Community benefit districts facing headwinds

Legislation likely to pass this week but fate uncertain


RECENT CONTROVERSY over legislation that would allow local organizations to levy fees on property owners to improve their neighborhoods has led the leader of the House Republican caucus to question his support for the bill he cosponsored.

North Reading Rep. Brad Jones, the House minority leader, was a cosponsor of a bill authorizing community benefit districts and supported it when it passed the House 149-2 in May, but a surge of opposition to the bill has caused him to rethink his position.

On Tuesday, Citizens for Limited Taxation said community benefit districts would serve as an end-run around statutory limits on property taxes, and the American Civil Liberties Union has raised a slew of concerns about the governance of the proposed districts.

“I and a number of my colleagues are reviewing the wide variety of feedback from many interested parties that have raised concerns about this legislation. Frankly, most of these concerns were not raised over the course of the last few years as this issue has been discussed; nonetheless, they are serious concerns and in the absence of a compelling reason to move forward and a lack of answers to address these concerns, I am seriously considering changing my vote on this matter,” Jones said in a statement. “It may well be better for any community that wants to pursue a Community Benefits District to pursue it as a home rule proposal on a community by community basis.”

Meanwhile, a major backer of the bill, which is once again near the legislative goal line, wants to rally supporters for “probably our last chance ever” to authorize the creation of the districts, which would raise money from local property owners to pay for local services.

“Our most-loved public spaces need this investment and oversight to help them become more vibrant cultural centers and thriving small business districts,” the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance wrote to supporters Wednesday.

The group said the House and Senate are expected to vote Wednesday or Thursday to enact the bill (H 4546) and send it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

With the House and Senate barred under the joint rules from conducting roll calls after July 31, the community benefits bill is one of many facing an end-of-session crush heading toward the governor’s desk. How the governor responds to the bill is also an open question. The governor vetoed a similar proposal last year.

On Monday, SEIU Local 888 President Brenda Rodrigues wrote to lawmakers urging them not to enact the bill, which she said “raises serious concerns about the privatization of public properties and public services by granting powers and responsibilities traditionally held by government to a few wealthy property owners.”

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, one of several mayors to support the idea, said the approach would give municipalities a “tool” to improve specific areas, and she said the local approval necessary to create a district would provide a forum for public input.

“We don’t have authority to do too much without the Legislature and I think this is one way that they’re saying to communities, ‘If you’re interested in this, put a coalition together; make sure it’s something that there’s broad-based support for; elected officials will have to sign off on it; and it’s an opportunity,'” Driscoll said.

Under the bill, property owners who will pay the bulk of the district’s fees would draw the lines of the community benefit district (CBD), which would then need local approval.

“It’s not just going to be one property owner who wants to do this, but it shouldn’t just be one property owner who holds it up either,” Driscoll said. She added: “There’s pockets of every community that need extra attention or services and the CBD is perfect for that. I don’t think it’s a recipe for every urban renewal area or every square-inch of the community.”

Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tim Murray said other cities around the country have more options to raise revenue in support of local investments, but Bay State municipalities are reliant on property taxes and local aid distributed by the Legislature.

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“Massachusetts is one of the most restrictive states in the country in terms of how municipalities raise revenue,” said Murray, the former lieutenant governor under Gov. Deval Patrick. “There’s going to be a very involved, thorough process where these things are looked to be implemented. So this is just a tool. It’s not a fait accompli whether it’s going to happen or not. You’ve got to make the case.”

The Senate passed the bill 22-15 last week.