Almost half of the $11.4 million property tax increases proposed in Newton would pay for upgrades to aging and inadequate buildings, but the city has yet to complete detailed design studies for some of them, raising concerns about whether the money will be enough.
More than a third of the override, or about $4 million, would be spent to hire new staff, including 51 teachers and aides, and four fully-equipped police officers. The balance would fund road repairs and modular classrooms.
Mayor Setti Warren has campaigned relentlessly for the package of three tax increases facing voters in a special election March 12, saying they are crucial to the city’s future.
But overshadowing Board of Aldermen meetings and community forums is the memory of the $191.5 million Newton North High project, which ballooned into the most expensive school in Massachusetts history.
“It’s a case of being once burned, twice shy,” said Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan, who nevertheless supported placing the tax questions on the ballot. “I’m not sure we have the right numbers yet.”
Coming up with accurate cost projections can be difficult when the buildings won’t be constructed for several years and the feasibility studies aren’t complete, Hess-Mahan said.
Warren administration officials stand by their early cost projections, however, and say that the money for buildings and staff should help the city deal with its most pressing needs for the next five years.
“We thought we came out with solid numbers,” said Maureen Lemieux, Newton’s chief financial officer.
If voters approve all three Proposition 2½ overrides — which would raise the annual taxes on a home with the city’s median assessed value by $343 — officials will ensure that they stay within the projected costs, Lemieux said.
Two of the proposals are debt-exclusion overrides to pay for new Angier and Cabot elementary schools, costing up to $37 million and $47 million, respectively; the resulting tax increases would last only until the construction loans are repaid, about 30 years.
Warren is also asking voters to approve an $8.4 million operational override, which is a permanent tax increase, to pay for Fire Department buildings, a bigger Zervas Elementary School, road repairs, new police officers, and more teachers and modular classrooms to deal with the school district’s growing enrollment.
The district’s student population has grown by more than 910 in the past eight years, and is expected to add about 865 more by 2018. While the district’s enrollment has not returned to the peak of the late 1960s, Newton has bucked the statewide trend of low student growth as more families move into the city, said Deputy Superintendent Sandra Guryan, the school system’s chief administrative officer. The district now has about 12,180 students.
Under the mayor’s plan, the additional tax revenue would be used to hire new staff at all grade levels, and to teach special-education students and English-language learners.
Fewer questions have been raised about the staffing proposals, as aldermen have focused on the building projects.
Some recent facility upgrades that have cost more than initially estimated, including at Day Middle School, Carr School, and the Oak Hill fire station, have added to concerns expressed by some aldermen, including Hess-Mahan and Richard Blazer.
But it’s difficult to get an exact cost for building projects, as expectations and needs change in the planning process, said Alderwoman Deb Crossley, who is an architect.
“Everything changes over time, as you get closer to the final product. As your design becomes more complete, the price becomes complete,” Crossley said. “The real question to the voters is, do you like the plan? Is the plan a good plan?”
Crossley said the city brought on experienced staff to oversee the building projects.
The estimates for the school projects are based primarily on what nearby communities have recently spent per square foot, with inflation factored in. For the Newton Centre fire station, a headquarters building, and a facility for the Wires Division, which are also part of the override, city officials relied on a more general feasibility study completed in January 2012 for the Fire Department.
City officials are getting close to figuring out detailed cost estimates for Angier Elementary School, and are working with an architect on a design. But Angier’s feasibility study is not expected to be complete until June.
The Cabot and Zervas school projects are still early in the planning stages.
Communities that obtain funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority typically complete feasibility studies as part of the approval process, and the plans are developed before voters are asked to approve a tax increase to cover the local share. That’s how Lexington and Franklin did it last year.
“You don’t know what you’re doing until you get that done,” Lexington School Committee chairwoman Margaret Coppe said about the feasibility study. And even after the study, the cost to build Lexington’s elementary school still rose past the estimate.
In Franklin, the feasibility study helped officials determine that building a new high school would be more cost-effective than renovating the existing facility, which was the original plan, said Tom Mercer, chairman of the Franklin High School Building Committee.
The bids for the new school were close to the feasibility study’s estimates, Mercer said.
The state School Building Authority, which maintains oversight on projects that receive grants, has been working closely with Newton, said Matt Donovan, the agency’s spokesman. The authority wants school districts to communicate and collaborate, and Newton has done both, he said.
“Newton is doing what’s right for Newton,” Donovan said about the override. “We see a good partnership with Newton.”
Newton is seeking grants from the agency to help pay for the Angier and Cabot projects, and the city will only raise taxes as needed to pay for them, Lemieux said. If the buildings cost less than anticipated, the city won’t tax residents as much, she said.
If the two schools cost much more than expected, officials would have to come back to voters for additional money, she said.
“What we have put before the people of Newton is a five-year plan,” Lemieux said. “We do not plan on going back to them at least for another five years to ask them for more money.”
Newton officials will work within the projected budgets for these buildings, she said.
The city has more flexibility with the projects that are covered by the $8.4 million permanent override. If costs for one of the projects come in lower, the city can spend the additional tax revenue elsewhere.
City officials defended their approach to the overrides, and the decision to ask for a vote without having detailed designs and costs.
“You can wait to get an override after you’ve spent $1.5 million in design and find out that nobody is behind you,” said Bob Rooney, the city’s chief operating officer.
Hess-Mahan said that while he has reservations about the cost estimates, he still supports seeking the overrides.
“Given the choices, it’s the lesser of two evils,” Hess-Mahan said. “Not doing it would mean that we wait many more years to replace schools that are in terrible conditions. Doing it involves some risk.”