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Voters consider property tax hikes today

Posted by Your Town  December 8, 2009 07:46 AM

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Voters go to the polls in Needham and Norfolk today to consider property tax increases, the latest in a string of votes in cash-strapped communities seeking more money to pay for new buildings and better services.

In Needham, voters will consider whether to raise property taxes to cover the town’s share of the $27.4 million renovation of the Newman Elementary School. About $8.6 million of the project’s cost would be reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, leaving $18.8 million for the town to pay.

Norfolk voters, meanwhile, will consider three requests to raise local property taxes for capital improvement projects. The new taxes would pay for a new Freeman-Centennial Elementary School, costing $37 million; a $10 million public safety building; and $200,000 in road-repair projects. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has agreed to contribute $17.3 million toward the new school through a reimbursement grant.

This year, about 30 Massachusetts communities have voted on property tax increases, “Compared to prior years, it’s been fairly quiet,’’ John Robertson, deputy legislative director for the association, told the Globe last month.

In Wayland last month, voters at the polls and in Town Meeting paved the way last week for a new $70.8 million high school and kept the door open for a 372,500-square-foot town center project.

Also last month, Rockland residents voted to raise property taxes to build an $86 million middle and high school, approving the second such tax increase in six months by a more than 2 to 1 margin.

In Needham, the costs to the average homeowner will vary over the years, but at its peak (fiscal year 2014), the town estimates the average household will pay $190 for the Newman project. (The town says this amount is based on the value of the average single family home, or $693,358 as of FY 2009.)

A new heating, air conditioning, and ventilation system is the marquee element of the Newman plan. But it also includes building code and disability upgrades, new ceilings and sprinklers, kitchen improvements, new lighting and sound systems for the auditorium, renovations to nursing, guidance and administration offices, and modular classrooms to accommodate students during the construction.

Local officials, Newman School parents, and others who support the project say that all the work is badly needed and it makes sense to get it done all at once. Some of the improvements are required by building codes if work proceeds on the HVAC system, according to supporters. The improvements will make the school a safer, more effective learning environment, and extend the useable life of the school, they say, and if the project isn’t approved, the state reimbursement may be lost or delayed significantly.

But opponents say the price tag is too high at a time when the municipal budget is tight and the sputtering economy has residents scrimping on everything. Make the necessary changes only to the heating and ventilation system, they say. The project will not help the Newman School last longer, and the reimbursement money would not necessarily be lost, they say, since the town could reapply for another project.

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