City: Override money would help Newton hit climate goals

While a large chunk of a proposed $9.2 million operating override is earmarked for maintaining existing levels of funding for schools and roads, the tax increase would also dedicate $1 million toward increasing funds for two environmentally-related areas – adding more street trees and speeding up electrification for heating and cooling city buildings.

Fuller administration officials say the $500,000 for trees and $500,000 for electrical projects would mean the city can hit its long-term climate and tree planting goals. But override opponents are concerned the increased funding in the override won’t address larger structural problems with the city’s budget.

“Spending on climate change and trees fits with an overall theme … there are these attempts to make Newton affordable and to achieve social goals, but the end result is making Newton more unaffordable,” said Oak Hill resident Michael Lange. “All of those things are creating demands on our resources and increasing the structural spending we have, and exacerbating the problem.”

Increasing trees

On March 14, Newton voters will vote on three separate tax increase proposals — one to support $2.3 million a year in payments to improve the Countryside School, one to support $3.5 million a year in payments for renovations at the Franklin School in West Newton and one to add $9.2 million to the city’s general budget. The $9.2 million is set to fund several areas that officials say need money just to maintain regular services, including $1.4 million for road repairs and $4.5 million for the schools budget.

But there are some increases to other departments, like $500,000 to senior services. And the tax increase would dedicate $500,000 to the city’s forestry department, mostly going toward four or five new employees, according to director of forestry Marc Welch.

“We anticipate that a large portion of the override money would go to staffing, the most expensive piece of all things related to trees is people,” Welch said.

Welch has been working to increase the number of street trees in the city for more than a decade, after trees fell from 40,000 in the 1980s to around 20,000 by 2010. Officials began planting more trees in the early 2010s, but also had to remove dying and dangerous trees and that frequently outpaced the number of new trees added, Welch said.

Tree workers plant about 700 trees a year, and are at a break-even point with trees coming down, Welch said. With the override, he said the additional workers can plant close to 1,000 trees a year and work to maintain and prune them and mature trees on a regular basis.

“This will increase longevity by 25 percent and reduce the likelihood of tree failure,” Welch said.

Welch said hiring outside employees for tree work would cost more than five times as much as in-house workers, and meeting the city’s goals for tree planting by 2030 would mitigate 400,000 pounds of atmospheric carbon and reduce stormwater runoff by 300,000 gallons. Without the tax increase, it would take longer to reach those goals, and time is essential to realize a tree’s value, Welch said.

“Trees take time to grow … you can’t flip a switch at some point in the future and return trees to Newton, it takes time. It’s an investment but one of the very few community assets that grow in value as they grow bigger,” Welch said, adding bad luck could take away the city’s gains. “If we see more insect and drought issues tree loss will outpace our planting and we’ll continue down the trajectory of less and less street trees.”

Switching off gas, switching on electric

Another $500,000 in the override would go toward funding electrification and green energy measures in city buildings, Public Buildings Commissioner Josh Morse said. The Fuller administration wants to make Newton carbon neutral by 2050 and Morse said this would help accelerate that process, moving buildings off gas heat and cooling into electrical, geothermal and solar methods.

“We’re not suggesting making this investment to balance the budget or to save money, what we are suggesting is electrification has a lot of different things to benefit,” Morse said, saying that heat pump installation costs are going down as gas prices rise, maintenance costs for gas and electric are roughly equivalent, and that heating issues are a major concern of students and teachers. “This is a good investment on multiple fronts.”

City officials would use the money from the tax increase to work on buildings that use significant amounts of energy per square foot and which have old equipment nearing or past the end of its useful life. First up would be the Pierce Elementary School – which uses an oil heating system installed in 1951 — and the Newton Free Library, which has a gas heating system installed in 1991 and is one of the most used libraries in the state, Morse said.

Without the override funds, it would take more time to switch those buildings over, and even more time for the buildings after them, according to Morse.

“If the override doesn’t pass it takes much longer to reach our goals,” Morse said. “There’s only so much money within the operating budget to assume principal and interest payments for bonding.”

But Lange said if officials want to address issues like carbon emission, they should do so in the regular budget process. Increasing taxes wouldn’t change that dynamic and would ultimately result in residents moving out, he said.

“There are certain services the government is supposed to provide, you can’t say [one area] is basic services and [another area] is for extra things. You’ve got one budget and that should be achievable,” Lange said. “Everyone’s in the mode of ‘Let’s get out of the hole by digging it deeper.’ Other communities will be more affordable and provide the same amenities and over time people will move.”