Newton Mayor Setti Warren introduced a new five-year capital improvement plan and long range projection Monday that contains 280 capital projects valued at $315 million, including upgrades to City Hall technology, modernized traffic signals and a tree-planting effort to keep Newton looking like the Garden City.
“We are currently doing unprecedented work on our infrastructure that includes thousands of feet of road repaving and sidewalk repair that will create complete streets to make our villages more bikable, walkable, accessible and safer,” said Warren during remarks Monday night to the Board of Aldermen. “We are also meeting milestones and financial targets as planned for each of our school and city capital projects.”
Warren, who is seeking his second four-year term as Newton’s mayor, will face off against Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan in the Nov. 5 general election.
Three major components of Warren's plan are trees, technology and traffic.
For decades, Warren said in an interview Monday morning, the city has been cutting down far more trees than it has been planting. If the losses kept up, Warren said, the city would be down to about half of its 25,000 street trees by 2031. But the new plan includes a long-term sustainable tree plan, which would level off the street-tree depletion, and is projected to cost the city $1.2 million over the next seven years.
The capital plan includes a traffic and signalization plan to modernize traffic lights and incorporate smart technology to improve traffic flow on city streets, Warren said.
A focus on technology, including installation of a city-wide fiber optic network, will help build a 21st century City Hall, according to city officials.
The plan continues the infrastructure work the city has been doing since citizens voted to approve an $11.4 million override in March of this year. The major projects the city has already begun – including the $37.5 million Angier Elementary School building project, the $40 million Zervas Elementary School building project and the $45 million Cabot Elementary School building project – are all humming along on budget and on schedule, according to the city’s Chief Operating Officer Robert Rooney.
“It’s very satisfying to feel like you’re moving the needle,” he said.
Newton’s Chief Financial Officer Maureen Lemieux painted a positive picture of the city’s finances Monday morning: when Warren came into office, she said, the city was in a “financial crisis,” and was poised to see a $41 million budget gap this year, but over the last four years, his administration has virtually eliminated the structural deficit.
Settling contracts with the city’s unions, she said, has so far saved the city more than $50 million, and will save the city another $150 million over the next five years.
By zero-basing its budgets and controlling expenses, she said, the city has saved $23 million. A rainy day fund has been created, she said, which currently contains more than $13 million.
The city has encouraged economic development such as the recently approved Station at Riverside and the Chestnut Hill Square project, which she said will bring in $3 million a year in property taxes.
“We’re not trying to make this sound better than it is,” said Lemieux. “This is an incredible story.”
The city will, however, have to grapple with its $600 million other post-employment benefits liability, said Lemieux. Over the last two and a half years, she said, the city has reduced the liability by $40 million from $640 million, and has created an Irrevocable Trust Fund for the benefits.
The rainy day fund, she said, will also need to grow. The city's goal is to raise it to $16 million or $17 million.
The city has hired a sustainability director as well as a permanent building commissioner.
“Together we’ve made extraordinary progress in rebuilding Newton’s capital and infrastructure as well as putting our financial house in order for the long term,” said Warren in his address. “Let’s continue what we’ve started and demonstrate to the rest of the Commonwealth why last year Money magazine and CNN ranked Newton one of the best places to live in the nation by working together, 13 villages, one community.”
Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com.