason P. Ferreira of Yes For A Better Holyoke.

"It is a solution to some of the problems we have in this city," said Ferreira, a former city councilor.

The forum about the Election Day ballot questions was held Oct. 25 at Dean Technical High School, 1045 Main St.

Nelson R. Roman, Ward 2 representative on the City Council, organized the forum with the neighborhood associations for South Holyoke, Churchill and the Ingelside-Springdale, along with Neighbor to Neighbor, a group that pushes for affordable housing.

State law permits adoption of the CPA with a surcharge of 1 percent to 3 percent on a property tax bill. In other words, property owners would be charged an additional 1 percent to 3 percent of the tax bill that they pay to the city to fund the CPA.

Question 5 will ask voters if they are agreeable to the city adopting the CPA that would impose a surcharge on property taxpayers of 1.5 percent of the tax bill they pay to the city.

CPA supporters said that exemptions can reduce the burden such as excluding the first $100,000 of a property's value from the surcharge and providing exclusions for senior citizens and the poor.

Under the 1.5 percent surcharge, and with all of exemptions established, the average homeowner would pay an extra $23 a year with adoption of the CPA, supporters said.

Foes said that's misleading because many property owners, especially business owners, would pay much more a year than just $23 if the CPA is adopted.

Those opposed to the CPA right along have branded it a tax, that most negative of political terms. Ferreira has taken to agreeing that the CPA would bring a tax while playing up the benefits such as improving parks and playgrounds.

"The word 'surcharge' is another fancy word for 'tax,'" Bresnahan said. "It is a tax. It is not a surcharge. It is a three-letter word: tax."

"It is a tax....I call it a tax," said Ferriera, adding the CPA nonetheless is a no-heavy-lifting way to help the city.

The CPA would benefit such as with collapsed buildings that have siphoned money from the budget in recent years at the former Essex House hotel on High Street and the ex-National Guard Armory at Sargeant and Pine streets, he said.

"And we're paying for them every single year," Ferreira said.

"Open space" is not just acreage to be protected from development, but parks and playgrounds where CPA funds could be used to improve a neighborhood, he said.

"We know that that's important," Ferreira said.

Communities that impose the CPA surcharge will receive additional money from a state trust fund created by imposing a surcharge on documents recorded at the Registry of Deeds or Land Court.

"We have been paying into it for 15 years, but until we adopt the CPA we're not going to get that money," Ferreira said.

"The CPA is a smart investment for our city," he said.

Bresnahan questioned the reliability of such funds from the state, and especially in defining such a source as "matching funds." Matching funds means, "I give you a dollar, you give me a dollar," he said.

But he asked why the state should be trusted to keep making that fund available. The state is supposed to be paying cities and towns half the cost of educational incentive payments to police officers who have college degrees, the funding known as the Quinn Bill. But the state has stopped providing its share and cities and towns now must pay the full freight, he said.

In Holyoke, Quinn Bill costs amount to about $1 million a year, instead of the $500,000 that it should cost if the state paid its share.

"When politicians promise you things, especially when it comes to funding for communities, they're going to take it, so there's already no guarantee that the city of Holyoke is going to get those funds," Bresnahan said.

Instead of imposing another tax, the revenue the city should pursue is the overdue $7 million owed by the top 100 tax delinquents as outlined in a recent list he requested in the City Council, he said.

"You go after these bums that are not paying their taxes," Bresnahan said.

Former mayor Elaine A. Pluta joined Ferreira at the Yes For A Better Holyoke table on stage at the forum. She read a letter to the editor she had sent to The Republican urging support of the CPA.

"The CPA is your chance to invest in Holyoke as you would do for any property that you own," Pluta said.

Keith Davis, of Pheasant Drive, sat at the No On Question 5 table with Bresnahan but didn't speak during the forum.

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