State throws wrench into Newton mayor’s plan to pitch tax increase to pay for new schools, other costs

Mayor Setti Warren planned to introduce a bundled proposal Monday.
Mayor Setti Warren planned to introduce a bundled proposal Monday.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/ File

As Mayor Setti Warren prepared last week to pitch a property tax increase for a range of new buildings and expenses, including schools, state officials made a demand that may make it tougher to sell the increase to voters next spring.

Warren has spent the past several months meeting with aldermen to gather support f or an approximate-
ly $11 million override of Proposition
2½ that would go toward three new schools, a fire station, road improvements, more police officers, and dealing with the increasing school enrollment, according to several officials who heard the proposal.

He was scheduled to present his plan on Monday.

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But the Massachusetts School Building Authority notified Newton officials last week that funding for each school project must be voted on individually by city residents, throwing a wrench into Warren’s initial plan to go to voters just once and avoid splintering different constituencies.

Newton is seeking help from the authority to pay for the school projects and must follow the state’s guidelines to get funding.

Alderwoman Greer Tan Swiston said she anticipates Warren will have a new plan by Monday.

“I’m expecting him to have some sort of plan,” said Swiston, who is also running for state representative. “I’m sure they’re scrambling right now.”

Warren sent an e-mail to aldermen Wednesday night letting them know about the authority’s decision. On Thursday and Friday he was meeting with surprised elected officials to explain what had happened and how he plans to move forward.

Warren declined to comment on what he will specifically propose.

“I am presenting my capital plan and forecast on Monday evening,” Warren said.

In his e-mail to aldermen Wednesday, Warren wrote: “I was just informed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority that they are requiring that all Newton school building projects that they would fund or potentially fund, be placed as separate ballot questions as debt exclusion overrides. They have also stated that projects may not be bundled together as a single debt exclusion override or as part of a general operating override.”

Matt Donovan, a spokesman for the school building authority, said attorneys and officials at the agency had talked to Newton officials over several days last week. The authority was responding to a letter it received from the city on Oct. 5 asking for clarification about whether school projects could be bundled. The requirement applies to all communities and is outlined on the authority’s website.

Under Warren’s initial plan, the $11 million override would pay for the debt service on several elementary school building projects — including Angier, Cabot and Zervas — and a new fire station. The permanent tax increase, if passed, would also have helped the city maintain its crumbling roads, keep up with growing school student enrollment, and add a handful of police officers to the force, according to city officials.

On a median home in Newton, assessed at $680,550, the initial plan would have increased taxes by about $300, according to city officials.

Raising taxes is always a hard sell, Alderman Brian Yates said, but Warren has gained some credibility with voters by reducing labor costs in last year’s negotiations with unions. And the rationale for asking voters to approve one big package of items, instead of individual projects, made sense, he said.

“It’s cleaner,” Yates said.

Overrides beyond the normal tax increases allowed under Proposition 2½ have been controversial statewide, and Newton’s history with the measure has made city officials even more skittish. The last time Newton voters approved a property tax override, an $11.3 million measure, was in 2002.

Newton officials decided against asking voters to raise taxes to build Newton North High School, a project costing more than $190 million and the most expensive public high school ever built in Massachusetts. The project put a strain on the city’s budget.

And in 2008, then-Mayor David Cohen proposed a $12 million override to pay for everyday city operations. Voters, who were upset about the massive cost-overruns on the Newton North project and distrustful of city leaders, overwhelming rejected that plan.

Although Warren unveiled his $241 million capital improvement plan for more than 300 projects last November, he has remained vague on how to pay for the renovations and expansions. At the time, he said there may be a temporary need for a tax increase to pay for Angier Elementary School and the fire station. But he has been mum since, promising he would lay out his funding plan this month.

Alderwoman Amy Mah Sangiolo said she is supportive of individual override votes on each project, as state officials are requiring. It would give voters a better chance to understand the plans for each school and provide assurance to residents that the money is going to that specific project, she said.

“If it looks like a reasonable plan to renovate and rebuild our schools, Newton voters will consider it,” Sangiolo said.

Swiston said she hopes that Warren will stagger the votes on the projects over several years, instead of putting all the individual projects on one ballot in March.

If circumstances or the economic environment change, the city can adjust its schedule and plan for the projects, she said.

“I think that our community wants to have better buildings, better schools,” Swiston said.