Metro, Politics, Newton, Newton Special

Newton Residents Voice Opinions for and Against Override

On March 14, Newton residents will vote on three ballot questions regarding Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s proposed $15 million tax increase in compliance with Massachusetts’ Proposition 2 ½ procedure. According to the proposition, Massachusetts municipalities cannot raise property taxes by more than 2.5 percent annually without community approval via an override vote. Newton’s present ballot includes one operating override question, which will permanently increase Newton’s taxes by $9.175 million a year for general operating and capital expenses. The other two ballot questions are regarding debt overrides, which would temporarily raise taxes by $2.3 million and $3.5 million, respectively, to cover the reconstruction of Countryside Elementary School and Franklin Elementary School. Residents will vote on all three questions separately, allowing for the passage of one, two, all, or none of the questions.

Supporters of the Override, by Ella Song

With the March 14 special election date drawing closer, Newton residents supporting an override vote have become more determined to make their case heard.

“This is the place that we live, and this is a moment where we can make the investment … that we need,” Kerry Prasad, Newton resident and co-founder of Vote Yes for Newton, said. “It’s like sometimes, you have to replace your roof, and no one can see it and no one even thinks you did it, and it costs money, but you have to do it to keep everything in order.”

Vote Yes for Newton is a pro-override campaign working to garner support for the tax override ahead of the special election. Christine Dutt, another co-founder and Newton resident, said her and Prasad’s frustration with the city’s underfunded schools motivated the project.

“There’s been a structural deficit in the [Newton Public Schools] budget for a couple of years, and it does predate the pandemic,” Dutt said. “And so Newton needs to find a renewable and reliable source of funds for its operating expenses.”

Newton Public Schools (NPS) needs the override money to avoid more budget cuts, according to Dutt. Even if the override passes, NPS predicts a $2 to 4 million budget shortfall, compared to the predicted $6 to 8 million shortfall should the override fail.

Two of the three ballot questions are debt exclusion questions regarding the funding of reconstruction for two elementary schools within the city. A debt exclusion override is a tax raise that expires when the city-proposed funding for the project is achieved. 

Prasad, whose children previously attended Countryside Elementary School, which would receive funding from the override, expressed frustration with the building.

“Countryside was built in a floodplain, so the basement is always flooded,” Prasad said. “It just depends on how deep the water is, which is not healthy for people to be working or going to school.”

The Countryside Elementary School Building Project—the city’s initiative for Countryside’s reconstruction— is in the feasibility design phase in partnership with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), but the MSBA will review the project if the override fails, a document from the organization reads.

Franklin Elementary School—which is the other school included in a debt exclusion question—is also in need of repair, Prasad said.

“It’s 85 years old, and it has problems with the heating, there’s flooding problems,” Prasad said. “My favorite fun fact about it is there’s a little room that was built as a bicycle storage space in 1938. Just like so quaint, pre–World War II, and that is the art room now. So there’s not enough room.”

Beyond renovation, Mike Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said the passage of the override would provide the funding needed for educator pay.

“We’re in the middle of a contract negotiation,” Zilles said. “If the override doesn’t pass, they’re not going to offer us much money in contract negotiations.”

The Newton Teachers Association said one of the reasons it is advocating strongly for the override and other initiatives that would dedicate more funding to the school system is that the budget deficit is detrimental to teachers.

“Next Tuesday and Wednesday, we’re going to be holding standouts in front of all of the school buildings in the city of Newton,” Zilles said. “They will be educator community standouts—every building, 22 buildings.”

According to Newton resident Laura Towvim, budget problems pose a threat to her children’s education.

“You don’t just find money, it doesn’t grow on trees,” Towvim said. “I’m worried for my own children in terms of availability of courses they can take in high school, if there are less spaces for AP classes, for example, or honors classes. Or electives getting cut, or athletics might be impacted.”

In addition to education, the override will also bolster Newton’s sustainability efforts, incorporating sustainability into the reconstructed school buildings, Prasad said.

“It is our stated purpose in the city that we will achieve carbon neutrality by 2050,” she said. “So the new school buildings … are going to be carbon neutral, zero carbon footprint buildings.”

Other areas—such as senior services, streets and traffic safety, and green spaces—also require more funding through the override, according to Prasad.

“The amount that the city has been able to raise taxes has just, hasn’t kept up with the cost of everything else over the past 10 years,” Prasad said.

Towvim said her prior experience with a failed tax override in Newton is a reminder of the upcoming vote’s pressing nature.

“There was an override in 2008 that failed, and what they said was that the libraries would all close,” she said. “We had, I think, like four to six branch libraries, and we have a main library. The main library stayed open, but all the branch libraries closed. And people were shocked.”

An override is not without its individual financial downsides, according to Prasad. She said to mitigate the difficulties of a tax raise, residents can look to city resources.

“There are tax assistance programs that the city has—seven tax assistance programs … for injured veterans, and for elderly—for people over the age of 70 who are on fixed incomes,” Prasad said.

Ultimately, according to Towvim, the proposed override is about paying for the features Newton residents want.

“People want first-rate education for their children,” Towvim said. “People want nice roads, and streets, and trees, and all these things, and you have to pay for it. It doesn’t just happen.”

Update 2/16/23 2:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that there are multiple reasons the Newton Teachers Association supports the override vote.

Opponents of the Override, by Connor Siemien

Newton’s proposal to override Proposition 2 ½ is misguided, according to some political and business leaders in the city.

“I have said to everybody that this proposal for an override is way premature, and doesn’t reflect what the current conditions are, and the current monies that are there and set aside for reducing the tax rate,” Paul Coletti, a Ward 5 alderman—the previous title for city councilors in the city—for 32 years and chair of Newton’s finance committee from 1984 to 2009, said.

Randy Bock, president of the Newton Taxpayers Association, said the city should examine the funds it already has.

“Right now we have a current budget in excess of a half a billion dollars, and at least $30 million in unspent cash at the end of 2022 and $35 million in unused federal funds,” Bock said. “This Mayor insists on an additional $15 million in taxes.”

According to the city’s website, there are limits on how the city can spend these funds, often referred to as “rainy-day funds.” “Rainy-day funds” are rarely spent so that the city can maintain its Triple-A bond rating, which allows for optimal interest rates, according to the website.

Al Cecchinelli, a candidate in the 2021 mayoral election and life-long resident of Newton, said the city should use rainy-day funds for Newton Public Schools renovations instead of raising taxes through the override.

“We need to have money set aside, which we do,” Cecchinelli said. “We have a rainy-day fund. And that money needs to be used to upkeep the schools and not let them run down.”

He criticized question two of the override in particular, referencing the water damage that is prevalent in the basement of Countryside Elementary School.

“I believe they said Countryside generally has between an inch and an inch and a half of water in their basement at all times,” he said. “That’s disgusting. How do we get to that point? How did they allow this to happen? And how can any of these elected officials with a straight face come back to us and say, well, you should re-elect us so that we can continue to do this.”

Coletti said including school funding in the override vote is a misleading decision for the city to make.

“I’m saying right now that it’s misleading to the people voting for it,” he said. “You break it up into three components and you turn around and you target people’s heartstrings saying ‘oh the schools, oh the children.’ And then the next thing, you know, the $9 million they’re putting in for, for the general override is, is far more than what we need.”

Coletti, Bock, and Cechinelli said city councilors should wait until the city’s financial picture becomes clearer, and then campaign on their override position during November’s general election. 

“Someone’s got to just slow the boat, wait for the final results that come at the end of the year,” Coletti said. “And do the budget the same way as this year’s budget, you know, was done with the same numbers and do a budget for $17 million of new revenue. And then if we need an override do it in November, and when they all have to stand for reelection.”

Bock said people should vote no on March 14—even if they support the override—to force the city to give more information.

“Even people who are leaning towards, you know, giving the city the benefit of the doubt … this is still an opportunity to say ‘no’ to make the administration come up with a better argument,” he said. “In due course, we’d have a rational discussion rather than kind of pushing this forth.”

He said the November date is preferable so that city councilors have to announce their re-election campaigns and publicize their stance on the override prior to the vote.

“All the city councilors—or hopefuls, or change over, whatever—can run and they can stand on this, stand by this override rather than having kind of an aberration,” Bock said.

Coletti said further examining the need for an override presents a compromise to ensure that the override is not premature or unnecessary.

“Somewhere between where the city is now and where the ‘anti-people’ are is this happy medium, and the only way you’re going to get to that medium, that happy place—where people can analyze the actual true facts—is after the city has to close its books,” he said. “And by law report to the state and have it certified by the department of revenue what the city’s cash position is.”

February 13, 2023