Newton mayor out in front on tax hike
Mayor Setti Warren chatted with guests at an intimate wine-and-cheese gathering at a home in Newton’s Oak Hill section earlier this month to sell his plan for an $11.4 million tax increase.
The next day, he was in front of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, trying to gain the business organization’s endorsement of his proposal to raise property taxes to pay for schools, roads, buildings and teachers.
The chamber’s directors voted 11 to 3 to back Warren’s three Proposition 2½ override proposals, which go before voters in a March 12 special election.
In a video, and at town hall gatherings and neighborhood receptions, Warren has become the public face of the override effort and its most relentless champion.
For the 42-year-old Warren, who has expressed interest in running for higher office, a successful override campaign could mean the capstone of his first term as mayor and add heft to his resume if he runs in a future statewide election.
“I believe it’s important for us, and the city’s leadership, to sit down with people and talk to people,” Warren said. “It’s a package that I’ve proposed.”
In recent weeks, he and his core leadership team, armed with slides and charts, even squared off against some skeptical crowds in Nonantum. Warren’s message: His administration has improved the city’s finances, and voters should agree to a $343 annual tax increase on a home with the city’s median assessed value.
For a mayor who raised eyebrows in the past for being out of town too often, Warren has popped up across Newton in recent months. Since proposing the overrides in October, he has attended nearly 50 events.
“I don’t look at this as a make-or-break political risk for Setti,” said Rob Gifford, the honorary cochairman of Building Newton’s Future, a group supporting the ballot measures.
Still, said Gifford, who is a fund-raiser for the override campaign, if Warren can persuade voters to pass the tax increase and then successfully execute the school and infrastructure projects, “it would position him better for what he ultimately ends up doing.”
Warren would be able to demonstrate that voters trust his leadership, Gifford said.
Warren said he will run for reelection in November, and has been raising money for his campaign. But he continues to be vague about his plans beyond that.
When asked recently about whether he is interested in running for higher office, Warren said he is focused on Newton.
His short-lived run for the Democratic nomination in the US Senate special election in 2011 irked some residents, and convinced many he had political ambitions beyond City Hall.
But pushing overrides, especially in Newton, can be a tricky enterprise.
The last time the city’s voters passed a tax increase was in 2002. The most recent override request, in 2008, was turned down by voters after a bitter battle and frustration over the skyrocketing costs of the new Newton North High School. Then-mayor David Cohen announced that he would not seek reelection, hoping to appease critics, but support for the tax increase still fell short.
The environment is different this time around, said Julie Sall, who volunteered in support of pro-override campaigns in 2002, 2008, and again this year.
In 2008, much of the debates and public discussions were handled by an advocacy group. Cohen, who declined to comment, was seen as too controversial a figure at the time to promote the tax increase.
“If you can’t have the mayor advocating for the money, it makes it a harder sell,” Sall said.
Newton North has been open since 2010, and while it remains the most expensive high school built in Massachusetts history, at $191.5 million, it has also become a showcase for city officials.
Newton North’s costs still chafe, but Warren has won over some tax-increase critics by working to reduce spending in the city since he was elected in late 2009, said Jeff Seideman. Seideman led the effort to defeat the 2008 override, but is backing Warren’s plan.
Over lunch at Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton Centre and in a meeting at City Hall last fall, Warren won Seideman over to his side.
The renegotiated union contracts that prevented compensation and health benefit costs from growing by more than 2.5 percent, helped, Seideman said.
“He was able to bring municipal finances under control,” he said of the mayor.
Warren’s skill at neutralizing potential opponents has not gone unnoticed.
His primary rival in the 2009 mayoral race, state Representative Ruth Balser, is an honorary member of Warren’s reelection campaign.
And opposition to his tax increase proposal has been muted, said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce.
“He’s really done a great job of building a coalition,” said Reibman.
Suzanne Szescila — a cochairwoman of Moving Newton Forward, which opposes the override — said her group met with Warren and administration officials to discuss its members’ concerns.
“He has a gift for making people feel good about their participation,” Szescila said.
But the city’s financial belt-tightening under Warren has been modest, and more needs to be done before raising taxes through an override, she said.
While many elected officials in Newton agree that the override is a barometer of Warren’s leadership, they do not think he would be penalized if voters reject the override. Nobody has even mentioned running against Warren in the fall.
Warren expresses confidence that the tax increases will pass, but he is coy about what the vote would mean to his political future.
“It’s certainly for others to decide,” Warren said, “when I’m up for reelection.”