Since it was signed 10 years ago, the state’s Community Preservation Act has seen more than $12 million spent on housing, historical preservation and conservation on Martha’s Vineyard. But now there is growing pressure for Vineyard towns to reconsider their commitment to the CPA.

On Tuesday this week, Tisbury selectmen voted to attach a question to this year’s ballot, asking voters whether they want to maintain the town’s current commitment to the program, wind it back, or drop out completely.

West Tisbury has a similar article on its warrant, asking whether townspeople want to maintain the status quo.

In both cases, the moves are intended to sound out community views and promote debate, without making a binding commitment to immediate action. But they reflect a view among some town officials that the program might have outlived its usefulness, in light of sharply reduced matching funds from the state.

When it began, the CPA program promised “free money” to local communities which imposed a small surcharge on property taxes to fund housing, preservation and conservation. To be eligible for the maximum benefit from the program, towns were required to have a three per cent surcharge.

In each of the first six years, from 2002 to 2007, the state match was 100 per cent. Then it began to decline.

The distribution for 2008 averaged 74 per cent across the state. In 2009, it fell to 40, and in 2010 fell again to 32 per cent. This year, Department of Revenue estimates the match will be about 25 per cent on the first round. Because all the Vineyard towns have a three per cent surcharge, they may expected to get somewhat more from the second and third rounds of disbursements, but still the total is expected to be lower than last year.

There are two reasons for the decline. The first is that the CPA program became so popular that more and more communities joined, meaning the money had to be spread more thinly.

But the major reason is the second one: the real estate slump of the past four years. Community preservation money comes out of a trust fund made up from fees levied on real estate transactions. The decline in real estate activity has meant less money coming in to the trust fund.

In Tisbury’s case, one of the drivers for a reconsideration of the town’s involvement in CPA was the chairman of the finance committee, Larry Gomez.

“This is a three per cent tax on our properties,” he said, explaining that given the decline in the state contribution, people should have an opportunity to reconsider.

“We’ve had this now for five years. It was mandatory for five years after it was approved, but now after six years, it can be a yearly review.”

Mr. Gomez noted that one of the primary reasons people originally supported the CPA was to fund affordable housing. He was critical of some of the other uses to which some of the money has been put over the years.

“The number one priority on this Island is affordable housing. But I wouldn’t have voted for the restoration of church windows, the money for the Playhouse. They gave $50,000 or something a couple of years ago to help manage a cranberry bog.”

Meanwhile, he said, the CPC had been unreceptive to requests for money to put toward a town affordable housing trust.

But he acknowledged that his was a minority view on the finance committee. The ballot idea had been rejected five votes to two.

“The consensus of the finance committee when I brought it up for discussion several weeks ago was that it was free money and something is better than a poke in the eye,” he said.

“But next year, we are probably not going to get any money. If that’s the case, we should put something in place to dismantle the system,” he said.

The chairman of Tisbury’s board of selectmen, Jeff Kristal, was more circumspect.

“I don’t think [the program] has outlived its usefulness. I think it’s a great program, but there are questions we need to ask and answers we need to get.

“Some of the questions are, do we want to continue with the state only funding 28 per cent, and the possibility of that dropping over future years? And do the voters really know they are paying a three per cent tax on their taxes right now?

“When I, as a selectman, hear from people complaining ‘our taxes are going up, our taxes are going up,’ one of the things I have to inform them is that we have a three per cent tax for the CPA fund. And I can tell you, 100 per cent of the people that have asked me had no idea.”

Mr. Kristal also expressed frustration at getting money for affordable housing in the town.

In supporting the idea of a nonbinding ballot question at Tuesday’s board meeting, Mr. Kristal wanted more than just an in-or-out option. Another possibility, which he appeared to favor, was a reduction in the tax surcharge from three per cent to one.

At the current rate, the surcharge amounts to about an extra $150 a year in tax on the average, $770,000 property.

And while the state matches have declined over recent years Tisbury, for example, got a 90.4 per cent match in the 2008 distribution, 50.2 per cent in 2009 and 40.3 per cent last year. So even in the most recent and lowest round, the town still received more than $103,000 of free money from the state.

Other towns have done even better.

Cumulatively, since they signed on to the CPA, the Island’s six towns have distributed some $12.4 million, of which more than half has gone to affordable housing, according to figures compiled by Tony Nevin, administrative assistant with the West Tisbury Community Preservation Committee.

Perhaps predictably, Mr. Nevin remains strongly in favor of the CPA program, even at the reduced matching levels.

“I think it’s a very good deal, even if it’s not 100 per cent,” he said.

“Even if it’s only 35, or 44 per cent, like we got last year, that is money that is totally under the town’s control, not part of the state budget. It comes from a trust fund, the legislature doesn’t vote it, so it’s under local control.”

The prospect of changes to the program presents a major threat to affordable housing on the Island.

“It has a huge potential impact on affordable housing,” said David Vigneault, the executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

“Our rental assistance program is heavily dependent on that money. We have over $500,000 on town warrants for the coming year.”

“My feeling is that even at 40 cents to the dollar, saying no to that kind of revenue and local control at a time like this makes no sense.”

Mr. Vigneault said the indications were that Island towns would get almost as much state money in the coming year as they did last year.

“Potentially we might be down two or three cents on the dollar, that’s all,” he said.

Also contradicting Mr. Gomez’s suggestion that CPA funding could decline to nothing in the near future was Katherine Roth, associate director of the Community Preservation Coalition, a statewide nonprofit advocacy and advice group.

She said there were signs of a recovery in the real estate market, which would see the trust fund with more money to distribute.

She also noted that affordable housing has become more and more dependent on CPA money, as other sources have dried up.

“We would also argue there are a lot of benefits to the commonwealth as a whole. It creates jobs at the local level, as opposed to jobs you can ship overseas to China,” she said.

Ms. Roth also pointed to proposed state legislation which would, if passed, guarantee at least a 75 per cent state match, by increasing the real estate transaction fees which supply the trust fund.

“They might have to double, but they are now very small — $10 or $20 depending on the transaction. When the average real estate transaction is $300,000-odd, that kind of fee is not going to break a transaction,” she said.

Overall, she said, the program remained “probably one of the most popular local option state laws ever passed, both among communities and legislators.

“Already this year we’ve seen 116 state legislators sign on to the bill, as sponsors or cosponsors,” she said, “Republicans and Democrats alike.”