With not quite six weeks left before Newton residents vote on a requested $11.4 million in tax increases for schools, streets, and public safety, supporters and opponents are mobilizing across the city.
Signs backing the three Proposition 2½ override questions have cropped up in front yards, and supporters have held meetings with community groups and parent-teacher organizations. Opponents, meanwhile, have approached residents at coffee shops and appeared on a local television program to warn about higher taxes.
“Things will heat up now,” said Suzanne Szescila, cochairwoman of a newly formed antioverride group, Moving Newton Forward.
Yet some predict the debate leading up to the March 12 special election may not be as as fiery as it was in 2008, the last time the city administration proposed an override of Proposition 2½; voters turned it down by a margin of 10 percentage points.
A group supporting the overrides, Building Newton’s Future, has spent the past few months organizing, polling, hiring a part-time consultant, and raising money, but it is leagues away from the $122,920 raised for the 2008 campaign. According to the group’s last report, it had raised $8,250 for its current effort.
A committee fighting the 2008 proposal raised about $11,983, but opponents of the current proposals had not done much fund-raising.
“It’s a very different political climate in Newton,” said Marcia Tabenken, a cochairwoman of Building Newton’s Future.
The city has a different mayor. And anger residents felt over the new Newton North High, which at $191.5 million was the most expensive public school project in state history, has ebbed, several aldermen said.
This time around, Mayor Setti Warren is proposing three ballot initiatives to help pay for $143.5 million in projects. His plan calls for a permanent tax increase to provide $8.4 million annually for road repairs, four police officers, new teachers to handle the school system’s growing student population, expansion and renovation of Zervas Elementary School, replacement of the Newton Centre fire station and Fire Department headquarters, and a new communications building.
The other two overrides seek temporary tax increases, totaling $3 million and to be paid off over 30 years, to cover the costs of rebuilding the Angier and Cabot elementary schools.
If all three increases are approved, Newton officials have said, annual taxes on a house with the city’s median assessment of $686,000 would go up by about $343, to $8,006.
The overrides would help pay for about five years of projects, and aldermen and the administration have suggested that more tax increases may be sought in later years to address the city’s other capital needs.
“Now, we need collectively, from all of us, to make a sound investment in the future,” Warren told a crowd of more than 30 at a meeting last Sunday.
Few residents at the gathering disputed the need for the projects covered by the overrides. But some have fretted about how they would pay for the property tax increase, citing the still-struggling economy with mounting state and federal tax pressures.
An increase in Social Security taxes this year has led paychecks to shrink. Upper-income earners have also been hit by the expiration of some of the Bush-era tax cuts. And Governor Deval Patrick recently presented a budget plan that includes proposals to increase the state income tax, raise or establish new taxes on candy, soda, and cigarettes, and open the door to higher gas taxes.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s a bad time economically for a lot of people,” said Alderwoman Amy Mah Sangiolo.
Sangiolo, who supports the overrides, said she has spoken with families who agree the city needs to invest in infrastructure, but they’ll struggle to pay additional taxes. “There is a divide in Newton, there are people with a lot of money, and people who don’t have a lot of money,” she said.
Warren has said that the city is expanding and establishing some programs to help senior citizens and veterans reduce their tax bills.
Opponents of the override and some aldermen have also raised concerns that the plans and costs for some of the building projects, like Zervas Elementary School and the fire station, are still in the early stages and remain vague.
Richard Slater, a member of Moving Newton Forward, said he worries costs will increase., like they did for Newton North.
Still, supporters of the overrides express optimism. The measures have the backing of most of Newton’s aldermen, even in parts of the city, such as Ward 1, that have traditionally opposed overrides. The local League of Women Voters and Newton’s PTO Council have also voted to support them.
“We’re probably in pretty good shape for winning the three questions,” said Matt Hills, the School Committee’s vice chairman.
On Wednesday, members of Building Newton’s Future held two coffee meetings to introduce friends and neighbors to the issue, and made calls to encourage people to vote in favor of the measures next month.
That night, at the American Legion post in Nonantum, the nascent Moving Newton Forward gathered to build its strategy to defeat the overrides. About 25 residents, many of them graying and veterans of past tax fights, discussed the best way to reach voters before the special election next month.
The organizational questions came in rapid succession: Was it worth doing mailers or fund-raising? Who could organize the phone banks? And how should they hone their message to persuade residents to vote against the override?
The antioverride group was late getting started, Szescila said, but “it’s worth participating in the conversation.”