By Bob Katzen

It was a surprise that the House and Senate did not give final approval to a local option bill allowing a city or town to authorize the creation of community benefit districts which would allow owners of contiguous property in a city or town to form a district and require property owners in that district to pay for additional services, improvements, events and other projects and activities within the district. The districts would be operated by a nonprofit board.

The Legislature meets in informal sessions for the next several months and the rules basically allow just one person in either the House or Senate to prevent passage of any bills. That means the controversial measure is effectively dead for this year.

The demise of the proposal is very unusual considering the bill was approved 149-2 by the House on May 30 and 25-10 in the Senate on July 18. Only final approval was needed in each branch prior to the measure going to the governor.

Enter an unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative groups who started a lobbying campaign against the bill.

The conservative faction said the bill was nothing more than another unnecessary tax on property owners. The liberal faction said the bill gives too much power to a few wealthy property owners in a neighborhood.

Andre Leroux, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance supported the bill and believes that community benefit districts can be a game changer. “The bill establishes a way for communities to organize a public-private-nonprofit partnership to support their downtown, Main Street, cultural district, historic area or other important place, said Leroux. “It’s really about empowering local people to tackle their own challenges.”

Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), one of only two representatives to vote against the bill in the House in May said this new option allows certain property owners to create their own fiefdoms and the ability to assess other property owners for purposes determined by themselves. “These are the kind of activities for which local government exists,” said Provost. “Why would we want to have a class of … private, parallel quasi-governments to perform these functions?

Is the democracy, transparency and accountability of local elected government a problem?”

“While we are disappointed that the bill didn’t pass, we are encouraged by the overwhelming showing of support by businesses, non-profits, residents, and municipal leader,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn), the sponsor of the proposal. “Communities across the state have made it clear that they want this additional tool that has been successfully used in over a thousand districts across the country.”

“The last-minute awareness by the Legislature of the additional property tax burden the neighborhood tax and an entirely new tier of government would have imposed upon constituents is very much appreciated,” said Citizens for Limited Taxation Executive Director Chip Ford, a leader in the fight against the bill. “The broad opposition coalition of left, right, and center successfully got legislator’s attention. When such widely diverse political groups representing countless citizens can so strongly coalesce on anything these days it speaks loudly. It would be an easy task to collect signatures and put it on the ballot for voter repeal if it had passed.”

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