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What can we learn from Brookline's override votes?
Arlington is expected to face two crucial votes next spring -- one to help pay for a new high school, another to support town services. Brookline voters recently met both challenges.
On May 8, they voted to increase property taxes to pay for the expansion of the town's high school and to add more than $6.5 million in funding to the school and town budgets. Sound familiar?
Next year, voters here can expect two ballot questions. The numbers tied to those questions are not yet known and are not expected to be known with any precision for months.
The recent votes in Brookline to override Proposition 2 1/2, the state's tax-cap law, drew strong support. A question to pay for a good part of the $205.6 million expansion and renovation of Brookline High School was approved 5,664 in favor, to 2,040 against, unofficial results show.
$6.5 million Brookline override for town
Voters also approved the override to increase the tax levy by more than $6.5 million for town services. The vote was 5,400 in favor, to 2,367 opposed, a BostonGlobe.com report said.
Turnout for Brookline's May 8 municipal election was close to 22.3 percent, as 8,107 of the town's 36,368 registered voters cast ballots.
That turnout is close to what Arlington has averaged in annual town elections from 2000 through 2018, or 21.6 percent, as YourArlington has reported. But look at the turnout and vote the last time Arlington held an override. On June 7, 2011, the town passed a $6.5 million override, as 7,226 supported the override, 6,369 opposed it, or 53 percent to 47 percent. The turnout for the election was 47 percent.
With two measures on the ballot next year, residents can expect Arlington's turnout to be higher than 47 percent.
The discussion in Brookline about what taxpayers' money will finance has parallels.
Leaders in Brookline have said a larger high school facility is needed to accommodate soaring enrollment at the 2,080-student school. That's higher than our high school, but enrollment is clearly rising, and we need a whole new school, not a renovation.
What ours will cost remains back-of-the envelope estimates. YourArlington first reported a $300 million figure, and Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine clarified. He wrote:
"At the first public forum earlier this year, I was asked about potential cost for the project. I answered that while no estimates had been developed at that point, High School projects in nearby communities of a similar size and complexity were being estimated at costs well over $200M, with the Somerville High School project being estimated at $255M."
Town Meeting comments
The manager said more at the May 2 Town Meeting. After providing an overview of the high school project, construction for which is expected to start in 2020 and last two to four years, he said "ballpark estimates" to date were based on widely differing square-footage amounts.
He said that Belmont, which is ahead of Arlington in rebuilding its high school, has estimated more than $300 million. Waltham's high school project is at $283 million. Somerville's is smaller, at $255 million, is expected to be completed next spring.
Public comments before the Brookline votes also had a ring of familiarity. The Sunday Globe on May 3 published pro and con views.
Brookline Select Board member Nancy Heller supported a yes vote: "If we do not pass both questions, elementary students will suffer a loss of educators and larger class sizes, and all residents will experience declining services.
"Brookline High School will be intolerably overcrowded with inadequate science classrooms; and recreation and community spaces will further deteriorate.
"Opponents say our property tax increases are too costly. But these increases have been small compared to the escalation in property values since 2012: 54 percent for single family, 63 percent for condominiums, according to the Boston Globe. High-quality community services are integral to home values."
Extravagance, lack of tax deduction cited
Roger Blood, cochair of the Brookline Coalition Against Unfair Taxation, responded: "While the high school does need expansion, the enormity of the proposed $205.6 million project seems needlessly extravagant."
Further, he wrote, "The fact that local property and state income taxes over $10,000 are now non-deductible will make all overrides less affordable."
These are positions you can expect to hear expressed in Arlington next spring.
Certainly, the towns differ, but is it by so much? Brookline is cheek to jowl up against Boston; we're safely across the Charles, with Cambridge as a buffer.
As of the last census, in 2010, 42,844 lived here on 5.5 square miles; there it was 58,732 on 6.8.
Brookline's median household income was $66,711, and the median income for a family was $92,993, the 2010 census shows.
For Arlington, the median household income was $85,059, and the median family income was $107,862.
Both town's originated with an association to water. Founded in 1635, the town became known as Menotomy, a native word meaning "swift running water." In 1638, Brookline was hamlet called Muddy River.
One difference is clear: Brookline has had three overrides in a decade; Arlington has had one.
What can we learn from that?
This viewpoint was was published on Wednesday, May 16, 2018.
When we think about paying for the new high school, we need to keep in mind that we are not paying the entire cast (which could be in the vicinity of $300 million). The state will pick up the lion's share. Our part will not be an easy burden, but it is quite a lot less than the $300 million total cost. That is a big number, and it will be waved around as a symbol of extravagance. It is a comfort to realize that the state is not only paying large part of it but is using a rigorous process to ensure that that the school makes sense from a financial perspective.
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