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Newton voters OK overrides totaling $11.4m

Newton North High School may go into the record books as the most expensive school ever built in Massachusetts, but the city’s voters signaled Tuesday that rage over the project may be fading as they passed a hefty tax increase to build new elementary schools, hire more teachers, and fix aging facilities.

Residents approved three tax questions total­ing $11.4 million, marking a victory for the city’s politically ambitious mayor, Setti Warren, who had wooed supporters by promising to avoid the missteps of Newton North and persuading them that he had tightened the city’s expenses.

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“This is huge,” Warren said Tuesday night. “I think that people also understood that there are pressing needs out there.”

Warren declined to comment on Newton North’s ­impact on the special election and said that voters were ­focused on the city’s future.

Newton residents will now see taxes rise by $343 to $8,006 on a home with the median ­assessed value of $686,000. The additional money will help pay for the rebuilding of three ­elementary schools, a new fire station, street repairs, 51 additional teachers and aides, and four more police officers.

Several voters said that while they continued to be troubled by the final $191.5 million price tag of Newton North, the city could no longer afford to neglect other aging school buildings and infrastructure.

The high school “really left a bitter taste,” said Robin Lepore, a Newton resident who voted in favor of the tax hikes. But she added, “I recognize that two of the schools are in horrible shape. . . . Newton has two really phenomenal characteristics. It’s really close to Boston and has superb schools.”

Deborah Rottenberg, who voted for the increases, said that her children benefited from ­Newton’s good schools and that her grandchildren now attend city schools.

The city needs to invest in them, she said. “We live in Newton because of the quality of the school system.”

The mid-March special election drew 32 percent of the city’s registered voters. In 2008, the last time residents voted on a tax increase and rejected it, turnout was 47 percent.

This time, Newton voters were asked to approve two debt exclusions, or temporary tax ­increases, totaling $3 million to help build two elementary schools, and a permanent tax increase of $8.4 million to fund the city’s other capital and operating needs. The debt exclusions last only until construction loans are repaid, about 30 years.

The $8.4 million increase passed on a vote of 9,649 to 8,199, the tax increase to ­rebuild Angier Elementary School passed 9,904 to 7,893, and the tax increase to pay for Cabot Elementary passed 9,879 to 7,919, according to unofficial results.

Newton is among a shrinking number of communities that have asked voters to pass permanent tax increases to pay for salaries and day-to-day ­expenses.

State numbers show that less than half of attempts to pass operational overrides are successful. Requests for debt exclusions fare better and have increased, with 153 such questions on the ballot this fiscal year, up from 114 in 2010.

The debt exclusions tied to building projects have “a concrete result at the end, and it’s temporary,” said Geoffrey ­Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Warren’s decision to ask for both temporary and permanent tax increases and for such a large amount angered some.

“I thought it was too much,” said Rita Coppola, a 75 year-old resident of Newton’s village of Nonantum. “I expected one. But three in one is a real slap in the face.”

Coppola came to the polls with her cousin and neighbor Margaret Toomey. Both women voted no on the tax increases.

Toomey said she already volunteers a few hours a week at the city to reduce her annual tax payments and with an ill husband the additional tax hikes will make money tight for her family.

Warren was elected in 2009 after longtime Mayor David ­Cohen, politically battered by the skyrocketing costs of the high school project, decided not to seek reelection.

Warren, who made a bid for the US Senate in 2011, said he plans to run again for mayor in November.

But political watchers have said an override victory would boost his resume if he seeks higher office.

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