A decade-old town program that buys Bedford’s vacant land to keep it forever undeveloped could fall victim to state-imposed curbs on property-tax increases.
Overwhelmingly approved in a 2000 referendum and, the open-space initiative chiefly relies for funding on a 3 percent surcharge on property taxes. The surcharge brings in about $500,000 annually. But a new state law, forbidding any local property-tax increase of more than 2 percent, threatens to halt or curtail the program, at least for now and perhaps forever, Bedford officials said.
Despite vocal support for the 2 percent cap at a public hearing late last month, the town board unanimously it. The board members pledged, however, to invoke that power only after exhausting all reasonable economies in next year’s spending.
On Tuesday, the board voted to hold public hearings Nov. 1 on a series of proposed local laws. The five proposed measures would either suspend the open-space surcharge for a year or reduce its 3 percent tax-bill bite. Under the proposed reductions, the surcharge next year would range from half a percent up to 2 percent, in half-percent increments.
Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts, who is unopposed in her bid for re-election next month, urged a reduction in the surcharge but not its elimination, warning, “I think that would be the end of the open-space fund.”
Others, including her deputy supervisor, however, expressed support for scrapping the levy altogether in next year’s budget. “Regrettably,” Councilman Peter Chrysoss said, “I think we’re going to have to suspend the whole thing.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the board’s two councilmen facing a November challenge were the most outspoken on a suspension, at least pending the public hearing a week before Election Day. While supporting the open-space fund on principle, even offering to make a token contribution, Councilman David Gabrielson said, “It seems like a luxury. . . . I want to wait and see what the public has to say. We certainly learned our lesson there.”
Also running for re-election, Councilman Chris Burdick said he wanted the stepped reduction in the levy to give the board “maximum flexibility” as it hammers out a budget. “It’s a wonderful thing to have,” he said of the open-space fund, “but these are very hard times and [it] may be something we have to suspend in its entirety.”
Citing what he called a general consensus of the town board, Burdick said, “We’d like the town budget—as opposed to the Consolidated Water District budget—to come in under the cap.”
For weeks now, the board has been gathering in the nearly empty town hall for its annual ritual of preparing next year’s budget. Always a political balance beam that elected officials walk, weighing residents’ desire for services against the pain of higher taxes, budget-making has demanded increasingly difficult feats of fiscal gymnastics since the national economy turned sour in about 2007.
Now, the 2 percent cap, enacted in the closing days of the State Legislature, has become a popular if arbitrary benchmark of fiscal prudence.