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Newton aldermen revisit tax increase for Newton North

Posted by Sarah Thomas  March 16, 2011 02:43 PM

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Newton aldermen are set to vote Monday whether to resurrect a proposal that would put a debt exclusion override for the nearly $200 million Newton North High School project before the town's voters.

The proposal was originally made in 2008 by Alderwoman Amy Sangiolo, chair of the programs and services committee. She said she was resurrecting the idea to cope with the city's budget problems.

A debt-exclusion override is a temporary tax increase that lasts until the bonds on a particular municipal project are paid off.

"It's timely to talk about another potential revenue source during budget time," Sangiolo said in an interview today. "The mayor's staff has identified debt servicing as a huge budget item."

The programs and services committee voted 4-3 last week to send the proposal to the full Board of Aldermen. Voting in favor, with Sangiolo, were aldermen Ted Hess-Mahan, Carleton Merrill, and Stephen Linsky. Aldermen Mitchell Fischman, John Rice and Richard Blazar opposed. Alderman Lisle Baker was not present at the meeting.

Fischman, who opposed the measure, said that he felt it was too soon to tell if a debt exclusion was the right choice.

"Until we know for sure where the administration stands on this, it's fruitless to vote for something they might be against," Fischman said. "It's not known whether or how much a debt exclusion would really do."

In an interview, Mayor Warren also said he opposed the measure.

"I don't believe we should do this," Warren said. "We're in the process of putting together a capital plan that looks at all of the city's assets and projects together. We should be moving forwards, not backwards. There are a lot of other important projects in town."

When the high school project was considered by voters in 2007, then-mayor David Cohen insisted that financing for the school could be accomplished without overrides. The project was approved with 58 percent of the vote.

Critics at the time, including former Newton Taxpayers Association president Jeffrey Seideman, said that the vote set up a future scenario where voters would need to choose between raising taxes and cutting expenses.

The high school opened its doors in September.

"The economy is in a very different place than it was a few years ago," Hess-Mahan said in an interview today. "There have been severe cuts to local aid, and we aren't having the same kind of new growth to our tax base that we were before the crisis. It's put us in a tough spot."

Hess-Mahan said that during the first few years of financing, pressure was eased by reimbursements from the Massachusetts School Building Authority and various one-time tax settlements.

"I don't have any delusions that this would be likely to pass, but I think we need to have a public discussion on it," Hess-Mahan said of the debt exclusion proposal. "We have a multimillion dollar budget gap, and a debt exclusion override to pay for Newton North is one way to close it without having to lay off a large number of the city's teachers."

The issue was also previously taken up in the Finance Committee, which voted no action necessary. Hess-Mahan said that, when it comes before the full board on Monday, he intends to vote for it to be recommitted to the Finance Committee.

Hess-Mahan said he hoped the vote would begin a dialogue.

"I'd like to see this get the consideration it deserves," Hess-Mahan said. "Mayor Warren might elect not to support it, but I think he needs to say why or why not publicly."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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