Questions remain as a tax vote looms

Just over two weeks before it decides whether to ask voters for a tax increase, Newton’s Board of Aldermen still has plenty of questions about what should be on the ballot.

The board spent several hours last week wrestling with elements of Mayor Setti Warren’s proposed override of Proposition 2½ and will meet again at the end of November to debate the package. Aldermen are scheduled to vote Dec. 3 on whether to ask voters for $11.4 million in tax increases in March.

“I don’t envision any scenario that the majority decides not to put it on the ballot,” said Alderman Lenny Gentile during a board meeting Wednesday.

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But what questions — and how many — should be on the ballot remains uncertain.

Many aldermen agree that the city needs additional money to pay for repairs to aging buildings, crowded schools, and crumbling roads. However, based on Newton’s checkered history with overrides, aldermen are sensitive about the political and financial implications. Voters last supported a tax increase a decade ago and roundly defeated a more recent effort.

“I really need to understand and be persuaded,” said Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan, about the mayor’s override plan.

Warren has proposed three ballot initiatives to pay for $143.5 million in projects. Warren’s plan calls for a permanent tax increase of $8.4 million for road repairs, four police officers, new teachers to handle growing student enrollment, expansion and renovation of Zervas Elementary School, replacement of the Newton Centre fire station and fire headquarters, and a new communications building.

Warren is also proposing two other tax increases, totaling $3 million and lasting about 30 years, that would pay for rebuilding the Angier and Cabot elementary schools.

If all three override measures pass, city officials estimate that annual taxes on a median house assessed at $686,000 would increase by about $343, to $8,006.

City staff struggled to come up with the best package that would meet Newton’s needs for the next five years and win voters’ approval, said Maureen Lemieux, the city’s chief financial officer.

“It was our job and our responsibility to strike a balance of what are our needs in the city,” Lemieux told aldermen last week.

Some aldermen, however, questioned whether more projects should have been included, such as technology for all the schools, to get greater support from voters across the city.

The lack of specific costs for the school projects worried Hess-Mahan.

He said he does not want to return to voters asking for more money later because the city does not have accurate costs now.

The money sought for redoing and renovating the three Newton schools was based on what other recent elementary school projects in the state have cost. “We’re comfortable with the numbers,” Lemieux said.

But Hess-Mahan said several local school construction project costs have ballooned in recent years. “Stuff can happen,” he said. “Costs can change.”

Most infamously, the Newton North High School project grew from $141 million to $195 million, becoming the most expensive public high school in the state when it opened in 2010. The expansion of Day Middle School started out as a $3.7 million proposal in 2010 and grew to $7.5 million because of building code requirements for sprinkler systems. And just last month, aldermen found out that renovating the Carr School, so that it can be used as temporary space during other school construction projects, rose from $8 million to $10 million up to $12.7 million.

Hess-Mahan suggested that the city wait on the overrides for the schools until it has more detailed cost estimates. Architects for Angier Elementary will be presenting estimates in the coming months, but the Cabot and Zervas school projects are still in the early planning stages.

Alderwoman Ruthanne Fuller questioned whether the Zervas School work should be a separate ballot question, instead of being lumped together with the permanent tax increase, so that the city can qualify for state funding.

Fuller said the city could use the state’s financial help, considering that all of Newton’s capital needs over the next 20 years will cost about $1 billion.

“I’m so worried that we’re shutting the door and not leaving the option open,” she said.

The state is unlikely to fund more than two school projects in Newton simultaneously, Lemieux said. Under Warren’s plan, the Angier and Cabot schools are slated for state funding. The city anticipates paying for the $40 million worth of work on the Zervas School on its own.

Other aldermen also asked for more information about how the money for more teachers and space would be used and why Newton, considered one of the safest cities of its size, needs additional police officers.

Alderman Marc Laredo said that while having more information would help, ultimately Newton needs to invest in the projects and improve the school facilities. He urged other aldermen to support the override proposals.

“Doing these three schools is inevitable,” he said.

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