Chamber urges no vote on operating override, yes for Countryside and Franklin
With the vote on three ballot questions for $15 million in tax increases approaching, public officials and campaign committees are making endorsements and urging residents to vote for all, some, or none of the increases.
More than half of Newton’s City Council has endorsed all three measures – a $9.2 million operating override, a $3.5 million override for construction at the Franklin School and $2.3 million to replace the Countryside School – and the School Committee voted 8-0-1 to endorse a Yes vote on all three questions as a body.
But one councilor says he’s voting no on all three measures, and the Charles River Regional Chamber is endorsing a No vote on the operating override, while recommending Yes votes on the Countryside and Franklin questions.
“The most important message we want to portray is that people are looking at this as a yes side and a no side, we think there is a middle ground,” CRRC President Greg Reibman told the Beacon. “If nothing else we hope voters consider that, as a way to meet city needs and to take care of businesses right now.”
Yes from City Council, mostly
Earlier in the month, the School Committee voted 8-0-1 – with Ward 6 member Paul Levy abstaining because of parents’ reported lack of confidence in the schools – to endorse a Yes vote for all three measures. Besides the two overrides that directly support Countryside and Franklin, the operating override includes $775,000 for construction at the Horace Mann School and $4.5 million for the school budget in general.
This year’s school budget will face a deficit of $2 million to $4 million even if the operating override passes, according to interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith, but without the override money that deficit would be between $6 million and $8 million, and could result in the elimination of 40 to 50 teaching positions.
“If we don’t vote to support this it’s a dereliction of duty,” said Ward 5 School Committee member Emily Prenner when she voted for the endorsement of all three questions. “It’s what we’ve been elected to do, to support the students.”
After the School Committee endorsement, the Beacon asked all 24 councilors to list how they plan to vote for each question and offer comments if they wanted to. Not all councilors responded, but between responses to the Beacon and lists of endorsers on the website of Vote Yes For Newton, the pro-override ballot question committee, 13 councilors are backing Yes votes for all three questions: Susan Albright, Alicia Bowman, Deb Crossley, Vicki Danberg, Andreae Downs, Maria Scibelli Greenberg, Rebecca Walker Grossman, Bill Humphrey, David Kalis, Joshua Krintzman, Rick Lipof, Brenda Noel and Holly Ryan.
Several councilors said schools were a factor in their support of the override, but they also told the Beacon that Newton needs to raise more money in taxes than it is currently allowed. An override allows a city to increase the amount of money it can raise through property taxes – state law caps that increase at 2.5 percent, and several councilors said that wasn’t enough to fund the city’s needs.
“In this economy, limiting over 80% of city revenue to 2.5% does not allow cities and towns to keep pace with the increased costs of – nearly everything we need to do the job,” Crossley wrote.
“So many of our school buildings are in such desperate need of updating that I don’t think we can say right now that every Newton child is getting the same quality experience,” Bowman wrote. “As for the general operating override, years of expense reductions caused by the artificially low property tax growth allowed by Prop 2 ½ has left important community assets and infrastructure suffering… The 2023 operating override will allow the city to continue the accelerated roads program and make similar progress on parks and our city tree canopy.”
No Override Newton, a group established to oppose all three ballot questions, said in a statement that support from elected officials is to be expected.
“In terms of politicians like city councilors and school committee members it’s not surprising they would rather not tighten their belts if they can get us residents to tighten ours,” the group wrote. “Having an abundance of cash makes their jobs easier.”
No and yes from the Chamber
Ten councilors did not respond to the Beacon, and one councilor, Lenny Gentile, said he would be voting no on all three questions. Gentile did not offer any comment on his intended votes.
And while the Chamber is supporting the increases for the Countryside and Franklin schools, its board of directors is urging a no vote on the $9.2 operating override, Reibman said. In a statement, Chamber officials said the tax increase would have a “financially devastating” impact on small businesses, noting that businesses are taxed at 1.75 times the residential property tax rate and saying Newton shops and industries are already dealing with inflation, supply chain problems, increasing energy bills and other issues.
“Our businesses need tax breaks right now, not a tax increase,” the statement reads, adding that city officials should consider using ARPA funds or other revenue sources instead of increasing taxes. “It’s not sound fiscal policy to dip into savings for recurring costs. But dipping into savings is something many employers have been forced to do over the past three years. It might need to be on the table now.”
Because the operating override includes funds for work at the Horace Mann School, its failure would mean that planned construction would be short $15 million – a situation Horace Mann parents said they feared could be the result of bundling their work with the operating override instead of making it a separate vote. Reibman said chamber officials wanted Mayor Ruthanne Fuller to find other ways of funding work at the Horace Mann, even as they urged a No vote on the operating override.
“The Chamber believes strongly in supporting and taking care of infrastructure. Unfortunately it appears there was a tactical decision to put Horace Mann in the operating override. We think that was a mistake,” Reibman said. “They should be frustrated and we’re frustrated it was not funded in a different path.”
Reibman said uncertainty was the biggest concern for businesses and a major factor in the Chamber calling for a No vote on the operating override. If the economy stabilizes in a year, the Chamber could possibly endorse an operating override as it did in 2013, he said – but 2023 was not the time for a tax increase.
“We don’t believe this is the year to do that,” he said.