by Liv Middien, Preethi Vemula & Lily Zarr, News Reporters & News Editor
photo courtesy of Countryside Elementary School PTO, photoillustration by Julie Wang
On March 14, Newton residents will vote on a proposed property tax increase following the City Council’s Nov. 21 decision to hold a special election on the measure. The tax override, which consists of three questions, would fund improvements around the city, including elementary school building construction.
All questions ask voters to approve an exemption to Proposition 2 1/2, a state regulation that limits yearly property tax increases to 2 1/2%.
Question One is an operating city budget override that would raise an additional $9.175 million in taxes each year to fund Newton Public Schools (NPS), street and sidewalk construction, programs for senior citizens and city-wide environmental improvements. Tax increases for Question 1 would begin in July 2023.
Questions Two and Three are debt exclusion overrides that would allow the city to pay for the debt service from bonds to renovate or replace the Countryside and Franklin elementary schools.
$2.3 million would be raised for Countryside and $3.5 million would be raised for Franklin. These increases would not go into effect until the bonding process begins and are not permanent.
The override would raise the taxes for Newton’s median home valued at $1.2 million by $290 for the next fiscal year and an additional $183 by 2030, when the bonding is in place for the elementary schools.
In an Oct. 19 interview with NewTV, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said she created the override proposal as a response to what residents want.
“We are continuously updating our financial plans and you can imagine during the worst of the pandemic how difficult that was. We’re always looking at what the needs are of our residents and students,” she said. “We’re always taking that information and saying, ‘So what do we need to do to meet the high expectations of Newtonians?’ That’s how it all came together.”
City Council Vice President Rick Lipof said that for the city to continue funding projects at its current rate, the override is necessary.
“Whenever the city asks for one, it’s serious. We don’t do it to have extra money. We do it for specific projects or to keep pace,” he said. “What an override is about is paying for things that if we don’t get the money, we may not be able to do.”
However, in the City Council’s Nov. 21 meeting, Councilor Leonard Gentile said that the override is unneeded and that the city should work with what it has, including its $42 million of unused COVID-19 relief funds.
“I don’t know how you go out to the taxpayers having received that amount of money, and still having a substantial amount of money, and tell them that we need more,” he said. “We don’t have a revenue problem. If anything, we have, at times, a spending problem.”
City Councilor Tarik Lucas, who is undecided on the operating override but supports the debt exclusion overrides, said that he has heard from residents who are against a permanent tax increase, particularly with rising inflation.
“The cost of everything due to inflation, cost of living, cost of housing, interest rates, they’re all going up,” he said. “As they say, inflation is a hidden tax. Well, here is an actual tax on top of that.”
Residents who support the override are organizing through Vote Yes for Newton, a ballot question committee formed by Kerry Prasad and Christine Dutt.
“The mission that we have set for ourselves is to run a positive campaign in order to educate the voters of Newton about why we think an override is necessary and why we believe they should vote [for it],” Prasad said. “It’s important for us to be running that positive campaign because we think that this is a chance for people in our community who have different points of view to come together.”
Since the NPS budget has been in a structural deficit for years, Dutt said that the override is crucial.
“The operating override would put $4.5 million into the NPS budget,” she said. “There would [also] be money that would go to repairing our roads, and $500,000 to replenishing our street tree canopy, which would result in an additional 300 street trees being planted.”
The override is necessary to cover for past deficits, history teacher Michael Kozuch said, especially considering NPS’ $2.3 million budget gap last year.
“It’s important to go through these overrides [with] all of the needs in education right now, in dealing with climate change and other infrastructure issues,” he said. “We had cuts last year and those cuts need to be restored. It’s really important that we as a community face the challenges that are in front of us.”
Franklin Elementary School Principal and South parent Mark Chitty said that additional funds are necessary for Franklin to house up-to-date educational programming, which is currently limited due to the building’s size.
“Thinking about the spacing for having classrooms that are large enough, having enough different types of rooms to have small group instruction, or to have professional meetings, or to have counseling or different kinds of support that students need, the building as it is just doesn’t have enough spaces for all of those things to take place,” he said.
However, Chitty said that the quality of the school buildings does not deter families from looking to Newton for their children’s education.
“In Newton, families send their kids to a school system with a lot of aging facilities out of a belief that there’s something special in the community and the education that they’re going to get,” he said. “It happens with outdated facilities in many cases, but how much better [is it] if you can have those good things happen in newer and updated facilities?”
Newton residents who struggle to pay increased taxes will be supported by the city’s tax relief programs, Prasad said.
“There are people in Newton for which that cost is a step too far,” she said. “The City Hall has put in place a number of programs that will help folks who qualify to either defer the taxes or to have other ways to approach paying.”
Although there is a cost to passing the override, Dutt said that it ultimately will be beneficial for the city.
“The needs that Newton faces today are critical and urgent. Newton needs the revenue today,” she said. “This override will do a good job of addressing the things that we need to take care of in our home city of Newton.”