At the end of my discussion with Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, I was greeted with a bowl of Newtons, the snack named after the Boston suburb.
As I took one, she beamed while she told me that a previous mayor had overseen a wedding between Fig Newtons and Strawberries to celebrate the creation of Strawberry Newtons. Her pride in that random piece of Newton trivia is representative of her love for her job and for the city she serves.
Stand up. Speak out. Lean in. Get involved. — Mayor Ruthanne Fuller
Despite her passion, the mayor’s tenure has not been without difficulties.
The most notable of these is Newton’s $1 billion pension and Other Post-Employment Benefits obligation, a problem that became increasingly large after the 2008 financial crisis. Currently, Newton’s pension is only about 50 percent funded and its retiree health care insurance is in even worse shape, at only about 1 percent funded. These types of issues are significant for any city and take years to fix, which can be a drag on budgets.
When confronted with a question about this, Mayor Fuller walked to the semi-hidden closet behind her desk and pulled out a thick white binder. She plopped it on the table in front of me, happy she got a chance to talk about the issue.
“We have a plan in place now that we are aggressively funding,” she said. “We expect pensions to be fully funded by 2030 and the retiree health care insurance by 2042.”
Fuller admits that it is a serious problem , but remains optimistic that her actions will address the issue, which she has been working on since her time as a city councillor.
Newton is also suffering from an aging infrastructure; anyone driving around the city can see that its roads require fixing
A big part of this problem is deferred maintenance. For decades, the city didn’t sufficiently invest in maintaining roads, leading to an accumulation of deferred maintenance, a difficult problem to deal with in one big campaign.
Fuller says she is addressing this issue by flipping the trend of Newton underfunding infrastructure maintenance and improvements, saying that the city has “dramatically increased the funding for streets and roads.”
Using a pavement condition index to help guide the work, she hopes that in the next couple of years, streets and roads in the poorest condition will be fixed.
“We’re working hard on the major arterials and those little neighborhood roads that are pothole-filled,” Fuller said.
However, her infrastructure spending goes well beyond roads. Fuller also discussed work on what she believes is the pride of Newton: its public schools.
According to her, there are a number of elementary school buildings that are not conducive to modern teaching and learning. Thus, under her watch, the city has renovated multiple elementary schools and construction is beginning on a brand new preschool.
Yet, the shadow of Newton North High School’s construction looms over every major building project the city undertakes. For context, a modest $40 million renovation to the school was approved by voters in 2000—long before Fuller was elected.
Ten years later, the school opened wholly renovated after costing taxpayers $197.5 million.
The infuriated residents, and some have been skeptical of major renovations of public buildings ever since, something Fuller understands.
“Because of the Newton North complicated building project, I think both the city of Newton and the state changed the way they design what should happen inside the building, pick a site, hire construction firms, and manage projects,” Fuller said.
Fuller pointed out that Angier, Zervas, and Cabot—three elementary schools that have opened in the last decade—have all been built on time and on budget.
Finally, when asked the requisite question about her advice to high school schoolers who want to help their towns and communities, she had this to say: “Stand up. Speak out. Lean in. Get involved. Whatever your passion is…we need your voice. We need your activism. You are part of the solution, and we need you to be part of the solution.”