It has been a decade since Newton voters approved a Prop 2 and 1/2 override, and Mayor Setti Warren would like to change that. Accordingly, he has worked hard not to make the same mistake as did his predecessor, namely, going for an override before putting the Garden City’s fiscal house in order and making sure the voters were informed about it. In 2008, then-Mayor David Cohen initially sought a $24 million override. It was eventually cut in half, but voters believed he wanted the override because of the costs of carrying the Newton North “Taj Mahal” construction, the pricetag of which had grown from $39 million (for a renovation) to close to $200 million. So voters said no.
On taking office, Mayor Warren determined that he would clean up the city’s budget, implement zero-based budgeting (rather than layering each new year’s budget on top of the old one, and work with the unions to reduce municipal health costs. His administration has logged achievements in those areas as well as in energy savings. And now he is proposing three overrides. The first, a permanent operating override, is for $8.4 million, according to the Newton TAB, for new police officers, a new Fire Department headquarters and new classrooms and staffing at the Zervas School.
Another two override items are for replacing Cabot and Angier Schools. These are so-called debt exclusion overrides that expire in 30 years, when the bonds are paid off. Make no mistake about it. A significant part of the Newton population is old enough that they won’t live to see that additional tax go away. For them, 30 years means life.
Questions abound. How much exactly will school construction cost? If, as Alderman Ruthanne Fuller points out, the cost for Zervas remains part of the operating override, will that eliminate the possibility of partial state reimbursement for beleaguered Zervas? What are the five- and ten-year projections for needed revenue? Will the city be requiring still more money just a few years out? Remember, this override comes on top of the annual tax increase, which comes within the parameters of Prop 2 and 1/2.
The aldermen are weighing whether to put this on the ballot for a special election in March. Why pay for a special election? Why not do it in the regular municipal election this fall? That question hasn’t been answered.
There is no doubt in my mind that some of our schools need to be replaced. Angier, for example, is nearly 100 years old and decrepit. Growth of school age population has outpaced space available for any number of important functions. The need seems clear. What is also clear to me is that one of the reasons that Newton’s property values suffered less in the Great Recession than those in other communities was the quality of its education system. This is more than physical plant, but the condition of our buildings is integral to that high quality system. So it’s in everyone’s interest to evaluate the Mayor’s proposals very thoughtfully.
In exchange, we need to know that the money ($343 on the median house assessment of $686,000, according to the Mayor) is going to be prudently spent. We also need to know that the basic municipal functions, down to the simplest traffic enforcement by police and manner in which City Hall answers phone calls, are carried out effectively and by city employees with positive attitudes. I’m open to being persuaded on this override, but I’m not there yet.
With the state facing a deficit and Governor Patrick contemplating ways to cut spending and increase revenues, more cities could be strapped and seeking overrides. Let’s hope decisions by Newton officials demonstrate the right way to approach the process.
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