THE NEXT MAYOR of Newton will have to lead the city out of a financial squeeze. Employee wages and benefits regularly outpace revenues, resulting in a structural deficit. And when confronted with the skyrocketing cost of the new Newton North High School, now estimated at $200 million, the voters gave their verdict on the city's direction by decisively rejecting a property-tax increase in May 2008. The candidate most qualified to reverse Newton's fortunes is state Representative Ruth Balser.
Incumbent David Cohen's decision not to seek reelection has sparked a spirited race among five candidates to succeed him. It is not just Balser's eight years as a Newton alderman or nearly 11 years on Beacon Hill that give her the edge. She is the one candidate to pledge flat-out to work with public employee unions to shift their health insurance to the state workers' Group Insurance Commission. "I have that plan," she said at a recent candidates' forum, reassuring skeptical city employees. The switch could save Newton as much as $6 million a year.
In the Legislature, Balser was a lead sponsor of a bill to give municipalities a revenue boost by eliminating the tax exemption on telecommunications equipment. She also backed the bill letting communities piggyback onto the state's meals and hotel taxes. Newton has adopted the hotel tax; she favors adopting the meals tax as well.
To make city departments work better, Balser favors a data-based performance management system. She thinks the city could land more grants, including ones from the federal stimulus package, if it hired a full-time grant writer. Proposals like these, combined with a proven ability to get things done in government, make her the best choice for Newton voters in the preliminary election on Tuesday.