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Q & A: Newton residents should vote 'Yes' on tax override

Posted by Leslie Anderson  February 23, 2013 11:47 AM

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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 Marcia Tabenken, cochairwoman of Building Newton’s Future. The group supports the override.

Q: How should residents vote on the override questions and why?

A: Mayor Warren’s proposed override package includes three inextricably linked questions that, together, tackle Newton’s biggest challenges: aging infrastructure and school enrollment growth. Three YES votes will enable our city to:

-- Modernize and expand Newton’s oldest school buildings—ranked among the 30 worst in Massachusetts.

-- Repair and maintain crumbling roads and sidewalks.

-- Provide teachers and staff to address the huge influx of new students.

-- Provide critical short- and long-term space with modulars at four elementary schools, as well as renovation/replacement and expansion of the severely overcrowded Zervas Elementary School.

-- Improve emergency response time by renovating the outdated Newton Centre Fire Station and Headquarters—the communications hub for emergency response.

-- Reduce traffic-related accidents and burglaries by adding four police officers for traffic and community policing.

Since Mayor Warren took office, the city has found more than $200 million in cost savings over the next five years by renegotiating employee and utility contracts and identifying efficiencies throughout all city and school departments. However challenges remain.

Newton has experienced dramatic enrollment growth with 900+ students since 2005 and 850+ more expected over the next five years. Schools are bursting at the seams, with specialists delivering services in hallways and closets. Crumbling roads and sidewalks make for unsafe travel. Pedestrian and cycling accidents and burglaries are up. The outdated Newton Center fire station is slowing down response time.

Delaying improvements would decrease our property values and cost us millions more down the road. Three yes votes are critical to preserving quality of life in Newton.

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: The Massachusetts School Building Authority implemented a strict oversight process for all projects in which it participates. This includes safeguards for design and spending, such as final state approval of the project architect; a committee made up primarily of state officials with a few municipal representatives to oversee and closely scrutinize the project from start to finish; and checks and balances throughout the process to ensure the project remains within scope and budget.

Newton has created a Design Review Committee of citizen experts involved in all steps of the design process, and hired two municipal special project managers, new since the last large school building project. For Angier, the city is working with an architectural firm that has done numerous cost-effective school projects under the MSBA’s new requirements.

The MSBA is currently working with Newton on the Angier project and is interested in working with us on Cabot. If either project were to run over budget, the city would have to make adjustments and find savings. The city cannot raise more money through the debt exclusions without voter approval.

Mayor Warren’s record restoring fiscal stability to Newton government should engender confidence that the city now has the tools to keep project costs on track. We cannot continue to provide our students with high quality educations in outmoded overcrowded schools like Angier, Cabot, and Zervas. The time to take action is now.

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: It’s not the place of a campaign created to support the override to try to dictate what the city should do if the override does not pass. However, it’s safe to say that failure to pass the override would result in further erosion of city services and infrastructure.

Children would have to attend overcrowded and substandard schools, and their education, and ultimately the desirability of living in Newton, would suffer. Roads and sidewalks would continue to crumble. Emergency services and traffic safety would be compromised. The Angier and Cabot projects would be delayed, leaving Newton to throw good money after bad, repairing antiquated, energy-inefficient school buildings and paying more for their renovation/replacement down the road. In addition, by delaying these projects, the city could lose out on a potential $27 million in state reimbursement. Our property values would fall.

YES votes on all three ballot questions will help keep Newton vibrant and strong.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.

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