LETTER: Time Not Right for CPA, Schools Should Take Priority

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The amicably-named Community Preservation Act sounds like a program nearly anyone would enthusiastically support. Many of us believe in the value of historical buildings in giving a town it’s character, maintaining affordable housing, and preserving green space. It conjures up the image of a well-cared-for and friendly town, and who wouldn’t want to live there?

Unfortunately, Watertown has some significant needs. We love our community, but we are not yet the best that we can be. Our five schools are aging and badly in need of repair or replacement. This comes as no surprise to most of us; it has been the topic of discussions for years, culminating in a crisis that this past spring had us cycling through several potential quick-fixes to try and manage a swelling student population for which our old buildings are ill-equipped. Some of our fourth-graders were stuffed into classes of up to 28 kids, our preschool was annexed across two buildings to meet enrollment needs, and children in all of our school buildings still meet in areas that were never designed or designated as classroom space. We have sailed past “overcrowding” and landed squarely in “bursting at the seams.”

We desperately and undeniably need new schools, and we need them urgently. A vote to obtain necessary funding for a five-school master plan will come in about two years (not five to ten years, as had been surmised) and not a moment too soon. This is a long-term project and yes, it will be expensive.

We all love Watertown and of course we want it to have all of the resources and features that any beautiful community might boast. But realistically, we cannot have all of these things at once— and we cannot ask taxpayers to stack tax increases in a short span of time. While some taxes recently went down, multifamily homeowners (like me) were subject to a significant tax increase. Passing the CPA now adds another layer of expense, and puts our community in the position of being inclined to vote against a school override in a few short years out of sheer financial exhaustion. (The cost comparison between the CPA and a school override is irrelevant; two taxes are always more expensive than one.)

I find it disheartening to see the concerns I’ve posited above so enthusiastically criticized and dismissed by some members of our community who wish to see the CPA pass. I understand that it is frustrating to see opposition to something that seems so lovely and universally appealing. I also understand the frustration in holding off on something you want now because others are afraid of something else coming down the pike. But many people are in the position of needing to do exactly that. We make choices every day between things we’d like to have and things we need and can afford. The dismissive attitude towards people who are concerned about floating both the CPA and a school override does not represent the best of who we can be to one another as neighbors. It is very likely that— whether each of us agrees or disagrees on how expensive the CPA and school override combined will be— some people will be primed to vote against our schools out of financial necessity if the CPA passes first.

What seems less likely, I would hope, is the quietly intimated suggestion that voting against the CPA now will necessitate CPA proponents reflexively voting against our schools when an override hits the ballot. Those of us who would vote NO on the CPA because we want to first support our schools are not aiming to pit ourselves “against” supporters of the CPA. It is disheartening to see that message reflected back to us from the YES side. I hope that our neighbors will look with a gentler perspective on the many of us who are trying to balance our school needs, our family financial needs, and our community’s overall wellbeing. Preserving a community’s character comes in more forms than in just the preservation of historic buildings.


Julie Cotton
Watertown Resident

14 thoughts on “LETTER: Time Not Right for CPA, Schools Should Take Priority

  1. I concur with John Ovoian. Julie you’ve made some great points.

    I’m a huge history buff. So I’d love to see our history preserved. I think it’s a travesty that real historic landmarks like the home where Paul Revere lived during the occupation of Boston were torn down decades ago. I also think our monuments and historic grave sites are treasure that should preserved and enjoyed, along with what little of real historic consequence remains in Watertown.

    But we have to set priorities. Residents can only afford to do so much. Moreover, any municipal expenditure needs to under go proper scrutiny. We don’t just raise taxes to have mad money lying around.

    You brought up a very disturbing point. That there is backlash from the CPA proponents against folks that believe we need to put school funding first. I’ve heard horror stories or threats being made. And this is against people who unlike me, would otherwise support the CPA, were it not for the real and great need to fund schools.

    So let me bring up one rumor or false claim by be made — it being that those of us who oppose the CPA because it’s just a bad funding mechanism for unnecessary projects, will never support raising taxes to fund the schools…. That is simply not true. I doubt there are too many people as fiscally conservative as I am in Watertown. However, I do believe that if government needs to spend money, it should be spent at the most local level possible. I firmly believe that Schools belong in the hands of local communities and school districts. And that goes for funding as well. Therefore, if the need is there for an override and I see that real efforts have been made to save money elsewhere by improving efficiency, cutting waste, and so forth, I will certainly vote for a reasonable override to fund capital investments in our schools. I know many who feel the same way.

  2. Thank you Gail. It’s also worth noting that wealthy, progressive, liberal Brookline voted this down 57% to 43%, due to it coming on the heels of a looming school override vote there. Sound familiar?

  3. You are correct Gail Dorey. In some communities the CPA passed by less than 10 votes. I hope folks are reading all the questions and commentary on the Facebook sites Watertown Residents for Strong Schools and You Know You’re From Watertown If… and http://www.watertownnews.com. Everyone’s vote is important on this town issue. Many people also are misinformed regarding Prop 21/2, believing that 2.5% is the total rate hike limit for annual tax increases. Simply not so.

  4. That’s right Elodia. Thanks to the New Construction Growth provision, Proposition 2.5 effectively allows a community to increase its revenue by a median of 4% annually thanks to the 2.5% basic levy limit growth, plus a median of 1.5% for new construction growth.

    Nevertheless, the reason why communities like Watertown have a huge backlog of unmet infrastructure needs is because town government takes money that taxpayers pay to fund these projects, and uses it elsewhere (on lavish salaries and fringe benefits for unions and bureaucrats). Overrides, debt exclusions and “local option taxes” like the Community Plundering Act are a poor remedy for failures of fiscal stewardship.

  5. Yes in most cases voters weren’t educated on how it works and only nominal campaigns were to educated them took place. Waltham adopted it in 2005, by 5 votes the same day Watertown rejected it by 1,500 votes. The Waltham opponents really made no effort, other than putting up about 25 signs throughout the city which is much larger than Watertown. They wrote a couple letters to the editor. In contrast in the Spring of 2016, the CPA was overwhelmingly rejected by Natick and Lakeville because those communities followed our Watertown model of educating voters as to the details of how the CPA legislation works and the many, many dangers for abuse.

        • I dislike taxes, but I would vote for and actively support and lobby for an override to fund the rebuilding of our schools. Someone paid for my schooling and I am bound to pay for the next generations, I also have grandchildren in the Watertown school system so there is no doubt about my support.. By the Way, I strongly oppose the CPA TAX and will VOTE NO ON QUESTION 5!
          John C. Why do you believe that we will pass an override for our schools? Is it because the CPA supporters will not support an override if they lose the CPA vote? I ask because I have seen some very well (subtle)
          crafted words to that effect.

  6. The just released tax classification for next year says the average residential property tax is going up 5.9% and commercial 9.9%!!!!! If the town adopts the 25% owner occupied exemption all other residential property will increase 9.9% (if someone owns multiple properties the exemption is just for the one they reside in). Of those properties the landlord will just pass the increase on to renters. This along with the possible CPA would increase residential (owner occupied 7.9% and commercial 11.9%. Will this change any of the Pro CPA councilors, or proponents minds? One can hope!

  7. The CPA can address more than preserving historic buildings — Affordable housing and open space are other possible options. I completely agree that fiscal oversight has been short-sighted regarding infrastructure and schools, and that must be addressed.

    Are those of you who are so vehemently opposed to CPA going to vote for the override for schools? Mr. DiMascio? Mr. Labadini? RSVP.

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