Newton is one of many communities in which the Prop 2 1/2 chickens are coming home to roost. For the last 30 years, that 1980 tax limit referendum has held a community’s total tax levy to two and a half percent annual increases, not counting growth through expansion of the tax base. Having the cap on the books has definitely helped with formerly out-of-control taxation. Some town and city officials have had to go through pretty significant contortions to meet that standard. Many necessary investments, especially of the capital sort, have had to be deferred.
Newton voters are coming to realize that putting off school repairs, fire station repairs, fixing roads and sidewalks can’t go on indefinitely. With huge growth in enrollment, new teachers are needed, and our 139 police officers are the lowest number in decades. Asking people to pay more is never popular, which Newton Mayor Setti Warren understands. But he has approached the challenge very smartly, first, by taking steps to increase efficiencies as much as possible before asking the public for an override and, second, by holding town meetings across the city to explain steps taken to put the city’s fiscal house in order and to lay out the rationale for the override. More and better communication is always in order.
Supporting this tax hike can be scary, especially for seniors whose largely fixed incomes may not keep pace with rising property taxes. Nagging questions remain: what if, as has happened before, the city has underestimated the costs for redoing Angier and Cabot? Lemieux and Warren say they will find the additional money. But will we be facing another override five years from now? Are we moving into a permanent pattern of overrides every five years? This one will include Zervas, Angier and Cabot schools, but there may be several others in need of repair. Other unknowns? If interest rates rise, the city could be getting as much as $5 million interest on investments, more than the paltry $220,000 they yield today.
In 2007, ’08 and ’09, citizen advisory groups predicted annual structural deficits of $40 million. In their first two years, Setti Warren and his impressive CFO Maureen Lemieux took steps to save $15 million and limit growth of future increases. A few million more are expected from new development, and both say they are working on additional efficiencies. Their FY 2013 and 2014 budgets were balanced. But the 20-year underfunding of infrastructure and other needs must be addressed.
So severe is the ongoing gap that many supporters and opponents of the rejected 2008 override are joining forces to support this one. More than three quarters of Newton’s families do not have children in the school, so why should they care? I would submit that even those of us who no longer use the schools benefit from a high quality education. Just look at how well the city’s real estate market survived the recent Great Recession. While real estate values statewide went down 25 percent, Newton’s dropped just over three percent, those figures according to The Warren Group. Clearly, quality of the schools helped sustain property values, our investment in our homes.
I went through the Newton schools in the paleolithic era. But even when my sister and I were no longer in the system, my father would say, “We moved to Newton for quality schools. I see my responsibility as leaving the schools in at least the same condition as we found them.” My father did not have unlimited means, but he was true to his philosophy.
The idea of intergenerational compact is no longer a popular concept (just look at the Social Security generational divide.) It will be a tribute to my father to support the override package and do for future generations what he strove to do for children of a past era.
I welcome your comments in the section below.