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Newton

Newton voters will likely get to vote on a $11.4m tax increase

Newton Alderman Anthony Salvucci slowly unfurled from his seat, stood up, and gave a rare speech to his colleagues Thursday night.

“Don’t sweat it,” the elder statesman of the Board of Aldermen instructed the group. “You people are all sweating, and don’t. Don’t.”

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Salvucci was urging the board to get behind Mayor Setti Warren’s proposed overrides of Proposition 2½. He said he understood that some aldermen are worried that the requested $11.4 million in new property taxes wouldn’t cover the cost of the city’s projects; that others are troubled by recent construction projects that came in far higher than initial estimates; and that many are anxious about the city’s other needs. But, he said, the board needed to get the request for a tax increase in front of voters so some of the city’s needs — such as new schools, a fire station, and road and sidewalk repairs — could be met.

Many of his colleagues agreed. After nearly three hours of debate, aldermen moved the override requests out of committee, setting up a vote by the full board Monday on whether to put them on a March ballot.

Claire Sokoloff, the School Committee’s chairwoman, said she is optimistic the district’s overcrowding and building problems would be addressed.

“The overwhelming majority of board members understand the need for putting this override to the voters and seeing that it will pass,” she said after the meeting. “It’s a good balance between providing needed improvements to our schools and the city, while being respectful of the reality that these are tough financial times.”

Warren has proposed three ballot initiatives to help pay for $143.5 million in projects. His plan calls for a permanent tax increase to provide $8.4 million for road repairs, four police officers, new teachers to handle the school system’s growing student population, expansion and renovation of Zervas Elementary, replacement of the Newton Centre fire station and Fire Department headquarters, and a new communications building.

The mayor is also proposing two temporary tax increases, totaling $3 million and to be paid off over roughly 30 years, to cover rebuilding the Angier and Cabot elementary schools.

If all three are approved, officials said, annual taxes on a house with the city’s median assessment, $686,000, would go up by about $343, to $8,006.

“It’s not perfect, I do have some issues,” said Alderman Jay Harney, but added, “This gets us to where we need to be.”

Alderman Lisle Baker, however, suggested that more items should be included in the override proposals, since the city does not ask voters to approve higher taxes very often.

Other aldermen have been concerned that the estimates for the projects may be off, and that after the Newton North High project — which ballooned from $141 million to nearly $191.5 million — residents won’t be forgiving.

The accuracy question gained more traction last week when estimates for an Oak Hill fire station project, not included in the override package, rose by 46 percent, going from $2.8 million to $4.1 million.

The news followed on the heels of Day Middle School expansion costs rising by millions, as well as the projected cost of Carr School renovations growing from roughly $9 million to $12.7 million. Neither of those are part of the override.

Alderwoman Cheryl Lappin said she agrees an override needs to be on the ballot, but for it to succeed the board’s members will all need to be “out there promoting it . . . and we need to have confidence.”

Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan said he hasn’t decided whether to support the override. “I am bemused that everybody is damning it with faint praise, but saying it should go ahead.”

Maureen Lemieux, Newton’s chief financial officer, said the administration has tried to be conservative in projecting the costs of the override projects, and suggested the additional expenses for some of the recent construction projects can be covered by savings elsewhere.

As for the projects covered by the override, Lemieux said, the city’s budget should be able to absorb marginal increases, should they occur.

If the full board approves the override proposals Monday, the questions would be placed on the ballot in a March 12 special election.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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