As Newton residents prepare to vote March 12 on three Proposition 2 1/2 override proposals totaling $11.4 million, Globe reporter Deirdre Fernandes posed the following questions to Joshua Norman and Suzanne Szescila, cochairs of Moving Newton Forward. The group opposes the override.
Q: How should residents vote on the override questions and why?
A: Residents should vote “No!” on each of the override questions. Three “No!” votes will keep Newton affordable by telling elected officials to live within their means.
Newton leaders are asking us for a tax hike on top of our annual rise in local taxes of 2.5%. They shamelessly ask when the U.S. economy is stalled and both federal and state taxes are rising.
With the overrides, Newton’s annual median property tax increase will be about $343. If households instead invested that amount in a portfolio of stocks and bonds with a rate of return from 4% to 12% for 30 years (the length of the two debt exclusion questions), families would have between $19,200 and $82,700. Many of us, saving for college tuition or retirement, cannot afford to lose such a sum. And the City doesn’t need it.
The last override passed in FY 2002. From that year to 2012, Newton’s general fund revenue increased 43.5%. Meanwhile, Newton’s general fund expenditures rose even higher---to 46% over the same period. Newton has a spending problem. If Newton’s spending had grown only 2.5% annually during that decade, the City’s spending would be $36.6M lower than was it was in 2012.
We fight the overrides so that we can afford to stay in Newton. We want our children to be able to afford Newton in the future. Three “No!” votes will tell our elected officials, who want these overrides and more, that endless spending and tax increases are destructive for Newton families.
Q: During their discussions about the override, several aldermen expressed concern that the costs for these projects weren’t as specific as they should be and the price could increase. Should voters have confidence in the estimated costs for these projects and the amount of additional taxes being requested under the override? Why or why not?
A: We recognize that the estimated costs projected for these Cabot, Angier, and Zervas school projects have some margin of error built into them, but we would like more details. From what we know now, the estimated cost per student of each of the elementary schools is similar to the amount that was spent on Newton North High School. This puzzles us, since the elementary schools lack many of the special facilities that you find in a high school.
Furthermore, we found that Burlington recently built a new elementary school that resembled Cabot, Angier, and Zervas in terms of size and student enrollment. Yet the net cost for Burlington was between 35%-50% less than the net proposed cost associated with any one of Newton’s three elementary schools slated for renovation or rebuilding. If that’s not enough to make a taxpayer skeptical, the City has admitted that the estimated cost per school could rise. Given the skyrocketing costs of Newton North, this lack of a price guarantee makes Newton residents extremely nervous.
Q: Mayor Setti Warren has said that the override is needed to address the old, and in some cases, crowded, schools and deteriorating city buildings and infrastructure. What should the city do if voters reject this override of Proposition 2 1/2?
A: Newton’s capable leadership has ample options for improving infrastructure without raising property taxes.
Since 80 percent of all city expenditures go to employee salary and benefits, the City could pay for infrastructure by reforming union contracts. Those contracts currently award City workers far richer healthcare and pension benefits than private-sector workers enjoy. The costs are unsustainable.
For example, the city annually supplies what is known as Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) -- primarily healthcare benefits for retirees. From 2004 to 2012, OPEB payments increased from $10.2 to $16.6 million (Cumulative Growth 62%, Compounded Annual Growth Rate of 6.2%). Meanwhile, the City’s pension contribution payments increased from $6.7 million in 2002 to $16.1 million in 2012 (Cumulative Growth 141%, Compounded Annual Growth Rate of 11.6%).
Newton could also reduce city employee pay raises. If salaries rose 1% instead of 2.5%, for example, the City would save $11.9M in annual spending over a three-year period.
Education spending is lavish. Although Newton public school enrollment increased only 8% from 2003 to 2012, its spending increased 39% during that time. What if every student took at least one online course per year? States like Florida use virtual schools to improve test scores and reduce school expenses.
Savings could also be realized by naming rights deals in the public schools, a re-purposing of Community Preservation Act funds, and negotiations with the native towns and cities of the over 500 non-resident students who attend Newton Public Schools. Annually, they cost us $7.1 million net of state aid.