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Newton Override: Is $11.4M Enough?

During Thursday night's Committee of the Whole meeting, Alderman Lisle Baker said he was "very troubled" about putting the current override package on the ballot.

On Monday night, the Newton Board of Aldermen will vote whether to put the mayor's $11.4 million override package on a March 12, 2013 special election ballot. 

However, a couple of aldermen may want to see some changes to the override package before voting on the ballot question. 

During a Committee of the Whole discussion Thursday night, aldermen discussed details about the override proposal, which consists of an $8.4 million operational override as well as two separate debt exclusion overrides for rebuilding Angier Elementary and Cabot Elementary. 

However, Ward 7 Alderman Lisle Baker argued that the current request is too low and the city should be looking to do more with the override opportunity.

"We have to be willing to say this is not enough for what we need to do," Baker said Thursday night. "I'm very troubled about putting [the override package] on the ballot the way it is."

Baker argued that a number of added costs have come in since the initial override amount was announced, including higher enrollment projections in the schools and higher construction estimates for fire station projects. 

According to Chief Financial Officer Maureen Lemieux, the most recent estimate for construction costs at Fire Station 10 (Oak Hill) came in almost 50 percent higher than what was initially budgeted after a feasibility study. The uptick, she said, was likely due to estimates that were too low for the size of the building.

The current estimate for Station 10 is at more than $4 million, according to minutes from the Nov. 28 Public Facilities meeting. The Project was initially estimated at $2.9 million.

In addition to added enrollment and fire station costs, Baker said he is also concerned that the School Department's technology needs were not covered in the override.

"We have an opportunity, maybe once in a decade, to go out to the voters [for an override]," Baker said. "We have an opportunity to take a look at the future of this city and ask what kind of city we want to live in."

Ward 7 Alderman-at-Large Ruthanne Fuller agreed that the amount on the override is "low", especially as the city's list of needs continues to grow.

"What becomes clear is that we need more money," Fuller said.

What do you think? Should the override increase? Should it stay the same? Tell us in the comments section below.

Despite the concerns Baker brought forward, several aldermen underlined the override's cost to residents. 

"For some people it is really hard to make the investment in passing the override," said Ward 5 Alderman John Rice. "We're not going for the most money but going for what the citizens can afford."

According to city officials, if all three overrides pass, the average Newton tax bill will increase by approximately 50 cents for every $1,000 valuation of a home. This amounts to an average of $343 per year, based on Newton's median home price of $686,000.

Other aldermen agreed that the board needs to move the question forward in order to start work on roads, schools and public safety.

"At the end of the day, we really need this override," said Ward 7 Alderman-at-Large Marc Laredo. "Our single question is: should we put this out to the citizens?...We should do it as soon as possible."

Following the discussion, the Board's Finance Committee voted 8-0 in favor of putting the override question on a March 12, 2013 special election ballot. The Programs & Services Committee also voted in favor of the ballot measure, 5-0-2, with Aldermen Ted Hess-Mahan and Baker abstaining (Ald. Carleton Merrill was absent).

The full board will vote on the item on Monday. During that meeting, aldermen are welcome to recommend changes or amendments to the override item, however, Board President Scott Lennon urged aldermen to consider the "likelihood of [the amendment] passing" before taking the time to put the item before the board.

Dan Fahey December 01, 2012 at 01:50 PM
In terms of the size of the override request, it's a balancing act. Going for too much might be a tipping point toward a needed override not passing. Furthermore, wearing my fiscal conservative hat, I'd argue there's much to be said for an expectation that we have not yet fully wrung out possible additional savings from the operating budget going forward, which I understand is what Setti wants to see happen. If one really wants to make the case for "not going after enough" we should also have OPEB [a huge unfunded liability] on the table, but that would make the override request so large as to be doomed.
Miles Fidelman December 01, 2012 at 02:19 PM
I'd kinda like to see a layout of the different proposed overrides, what each one goes toward, AND the respective impacts on tax rates and representative tax bills. It's a lot easier to evaluate when we can look at statements like $125/year more on a $250,000 house buys us a fire station (or what have you).
Gus MacBride December 01, 2012 at 02:35 PM
If we don't ask for enough now we won't give you more two or three years down the road! Gus
Gail Spector December 01, 2012 at 03:32 PM
Miles - I see your point because there are three separate questions, but I'd be loathe to see this city put in a position where we are deliberately pitting different interests against each other. If the administration were to say, for example, that $xxx/year will get us a new Angier and $xx more per year will get us a new Cabot, it puts residents even further in a position of choosing between projects. Three questions is difficult enough as it is. The city has come so far in the past three years in terms of cohesiveness. I'd hate to see us lose that. The real sell on the administration's part has to be to pass the whole package.
schlock December 02, 2012 at 12:28 AM
Let us not also note Thursday nite that Maureen Lemieux indicated her calcs are based on the current trend in the economy and hopefully fan improving one s well - What's the backup plan for Newton should the economy tank like in 2008. And technology, forget about it, is it CIP fungible or should it be operationally expensed? should I stay or should I go scenario. The major voting taxpayer block is unenrolled independents with an enlightened reference of having been burned by the previous administration. Seniors and those especially hard pressed financially are not going to swing with the 'lemmings over the fiscal cliff' scenario. Working stiffs won't buy it; stop the premature oversell and realize fiscal reality.
jeffrey presser December 02, 2012 at 08:37 PM
opening this pandora's box will as usual be a nightmare. inaccurate projections and projects that will be underfunded will replicate the newton north fiasco. we simply cannot spend what we do not have. "asking" the taxpayers for more and more is inconsistent with the reality that many of us (especially those of us who are small business owners) have no more to give. show me more confirmed avenues of savings, reign in spending increases, and create a budget of real frugality and i might be more inclined to even look at the requests for more, more, more. until then i am an adamant "no" vote. if i am forced to live within my means then i certainly expect the city of newton to do the same. i wish i could just vote myself a raise, cost of living adjustment, or employer sponsered health benefits, but i can't, and neither should the city. a reality check is in order here.
Gail Spector December 03, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Jeffrey - Are you familiar with the savings Mayor Warren and the School Committee achieved through contract negotiations a year ago? The new contracts alone are saving taxpayers $8 million over 3 years. http://bit.ly/TAIEb1
Robert L. Cerra December 03, 2012 at 08:08 PM
Setti Warren has done a good job of changing direction from a fiscal nightmare. Some of the same voices that stuffed Newton North down our throats want us to sign on again for another ride. If the money doesn't meet the needs then adjust the needs. Is it too much to ask for the city to prioritize all the things that they say we have to have. We have moved away from the spend, spend, spend mentality of the previous adminstration lets not return for more of the same punishment.
Gail Spector December 05, 2012 at 01:08 AM
Robert -- How does one "adjust the needs" of dilapidated school buildings? We can delay the required fixes for 100-year-old buildings but that only adds to the expense. Isn't it better to have a plan for renovating and rebuilding rather than waiting for some sort of building failure?
Janet Sterman January 12, 2013 at 11:52 PM
Wonder how Gail Spector going to vote...
Robert L. Cerra January 13, 2013 at 03:15 AM
This is progress for the city -at least we are not being told that the sky will fall in if we don't approriate the money and it isn't sacrilegous to deny the schools something. We are slowly changing our thinking about the way government spends our money. Thankfully the Lisle Baker school of economics is doomed, there will never be enough money to satisfy their needs not just here in Newton but throughout the rest of the country. I know I'm supposse to forget what we spent on Newton North - but did Baker and the rest of Alderman raise their voices in opposition to that gross expenditure of money - NO and they won't raise their voices on this one. The Mayor will probablty get his override, but look what is happening - one of the Alderman, the people that we elect to balance the scales -wants more !

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