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Newton's choice: higher fees or fewer services

Posted November 19, 2008 07:51 PM

An advisory group recommended Wednesday that Newton increase fees for garbage, parking, and recreation, and also pursue higher payments from universities and other nonprofits in the city in order to raise money.

But even those steps would fall short of a large budget gap created by the city’s demands for high quality services and a tax base that cannot keep up.

The draft report by the Citizen Advisory Group stops short of calling for a property tax increase but suggests that ‘‘it is inevitable that tax overrides and debt exclusions will remain important options in Newton’s financial future.’’

Mayor David Cohen appointed the committee of 14 citizens in May to identify how the city can cut costs and generate more nontax revenue. At a meeting Wednesday night to present the report, members of the panel emphasized that their job is not to decide what tradeoffs Newton should make, but to articulate the choices.

The first of three reports expected by the group focuses on how the city can increase revenue by between $2 million and $10 million, or 1 percent and 4 percent of the city’s general fund budget.

The suggestions also include raising building permit fees, increasing user fees for community education and cultural programs, augmenting cell tower rentals on municipal properties, enhancing grants and other donations, and selling or leasing underutilized municipal properties.

But even if the city implements all of the recommendations immediately, the report says, the additional revenue would only fill the budget gap for one to two years.

‘‘Even if the full potential of these recommended operating efficiencies and the revenue enhancements presented in this report is achieved, it appears that Newton will still not be able to fully fund the scope and quality of public services that Newton has historically provided,’’ the report states.

Since by law cities and towns must have a balanced budget, the report states, ‘‘the ‘big choices’ currently facing Newton’s residents and their elected leaders are more profound than simply increasing revenues or reducing costs. Rather, we must consider reductions in the historic scope and scale of municipal and educational services.’’

Deciding when and under what conditions tax overrides and debt exclusions should be considered ‘‘is a political judgment beyond the scope of this committee’s work,’’ the report adds.

Several of the conclusions are consistent with a blue ribbon commission’s report on the budget in February 2007 that concluded Newton faced a significant structural deficit, the advisory group said.

Panel members stressed Wednesday night that Newton's residents and leaders need to engage in a conversation about the city's priorities.

"We've been making choices that are covert and not explicit," said Malcolm Salter, the group's chairman, pointing to examples such as deferred maintenance of roads and sidewalks. "We need to have explicit conversations around the city to get a sense of what's really core and essential."

Philip Herr, a resident who attended the meeting, said that many of the report's recommendations would generate revenue by imposing additional fees.

"It's not taking the burden off of Newton residents," he said in an interview. "It's just shifting it."

-- Rachana Rathi

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