How to Increase Funding for Your CPA Program: Raising Your CPA Surcharge is an Option

June 2010 (Updated May 2019): Voters in the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea on the North Shore showed their strong support for their small CPA program by voting in 2010 to increase their CPA property tax surcharge from 0.5 to 1.5 %. In Manchester, the effort to raise the CPA surcharge won by 199 votes – a good margin, especially during an economic recession, and especially with a budget override on the same ballot. Manchester is not the only community that has raised its CPA surcharge. Since 2000, four other communities have done the same: Amherst, Chelmsford, Conway, and Lincoln.

Manchester passed CPA at a 0.5% surcharge level in 2005. Having CPA has allowed the community to undertake a few great projects that it otherwise may not have been able to fund, but, according to Manchester resident and CPC Chair Woody Kelly, who led the charge for the surcharge increase, revenues from the 0.5% surcharge were “like having .25 cents and wanting to go buy a candy bar.” At the new surcharge level, the community will be able to undertake larger projects, like watershed protection, open space acquisition, and community affordable housing projects that would have been out of reach of the CPA budget previously. 

Communities that wish to raise their surcharge must follow the same procedures used for adoption of CPA. The process must begin one of two ways: either through a vote by the municipality's legislative body (Town Meeting or City or Town Council) to put the surcharge increase on the ballot, or a petition to be signed by at least 5 percent of the community's registered voters requesting that the question be placed on the ballot. In either case, the increase must then be approved by a simple majority of the voters in the community.

We asked CPC members in Manchester if they had any advice to share with other communities that may be attempting a similar feat. They had three main pieces of advice to share:

  1. Build a CPA constituency: Every time you complete a project with CPA funds, build a relationship with the partners you are working on the project with. These are the people who will write letters of support and stand up at town meeting on behalf of CPA when your initiative is on the ballot.
  2. Advertise your successes: If community members see the great work that’s being done with CPA dollars, they will want the program to continue and to expand. In Manchester, the town learned the value of CPA projects through the historical preservation projects completed with CPA funds in previous years. Wanting to see similar projects in other CPA areas of Open Space and Affordable Housing, town citizens were willing to pay a little bit more.
  3. Be realistic: Ideally, the Manchester CPC would have loved to increase the surcharge to 3%. But they knew (from experience, trying to pass CPA at 3% in 2003) that this wouldn’t fly. A jump from .5 – 1.5% is a tripling of the surcharge amount – it will not bring in the revenues that a 3% surcharge would have, but it is not an insignificant increase. 

The actual ballot language from Manchester is pasted below. (Note that communities have considerable flexibility in this language; the Coalition can help you craft language for your municipality.)

Question 2. Shall the Town of Manchester-by-the-Sea increase the surcharge imposed under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 44B, otherwise known as the Community Preservation Act, from ½% to 1 ½ % as voted by the April 5, 2010 Annual Town Meeting?

Explanation: In 2005, the Town accepted sections 3 to 7 of Chapter 44B of the General Laws of Massachusetts, also known as the Community Preservation Act (“Act”), which established a dedicated funding source for community preservation purposes as set forth in the Act. The Town of Manchester-by-the-Sea originally approved a surcharge of ½% on the annual tax levy on real property. Increasing the surcharge to 1 ½ %, in addition to creating additional funds for community preservation purposes, would make the Town eligible for a higher level of matching funds from the State.