Plans for Countryside, Franklin vague and wasteful: Vote no

By Henry Barbaro

This Tuesday, March 14, Newton voters will decide on whether the City’s tax rate should be increased by more than 2½ percent.  If approved, Newton would increase next year’s tax revenue by $9.2 million, which is in addition to the property tax cap of $12 million (which is 2½ % of the City’s already exorbitant annual budget of almost $500 million).

Next Tuesday there also will be a vote on two debt-exclusion overrides for the replacement or renovation of two elementary schools — Question 2 for an additional $2.3 million toward Countryside and Question 3 for an additional $3.5 million toward Franklin.

Before such an override is approved, Mayor Fuller and her staff should demonstrate that they have adhered to the principles of prudent fiscal management and have exercised responsible stewardship of our tax dollars.  Next week’s vote raises two questions – “Is it obvious that our tax dollars are being spent wisely?” and “Do the leaders of Newton have a deep respect for Newton’s taxpayers?”  On its face, it appears the answer to these questions is a resolute “No.”

How can the mayor ask for supplemental tax dollars for what amounts to relatively vague concepts?  Voters should be aware of the choices between renovating and replacing Countryside and Franklin.  If the school renovation option proves to be preferable, then there would be significant cost savings, with no need for a tax-increase override.  This is an obvious comparison of the alternatives, yet there has been a lack of details, and transparency. We also have a right to know why Countryside, which is in disrepair because of flooding, may be rebuilt in the same location and with insufficient plans to address the continued flooding. And because the Countryside school is on wetlands, there is also no room for expansion should that be necessary in the future.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority warned the mayor that it would not approve funding support for two schools to be renovated at the same time. The mayor opted to approve Countryside renovation and to go against the MSBA recommendation at a loss of millions of dollars in state funding for Franklin school.

At least two city councilors (Paul Colletti (past) and Lenny Gentile (current)), who have served on the City’s Finance Committee, are in agreement that the City has plenty of money to upgrade both schools.  According to both, Newton has almost $30 million in unallocated cash and about $28 million in unspent Covid relief funds. The full amount, almost $60 million, can be allocated to our schools. With this kind of available funding it is irresponsible to ask residents to pay for the schools with a tax override.

Right now, Newton has the highest property and service taxes revenue ever and we are about to reap the benefits of the newly-passed “Millionaire’s Tax.” If we really need to build or renovate these schools, then the City has the funds available to do so without a cold-hearted tax override. The City is asking struggling residents to tighten their belts while the City has done nothing to tighten its own.

During these days of record-high inflation, this vote is especially ill-timed.  Do our City leaders have empathy for our neighbors who have low and/or fixed incomes?  How about the additional cost burden to our local business owners?  The City must do what the rest of us do – prioritize, set a budget, and stick to it – rather than shamelessly add to the rising costs of its residents and business owners.

Newton deserves better. Vote no, no, no on March 14, or via absentee or mail-in ballot.

Henry Barbaro is a Massachusetts native and has lived in Newton for six years.