Newton set to vote on $15 million tax override
Newton voters on Tuesday must decide whether to increase their own property taxes. Residents in the town are being asked to vote on three measures which would increase the town’s tax levy by $15 million.
Supporters say the money is needed to build new schools and stave off educator layoffs, while opponents argue now is not the time to ask homeowners for additional taxes.
The school district faces a $6 million budget shortfall and would delay repairs to outdated elementary schools without an override, officials said. The city might not meet its carbon neutrality goals or repair roads as quickly, too. To close funding gaps, residents would have to approve a Proposition 2 1/2 override. The state law, enacted in the 1980’s, limits the total amount a municipality can increase its property tax levy in a fiscal year.
The median household’s property tax bill would increase by about $290 under the plan, according to the city.
Several city and school officials have lined up in support of the override, including Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who said the vote is critical to Newton’s future.
“Our quality of life today including our parks and athletic fields and playgrounds and our roads, as well as our collective future and climate change — that’s what this override is all about,” Fuller said in an interview.
Fuller said the budget gap emerged from the need to fund more student mental health needs, rising utility costs, and the limits of funding from a federal coronavirus relief package.
If approved, the permanent increase to the town’s tax levy has been earmarked to rebuild Countryside Elementary School and Franklin Elementary School, and renovate Horace Mann Elementary School, according to information on the city’s website.
Newton Public Buildings Commissioner Josh Morse said the three schools face major infrastructure difficulties. At Countryside Elementary, some classes are held in mobile classrooms. Recently, a family of skunks camped under one of the temporary structures. Teachers thought the smell was from an electrical fire.
“The fire department came, my electricians had to go search for the electric smell, just to find out that it was a lovely, cute, but very smelly family of skunks,” Morse said during a town hall Wednesday night at Horace Mann Elementary. “They’ve since been evicted to a nicer place, but those are the kinds of things we deal with at Countryside all the time.”
Natalia Espinal has been a teacher in Newton Public Schools since 2000. She spoke at the meeting and said the district’s mental health staff needs proper resources to support students returning to in-person learning.
“If we don’t fund this, our students are going to continue to struggle socially and emotionally,” she said.
School officials said a failed override vote could mean serious cuts to extracurricular activities and eliminating nearly 40 staff positions during a time of high needs for students.
“The last thing we need to be doing at this point is to be reducing our staff,” Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith said Wednesday.
Newton City Councilor-at-Large Leonard Gentile opposes the override. He wrote a post on a local website explaining his “no” vote, citing federal aid and the possibility of more city revenue from housing growth.
But a large band of councilors are supportive. Councilor-at-Large Richard Lipof said although there could not be a worse time to ask for a tax increase, the measure is necessary.
“If this is necessary to keep our city strong, then it's doing what's best for the city,” Lipof said in an interview. “To vote “no” is doing what's not best for the city.”
Mark Cestari has been a Newton resident for 27 years. He had two children attend the public schools from kindergarten through high school and says he’ll vote “no” this Tuesday.
“Now we want to have another ask above and beyond what people are already reaching in their pockets for?” Cestari asked during an interview. “It’s just not fair to the residents.”
Homeowners in Newton already face financial strain from inflation, Cestari said, and it’s only fair to ask city departments to tighten their belts as well.
Fuller said she knows the override comes at a time of financial stress, but the stakes of losing educators and resources for students is too high to not act.
“We would not come forward asking residents to approve an override if it wasn’t absolutely critical to our children, to our seniors, and to the quality of life here in the city,” she said. “We would never come forward unless there was no other choice.”