At the Dunkin’ Donuts in Newton’s Nonantum section, a boisterous group of retirees gathers each morning for coffee and conversation. This is where they catch up on their neighbors’ health and vent about politics.
Here, Mayor Setti Warren’s recent decision to ask voters for an $11.4 million tax increase to pay for three new schools, a fire station, roadwork, and more teachers and police officers is a tough sell.
“Who wants to pay more in taxes,” said Jay Leone, a retired firefighter with a booming voice, who presided over the coffee klatch last Thursday, greeting patrons by their first names.
For Leone and some of his friends, the city’s decision a few years ago to spend more than $190 million to rebuild Newton North High School, the most expensive high school in state history, still stings. And they are skeptical about how their taxes, if raised now, will be used. They acknowledge, though, that some of the facilities, such as the Newton Centre fire station and schools, need repair.
“No, ma’am, I don’t support it,” said Ellen Bagley, the lone woman in the group. “They never took care of the schools, the elementary schools.”
Aiming to improve infrastructure
The sentiment around the table at Dunkin’ Donuts reflects the challenge facing Warren and his administration in the coming months as they try to persuade voters to pass three separate ballot measures overriding Proposition 2½ to help pay for $143.5 million in projects.
Warren is holding a series of neighborhood meetings, starting Sunday at Cabot Elementary School at 12:30 p.m., to explain his plan to residents and persuade them to get behind it. And a pro-override group called Building Newton’s Future formed last week to support the tax increase.
Even before he presented his proposal last week, Warren met privately with residents who successfully defeated the 2008 override initiative and wooed some of them to his camp. Newton voters haven’t passed an override since 2002, and then-mayor David Cohen didn’t ask for one to build Newton North High School.
“I’ll be voting for this one,” said Emily Norton, a Newton parent and blogger, who opposed the 2008 override. “We do have all these needs and a lack of funding.”
Warren’s override package calls for one permanent tax increase of $8.4 million for road repairs, new teachers to handle growing student enrollment, four police officers, a replacement of the Newton Centre fire station, fire headquarters, and a new communications building, as well as an expansion and renovation of Zervas Elementary School.
Warren is also proposing two other tax increases, totaling $3 million and lasting about 30 years, that would pay for rebuilding the Angier and Cabot elementary schools.
If all three override measures pass, city officials estimate that taxes on a median house assessed at $686,000 would increase by about $343.
“I know for some this is going to be a stretch,” Warren said. But “the time is now to address those needs.”
Warren had hoped to present a single ballot question for voters. But earlier this month, the Massachusetts School Building Authority informed city officials that voters must separately approve funding for each school project that qualifies for state money. Those guidelines apply to all communities. That forced Warren to propose three ballot questions.
That demand makes the override initiative more complicated, said Scott Lennon, president of the Board of Aldermen.
“The MSBA has put a little bit of a monkey wrench into what we were trying to do,” Lennon said.
Some of the aldermen have raised questions about the costs of the different projects and whether portions of the package should be staggered over a few years, Lennon said.
Lennon added that the mayor’s proposal to expand property tax exemptions for the elderly, veterans, and those in hardship will help sell the tax increase. Without the exemptions, Lennon said, he would have a hard time considering the plan.
“It’s hard for folks to dig down and pay more,” Lennon said.
Alderwoman Deb Crossley said she too has questions about specific projects and costs, but the city’s needs are well-documented. Newton’s roads and sidewalks are crumbling, schools like Angier and Cabot are no longer suitable, and new families are moving into Newton, spurring a need for more teachers and classrooms, Crossley said.
“There’s no question that if the city is going to make wise investments and needed investments in its infrastructure, we can’t do it at a responsible pace, at a reasonable pace, without asking people to pitch in more,” she added.
Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, said business owners are still digesting the tax increase proposals. The chamber expects to host a meeting soon with Warren to learn more, Reibman said.
The public has confidence in Warren and his work to reduce city costs by renegotiating union contracts, Reibman said.
But building support for this override will be a test of Warren’s support in Newton, Reibman said.
“This really is up to the mayor,” he said. “It’s certainly a big vote of confidence if he’s able to do this.”
At the Newton Centre playground, parents who watched their children toss Frisbees and race down the slope on a mild fall day were more receptive to a property tax increase than the retirees at Dunkin’ Donuts.
“If you want something, you’ve got to pay for it,” said Shira Deener. She sends her children to a Jewish day school, but she said that good public schools boost property values and ensure that neighborhoods are safe.
Valeri Gage, who picked up her children at nearby Mason-Rice Elementary School, said she is likely to support an override, but Newton officials still need to prove that the projects are worthy of higher taxes.
The Newton North project, which Gage referred to as the Taj Mahal, is a reminder of the city’s past excesses, she said.
“You’re going to have to give me a good reason,” Gage said. “If I didn’t have kids in the school, I would probably say no.”