Local Action Log
November 12, 2019
Community Preservation Committee Program Manager
Newton City Hall
Volunteer readers from the League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) have reviewed the application for the use of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to pay for the proposed acquisition of Webster Woods by the City of Newton pursuant to an eminent domain taking.
LWVN is concerned about the process of using eminent domain to acquire Webster Woods. While the choice of the method of acquisition is not under the purview of the Community Preservation Committee (CPC), acquiring Webster Woods with CPA money signals acceptance of the decision to use this acquisition tool. We believe that a more open and transparent process would have been helpful to allay concerns on our Board and allow us to give a whole-hearted approval. Because this did not happen, we do have some reservations that the taking of this land by eminent domain without a full understanding by the public as to its necessity sets a problematic precedent.
Nevertheless, on balance most, but not all, of our Board members support this application and recommends that the committee support this proposal for the following reasons:
- Acquisition of Webster Woods for the preservation of conservation land aligns with LWV and Newton priorities for open space and recreation land that would benefit the community as a whole;
- It has widespread community support;
- This may be the last opportunity to acquire the land and it should not be missed.
Our readers and members of the Board did, however, express the following concerns regarding the proposal, which we request be addressed before the application is approved:
- Project costs, as described in the application, do not seem to adequately take into account: (i) the cost of a hostile taking and a lengthy legal battle with Boston College over the appraised value of the land, and (ii) the annual costs of maintaining Webster Woods.
- $15.2 million of the $15.9 million total costs will be paid for with CPA funds. We believe too large a proportion of the project costs are being funded by CPA dollars. Instead, CPA funds should be used to leverage a larger contribution from outside resources of funding, such as a private partnership or additional community contributions. Alternatively or in addition, the city should find additional pockets of money from its own revenue sources to pay for a portion of this project.
- We are concerned that using such a large amount of CPA funds will deplete the account for years to come and not leave room for the funding of other projects (particularly non-city sponsored projects or those in the affordable housing and recreation categories).
Overall: LWVN supports the acquisition of Webster Woods but would like to have a better understanding of why eminent domain has been determined to be the best method for the acquisition of the land, and see a more realistic estimate of the project costs and the use of more non-CPA dollars to fund the project.
September 24, 2019
Newton City Council
Land Use Committee
Newton City Hall
Dear Chairman Schwartz and Members of the Land Use Committee,
The League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) supports the proposed Northland project because it leverages underutilized space that offers substantial improvements for Newton residents. With this development we will be able to work towards our common goals of increasing housing diversity; mitigating the use of cars; creating new recreational open space; encouraging walking, biking, and use of the Greenway; attracting new shops, restaurants, and other kinds of employers and increasing our commercial tax base.
In the Globe article NIMBY? Not in these cities and towns Watertown, our neighbor, was cited as an example “In Watertown, which permitted 1,296 housing units in the four-year period, Community Development and Planning director Steve Magoon credited the town’s regulatory and elected boards with making the tough decisions needed to allow projects to go forward”. We believe that Newton should also continue to step up to address the housing crisis in the metro Boston area.
The Newton City Council over the past few years made the difficult decisions to approve both the Austin Street and Washington Place projects. With the Northland project, the City Council of 2018-2019 once again has the opportunity to make another tough decision and do the right thing by approving this development.
Northland’s proposal will provide a diversity of housing options that Newton needs, with an alternative to single-family homes, which many people – from young professionals, to seniors looking to downsize, to people who work in Newton – are looking for but cannot find right now.
- It will increase the housing supply overall and provide much-needed affordable units.
- With the newest proposal, 17.5% of the units will be affordable, producing 140 new affordable units, including 120 of affordable units at a blended 65% of AMI and 20 units of work-force housing for persons at 80 to 110% of AMI
The developer is committed to sustainability and is working with Green Newton to maximize environmentally-friendly features, including those listed below.
- Passive House design in three buildings, exploration of Passive House design in the five remaining residential buildings and LEED for Neighborhood Development certifiability throughout.
- The development will create new connections to the Greenway, plant 600 new trees, and will include 10 acres of active open-space available for public use.
And finally, the project will generate increased tax revenue for the City.
Overall, the combination of increased housing diversity, environmentally-friendly design, added green space, and additional tax income provide an opportunity that LWVN encourages the City Council to support.
President, League of Women Voters, Newton
July 24, 2019
Newton City Council
Newton City Hall
Dear President Laredo and City Councilors,
On June 19, 2019, two members of the League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) observed a meeting held by the City Council’s Programs and Services Committee regarding the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Salaries. Our comments below are based on the work of the committee so far to review the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
The League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) holds good governance as a core value. Our observations frequently separate out decisions on policy from the process by which the decisions are made. To date, the LWVN has not taken a position on whether to support or oppose an increase in compensation for our elected officials but does have comments on the process so far.
When we talk about process, we mean how our city government goes about making decisions. We appreciate that the City Council created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Salaries comprised of a variety of residents, none of whom currently serve as an elected official. This diverse group gave its recommendations to the City Council at the end of May, and since then the Programs and Services Committee has discussed it for at most 90 minutes, without arriving at or voting on a solid recommendation.
What seemed most important to the committee during its discussion was the time frame—how to accomplish a vote of the full City Council by the end of September in time to enact a pay raise for the incoming City Council in January. This was extremely disappointing, in part because it seemed as if there was already a general agreement about a raise, and the focus had turned to how much and how to hold a vote in time for the raise to start in January.
The Commission discussed at length their concern about equity among City Council and School Committee members as well as the impact of cost increases on the city, and neither concern has been further explored. The recommendation to restructure total compensation for elected officials was not enthusiastically received, and committee members noted that there would need to be a discussion with the Mayor about this proposal. Salary increase specifics were not discussed at great length either, though numbers went as high as $19,000 as a base salary for City Council members, not including health benefits. Note that if the councilors’ current base salary is nearly doubled, some would receive total annual compensation of almost $40,000.
The Programs and Services Committee then agreed to start a public comment period in July and to leave it open until early September. We appreciate having so much time for the public to comment, but are unclear of the hearing’s purpose and how this opportunity is being conveyed to the public. We are being asked to comment on the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendation, not on a proposal coming from this committee. There did not seem to be an overwhelming agreement with the proposal of the Blue Ribbon Commission, so we are unclear how much of a raise will be presented to the full City Council, the structure of the compensation, and the source of the funding. In short, what is the committee recommendation to be put forward to the full City Council? Will there be another public hearing and some public outreach about this issue once you have decided?
We hope that the committee focuses on more than a raise in base salary. The concern shown by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Salaries about equitable total compensation for all City Councilors and for all School Committee members deserves careful thought and their recommendations should be seriously considered and explored. Additionally the increased cost to the City and taxpayers also deserves time and thought. However, it appears that the rush to vote in time for the City Council to see a pay raise in January outweighs the need for transparency and deliberation.
We note several facts that might not be well-known by Newton residents that are also worthy of inclusion in any discussion on this topic:
- Elected officials are treated as full-time employees of Newton, and so are eligible for the same benefits as full-time teachers, policemen, firemen and other city employees, regardless of how many hours the elected officials work. We note that the positions of elected City Councilor and School Committee member are intended to be part-time. Only the Mayor position is officially full-time.
- The base salary for City Council and School Committee members hasn’t changed in two decades. Those who do not take health benefits are compensated approximately $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.
- Health benefits can be worth over $20,000 if an official participates in a family health plan. Currently, about half of all City Councilors and School Committee members join the health plan, meaning that they are compensated up to $30,000 and $25,000 respectively.
- The Blue Ribbon Commission on Salaries recommended a new structure of compensation for City Councilors and School Committee members as a way to begin to address this inequity among elected officials who do and do not take health insurance. We note that the Commission had a number of human resource professionals and attorneys as members who pushed back on the City Law Office’s concern that this new structure would need to apply to all city employees.
- The Blue Ribbon Commission on Salaries was not charged with evaluating the funding source for any such increase, and so any additional cost to taxpayers for an increase in salaries still needs to be discussed and funds found.
In light of this rather non-transparent, rushed process, we are sending our letter to Village14.com, the Newton TAB, the Newton Patch, Newton News at NewTV and to all LWVN members in the hopes of sparking more discussion in the community.
President, League of Women Voters of Newton
Read LWVN’s letter below to Chairman Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commission in support of funding our local cable access stations. FCC Letter - Public Access TV