In her State of the City address last week, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller devoted a significant amount of time urging voters to approve three override measures that will increase taxes by $15 million when they’re put to a vote on March 14 – and saying they could trust her administration to use that money wisely.
“Beyond dollars and cents, we are also asking for your trust,” Fuller said. “Trust that the funding in the override will indeed be the bridge from what our current resources allow to what all of us in Newton need; trust that we at City Hall and Newton Public Schools will use those funds well to build a strong, sustainable bridge.”
But while Fuller highlighted the two most recent successful override campaigns in 2002 and 2013, she did not mention the failed override of 2008. That $12 million proposal – what would have been the most expensive override in the state’s history – lost by a clear margin after months of criticism for then-Mayor David Cohen, who had proposed the override.
That issue of trust in city leaders is a crucial factor in whether voters approve overrides, according to Douglas Snow, professor emeritus of the Institute of Public Service at Suffolk University.
“If something causes voters to lose confidence in town management, it’s much more likely they’ll say no,” Snow said. “It may not have to do with the departments in the override, [the voters] just may perceive the town management doesn’t manage money very well.”
Few asks, high values
The three measures voters will consider on March 14 all increase taxes, but one does so permanently. A proposed $3.5 million increase for work at the Franklin School and a $2.3 million increase for construction at the Countryside School are known as debt exclusion overrides – those will increase taxes for the period city officials use to pay down bonds used to fund that construction work, usually 20 or 30 years. After that time, the increase goes off residents’ tax bills.
But the other measure, a $9.2 million override for the operating budget, is a permanent tax increase. A community will generally use a debt exclusion to fund capital projects, while an operating override funds ongoing services.
The $11.5 million operating override Newton voters approved in 2002 is the highest single measure passed in the state, and the $8.4 million operating override approved in 2013 is the sixth-highest. Voters also approved $3 million in debt exclusions for the Angier and Cabot schools in 2013.
In her speech, Fuller contrasted Newton with other communities like Brookline, Needham and Wellesley, pointing out that they’ve passed more operating overrides and debt exclusions than Newton has in the past two decades. Those three towns have passed significantly more of both overrides, with Needham in particular funding more than $100 million in capital projects through debt exclusions, and Brookline has raised $20.5 million through three operating overrides, slightly more than Newton has.
“Newtonians have a tradition of approving an override once every ten years or so to reset our base budget,” Fuller said. “This “once a decade” approach sets us apart from neighboring communities like Needham and Wellesley.”
But while the number of operating overrides in Needham and Wellesley is greater, they haven’t raised as much as Newton’s two operating overrides totaling $19.9 million. Needham’s six operating overrides raised nearly $13 million, while Wellesley’s seven operating overrides increased taxes by $17.3 million.
And while Newton voters may have approved an override once a decade in the past 20 years, they’ve also rejected an override during that time as well.
No in 2008
At the start of 2008, facing a $9 million budget gap, then-Mayor David Cohen initially proposed a massive $23.9 million operating override, which would have increased the median homeowner’s taxes by $745 a year. After much back and forth with the then-Board of Aldermen, that number was brought down to $12 million, which would still have been the single largest tax increase approved by voters and would have increased the median homeowner’s bill by $373.
About 75 percent of that override was set to go to the schools, with the rest going to city services. But there was an enormous school issue looming over the override debate – the new Newton North building.
The controversial school had already increased in cost to $154 million before Cohen called for the override, and as he asked for the tax increase the price jumped again to $187 million, and even higher to $197.5 million in the months before the May 2008 override vote. Cohen insisted the override was not about funding Newton North, but the school’s cost overwhelmed that message, political pollster Gerry Chervinsky told the Newton TAB.
“It wasn’t winnable,” Chervinsky said in an article after the vote. “We spent a year planning a significant override to really address the issues that face Newton, yet there was no way to win this campaign.”
And Cohen didn’t help matters when he gave himself a $27,600 salary increase during the campaign. He eventually withdrew the increase, and then announced he would not run for re-election in the coming year – but voters soundly rejected the override, 11,118 to 13,441.
That number of “no” voters was nearly identical to the 13,542 who voted “no” in 2002 – but that $11.5 million override, which Cohen had also proposed, passed with 14,251 votes. In 2008, potential “yes” voters didn’t want to support Cohen’s override, Chervinsky told the TAB.
“I believe that a significant number of people supported this override and would have voted yes, but they stayed home,” Chervinsky said.
“More than anything, it boils down to confidence in the town’s management,” Snow said of support for overrides.
Trust in the future?
In 2013, the $8.4 million operating override proposed by then-Mayor Setti Warren passed by a margin of 9,653 to 8,203, with several opponents of the 2008 override supporting the new measure. In her State of the City speech, Fuller drew connections to that approval and the approval in 2002.
“When Newtonians gave permission to increase the tax base in 2002 and 2013, City Councilors, School Committee members and Mayors used that funding judiciously, effectively, and as intended. As Mayor, I am committed to doing the same,” Fuller said. “We will invest each taxpayer dollar carefully and transparently. We will always listen to your feedback. We will make sound financial decisions for both our current residents and for future generations.”
Snow said residents need to have faith their civic leaders will make those sound financial decisions in order to approve a tax hike.
“It comes back to how people feel about the people running the town,” Snow said. “If people in Newton have confidence in their officials and school officials, they’ll pass it in the end.”
Dan Atkinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org