Officials say tax increase needed to ‘make it all happen’ at new $20M Senior Center

Administration touts increases in tax relief for elder residents; nearly 10 percent of seniors below poverty line

Last year, Newton officials approved a long-gestating plan for a new senior center to be built on the site of the existing building. The NewCal center is expected to be complete by fall 2024 and cost $20 million, but unlike the other major capital projects that are part of a proposed override, it will be paid for through existing city funds instead of a tax increase.

But Fuller administration officials say they need a tax increase to use the new building to its full capacity.

“The override will provide the resources needed to really make it all happen,” said Newton Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Yeo at a December roundtable. “There’s many different areas that are going to need to be bolstered and that’s really what the override is about, to create and improve those services and programs and to have this new facility too to work its magic with our senior community.”

Officials say $500,000 of a proposed $9.2 million operating override will go to increased senior services and programming. Residents will vote on that override, which would add $290 to the median single family tax bill, on March 14.

Much of that $9.2 million figure would go to maintaining existing budgets for services and programs, including $4.5 million for schools and $1.4 million for roadwork, but the $500,000 for seniors would be a 57 percent increase in the existing budget.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said the City Council had recently increased tax relief for seniors and that will go into effect regardless of whether the override passes or not. While residents had asked about excluding seniors entirely from the override’s tax increases, Fuller said excluding seniors would be a “dramatic change” for Newton, but officials were looking to provide aid in other ways.

 “What we have focused on instead are people with tight budgets, that’s where we’re directing resources as opposed to just how old you are,” Fuller said at a virtual town hall meeting to discuss the override on Jan. 26.

New center, new taxes?

Officials have already spent $2 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds for design and acquisition costs for The NewCal Center and last year approved $20 million for construction at the existing Senior Center site on Walnut Street in Newtonville. Construction is scheduled to start this summer, with completion in summer or fall of 2024, Public Buildings Commissioner Josh Morse said at a virtual presentation to the Council on Aging on Jan. 24.

“This facility is extremely popular, we expect to see three or four times more people [using it] when it’s built,” Morse said. “This is such a turning point for the city to connect with the largest and fastest-growing demographic in the city.”

Nearly a quarter of Newton’s population – 21,700 people – are 60 or older, according to U.S. Census data from 2020. Jayne Colino, who served as the city’s director of senior services until she retired a few weeks ago, said at a December virtual roundtable that increased funds for the center’s programming – including fitness, arts, music and adult education classes, as well as social services — would have a huge impact on those residents, and in particular could help make the 25 percent of Newtonians older than 60 who are living alone more active.

“Staying out of the community and not being engaged definitely contributes to a faster decline in mental and physical health,” Colino said.

And while those programs deserved more money anyway, Colino said, the new senior center makes those funds imperative.

“This was an investment that needed to come whether NewCal opened in two years or not — even more so, these items are needed because of NewCal,” Colino said at the December roundtable, adding that while the center would use in-kind contributions and volunteer work, it needed steady funding. “The staff … needs to get bigger in order for us to accommodate both the increased space and the increased hours. Part of that increase needs to be part of the infrastructure of day-to-day operations.”

“What will the dollars be used for? Thankfully it’s flexible, we think it will be for people … maybe transportation,” Fuller said at the January Council on Aging meeting. “What we need with the senior center is ongoing funds, hence the need to build that into the operating override to jump up the level of funding.”

At that meeting, Council on Aging Chair Joan Belle Isle said she supported the override and called on fellow seniors to back the tax increase.

 “Dammit there ain’t no free lunch,” Belle Isle said. “If we want a community to be proud of we need to step up and pay for it. I encourage all of you to get with the organization supporting the override, to get lawn signs, get friends. It’s time to reach out and generate support for things that are important to us.”

Increased relief, state restrictions

According to state census data, about 64 percent of Newton’s over-60 population has yearly earnings, with an average of $158,802 per year. About the same percentage gets an average of $26,000 in social security, with 38 percent getting an average of $43,000 in retirement income. And 93 percent of over-60 residents live in their own household.

But 4.6 percent of over-60 residents live below the poverty line — $13,596 a year for one person and $18,312 for two — and another 4.7 percent make between 100 and 150 percent of the poverty line, according to census data, with 4.6 percent getting supplemental Social Security income and 3.8 percent getting SNAP benefits.

Fuller said the city council has approved numerous tax relief programs for seniors, including increasing the income limit that lets seniors defer tax payments and doubling the amount of hours seniors can work for the city to get a property tax exemption – the amount of which also doubled to $3,000.

And officials increased the basic senior exemption for those older than 65 who meet certain income requirements, from $1,000 to $2,000. That increased exemption should cover the override tax increase, Colino said in December.

“The most worrisome thing to me about bringing the override proposal is people on very tight incomes or fixed incomes,” Fuller said at the January COA meeting. “You may love the senior center and say ‘It’s a bridge too far, I’m barely making ends meet, I’d love to vote yes, but…’”

However, at the town hall later that week, Fuller confirmed that because of state law, residents with reverse mortgages are not eligible for that now-$2,000 senior exemption.

 “They aren’t eligible and there isn’t anything we can do about it,” Fuller said.