West

Amid calls for Brookline tax hike, a plea to ease burden on lower income residents

Several town committees voted Tuesday in favor of a proposed expansion of Brookline High School.
John Hilliard for the Boston Globe
Several town committees voted Tuesday in favor of a proposed expansion of Brookline High School.

BROOKLINE — As town officials prepare to seek property tax increases for the third time in a decade, residents Tuesday called for ways to ease the financial burden on Brookline’s lower income taxpayers.

Voters at the May 8 town election may be asked to approve a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion to help fund a $205.6 million expansion and renovation of Brookline High School, along with a Proposition 2 1/2 override to support town and school services.

During a public hearing attended by more than 100 people Tuesday at Town Hall, speakers urged officials to find ways to ease the tax burden on seniors and those living on limited incomes.

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Override supporter Susan Granoff, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 7, said officials need to create exemptions and abatements to allow “these valued members of our community” to continue to live in Brookline.

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“There are going to be people suffering because of the override, and we have to be careful not to turn our backs on them,” Granoff told the Select Board. Previous tax overrides were passed by Brookline voters in 2015 and 2008.

Brookline’s 2017 Override Study Committee reported that the need for an operational override and more high school space is being driven largely by growing school enrollment.

On Tuesday, the Select Board, School Committee, and Building Commission all voted in favor of the high school expansion.

The proposed high school project would include a new 120,000-square-foot building at 111 Cypress St., a 75,000-square-foot wing added to the existing high school, and renovations to the Tappan Street gym and school science labs.

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The Select Board is expected to add a debt exclusion question to the ballot that will ask voters to approve raising taxes for 25 years to help cover $171 million of the project’s cost.

The remainder of the project’s price is already within the town’s borrowing capacity, Neil Wishinsky, the Select Board chairman, said during the hearing.

“I’m hoping that most of us think that the result is worth the effort and the price,” said Wishinsky.

But the Select Board is still working to develop an operational override to present to voters.

The town’s 2017 Override Study Committee recommended increasing the tax levy by $11.7 million over three years, or an alternative $9 million proposal.

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Meanwhile, the Advisory Committee offered its own recommendation for a smaller, one-year $3.5 million override.

The School Department would make about $3.6 million in cuts, including to staff and programs, for fiscal 2019 if no override is passed.

The Select Board will consider those proposals as officials prepare an override question for the May 8 town election ballot, said Wishinsky, who expects a board vote March 13.

He said the town’s power to offer tax breaks to residents is limited, but it should do more to help people avail themselves of those resources.

“We can do a better job of publicizing the programs that we [have],” he said, including a property tax deferral program.

The operational override drew the most attention during Tuesday’s hearing, as members of the public weighed in on the proposal.

Harold Petersen, a member of the study committee, told the Select Board that he became convinced during the board’s work that the town’s schools “really do need more money.”

He said his home’s assessed value has doubled in the past 10 years, and that “I asked myself, ‘Shouldn’t I be able to find a way share a little bit of that, to keep these schools good?’”

But Cliff Brown, who resigned from the study committee, said the group’s work didn’t explore the issue enough, including looking at non-tax revenue sources, before releasing its report. The committee conducted its work starting last fall, and released its report on Feb. 9.

“We cannot merely go through the motions and present a thick stack of paper and state that it is sufficient,” Brown told officials.

School staff, including representatives of the Brookline Educators Union, school occupational therapists, and psychologists, all said an $11.7 million, three-year override would help secure staff positions.

“The [override] committee’s recommendation represents the very least that we need to provide a great education for our students,” Jessica Wender-Shubow, president of the teachers union, told the Select Board.

Resident Janice Kahn, who has lived in town for more than 40 years, told the Select Board that the town should explore ways to exempt seniors 65 years of age and older from overrides.

She said Brookline “needs to have compassion” for all segments of the community.

“We have high property values and not necessarily the incomes to support these overrides,” said Kahn. “I want us to take a really good look at the well-being of the whole town, seniors as well as parents with kids in the public schools.”

Marianna Yang, a co-chairwoman for the Pierce School PTO, said in an interview that she supports the proposed three-year override. She said a three-year plan is needed to help maintain teachers and maintain services.

But after hearing speakers Tuesday ask for tax help for lower income residents, she said that work should be part of an override effort, too.

“Having been here tonight, it definitely made an impression on me... it’s got to be complementary,” said Yang.

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.