The Senate 22-15, approved a local option bill allowing a city or town to authorize the creation of community benefit districts which would permit owners of contiguous property in a city or town to form a district and require property owners to pay for additional services, improvements, events and other projects and activities within the district. The districts would be operated by a nonprofit board.

Is the required payment a tax or an assessment fee? It depends on who you ask.

“Assessment fees are not a tax,” said Andre Leroux, Executive Director MA Smart Growth Alliance which supports the bill. “They are established by local initiative through the development of a management plan, a petition signed by participants, after a public hearing, approval by the City Council or Board of Selectmen, and under the control of a nonprofit management entity that allows broad community input and control. The fees are paid by property owners for services (benefits) that they receive and manage. Is a condo fee a tax? It’s the same principle on a district scale.”

“Condo fees are a voluntary imposition, part of a contract entered into only if one chooses,” said Citizens for Limited Taxation Executive Director Chip Ford who opposes the measure. “They are avoidable. Community Benefit District taxes will be imposed ex-post facto on an unwilling entity by a hungry majority of beneficiaries. It will become the proverbial two wolves and a lamb democratically voting on what’s for dinner. By the way, the wolves and lamb have already paid their dinner tab, to the state and municipality, so don’t need to vote on it.”

“While our statewide economy is strong and unemployment low, there are still many communities where that is not the case,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn). “Municipalities across the state do their best to create environments that spur economic growth, but they are often dealing with limited resources and capacities. Community Benefit Districts can help by offering a tool that brings all of the stakeholders together with the goal of making neighborhood improvements, creating jobs, and growing our local economies. These benefits could include improved walkability, lighting, cultural programs, branding, landscaping, and supports for local businesses.”

“Communities already have democratic and voluntary tools to make district improvements,” said Sen. Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville) who voted against the proposal. “This bill would make it easier for a minority of property owners to form a private corporation with the power to tax their neighbors and make decisions about public spaces and district services.”

The House and Senate have approved different versions of the bill. The Senate version now goes to the House for consideration.

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