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Newton mayor opens the door to property tax hike for buildings

Posted by Your Town  November 7, 2011 09:55 PM

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Newton Mayor Setti Warren today opened the door to a property tax increase as he unveiled a $241-million plan that calls for more than 300 projects, including renovations or expansions for schools, fire stations, and city hall.

Warren said city officials may ask Newton voters to temporarily raise property taxes to pay for two top priorities -- $30 million to replace or repair Angier Elementary School and $5.7 million for a fire station in Newton Centre. He said the new school could be open by fall of 2016.

“I believe a debt exclusion override could be an attractive option for the city,” Warren said in an interview today before presenting his Capital Improvement Plan to the Board of Aldermen. “What’s important here is we are going to move ahead right away.’’

Of the fire station and the Angier school, Warren said: "Their current condition is deplorable – and they are no longer meeting the needs of our community.''

The long-awaited Capital Improvement Plan is Warren's first big political move since he abandoned his US Senate campaign in September.

Warren said he hopes the rest of the 376 large and small projects, valued at about $241 million, will be funded through the city’s annual bond offering and other regular city funds.

After a detailed analysis of Newton’s infrastructure, city officials ranked projects throughout the city by the risk that the facility or equipment could fail and also by the consequences of a failure.

"I believe strongly that, if the City of Newton is to remain the remarkable community it has been for so long, we can and we must begin to more aggressively invest in our infrastructure, particularly those elements that impact education and public safety,'' he said in a speech to the aldermen tonight.

Of the top 10 priorities, four were from the schools department, five from the Department of Public Works, and one from the Fire Department.

Replacing or refurbishing the Angier School at an estimated cost of $30 million, was the most expensive item on the list. The school, which opened in 1921, was ranked number four on the priority list.

The number one priority is the repair or replacement of the Bigelow School entrance ramp and stairs, which is crumbling because of improper water drainage, at an estimated cost of $385,000.

Number two is the Carr Building, estimated at $5.2 million, which is being renovated for use as space for students whose own school is uninhabitable during a construction project.

The analysis, complete with a series of data on each project, was scheduled to go online tonight.

It’s a level of transparency and user friendliness that the mayor hopes will revolutionize the city's traditional five-year plan.

In all, the Capital Improvement Plan, covering fiscal years 2013 (which starts July 1, 2012) through 2017, includes 78 municipal and school buildings, roads, water and sewer pipelines, large vehicles, and parks and playgrounds.

The plan and database cost a little more than $400,000 but have already saved much more than that in costs that can now be avoided, according to Bob Rooney, the city’s chief operating officer.

By looking carefully at every building and piece of infrastructure, the city learned that some planned expenses were not needed at all. For example, it would soon have been a priority to paint two water towers at a cost of $1.6 million, but with research for the Capital Improvement Plan, the city discovered two of the three water towers are obsolete, so can be taken out of service – and not painted, he said.

The Capital Improvement Plan seeks to fulfill a goal set by the Citizens Advisory Group to invest in the city’s infrastructure, a promise that Warren embraced as a candidate for mayor. He said it is one component in a strategy that also includes keeping expenses in line with revenue and improving city services by instituting a performance management system.

“What we have done is put the city on a pathway to meet its strategic vision for what kind of community we want to be,” said Warren.

The plan does not include several immediate priorities on a project list for the current fiscal year. Those projects will be voted on by the Board of Aldermen in about a month. That list includes $2.4 million for elementary school modular classrooms and sprinklers and $640,000 for design work for F.A. Day Middle School’s proposed addition and renovation.

"I am proud to say that once again Newton is leading the way in the Commonwealth – we are the only community that has taken such a comprehensive and systematic approach. And the work tells us what the CAG suspected – we have been significantly under-investing; as we have identified nearly $250 million dollars worth of needs over the next five years,'' he told the aldermen.


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