Northampton moves ahead on $2.5 million override
Mayor David J. Narkewicz , seen here in March, on Thursday released details of his proposed $2.5 million property tax override that would prevent cuts in staff positions and municipal services during the next four years. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — The City Council expressed initial support Thursday for placing on the ballot a $2.5 million property tax override plan that Mayor David J. Narkewicz called a “map for maintaining services over the next four years.”
Council members voted 6-0, with one abstention, on the first reading to put the mayor’s override proposal before voters in a special municipal election June 25. A second council vote on the override proposal is scheduled for May 2.
Voting in favor of putting an override on the ballot were council members Jesse Adams, William Dwight, Owen Freeman-Daniels, Marianne LaBarge, David Murphy and Pamela Schwartz. Councilor Eugene Tacy abstained and members Maureen Carney and Paul Spector were absent.
If voters approve an override, Narkewicz has proposed sending $1 million of the $2.5 million in additional tax money to the schools, $726,285 to other city departments and $773,715 to create a new “override stabilization” fund to help maintain level services in all departments through 2017.
In presenting his plan to the council, Narkewicz emphasized that the $2.5 million that would be permanently added to the city’s tax levy if voters approve an override will do more than fill an anticipated $1.4 million gap for the coming fiscal year. It will also shore up reserve funds he called “perilously low” and help stabilize department budgets through 2018.
“When we’ve had these discussions about overrides before we’ve focused on crisis and folks say, ‘What’s the plan?’ ” Narkewicz said. “This is a path for sustaining us over the next four years.”
The mayor said his Proposition 2½ override plan would prevent the elimination of 22 full-time positions citywide in the coming year, including 15 at the schools and four from the police department’s roster of 51 officers. It would bring total city spending for fiscal 2014 to $82.84 million — a 5.8 percent increase over the current year’s $78.32 million.
The proposed stabilization fund, which would grow from $773,715 to $1.29 million between fiscal 2014 and 2017, would allow the city to maintain level services at a time when state aid is decreasing and fixed costs are rising, Narkewicz said. A vote of two-thirds of the council would be required before those funds could be spent.
If approved by voters, the override of the tax-limiting Proposition 2½ law would raise the annual property tax for the average single-family home in Northampton, valued at $297,323, by $234.89, according to figures from the mayor’s office.
The impact of the override would be an additional 79 cents for every $1,000 of assessed home valuation. The city’s current tax rate is $14.26 per $1,000 of assessed value.
At Thursday’s meeting, Murphy said he supports the mayor’s proposal because an override is the city’s “only option” for raising adequate revenues.
“We’re just not an economically viable entity — no community in Massachusetts is,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, we need to press the state for a redistribution of tax money.”
Adams said he not only supported putting the override on the ballot but would also urge citizens to pass it, because “if these cuts happen, they will be devastating. This is money we can raise here that will stay here.”
Tacy voiced concerns about money being spent on city fire and ambulance services, an issue he said he has raised in the last three budget years. “I don’t feel like I have an accurate picture,” he said.
Other council members raised questions about revenue projections contained in the mayor’s plan and about whether city jobs slated for elimination were actual layoffs or positions not filled due to retirements.
Narkewicz said they were a combination of both.
“The main thing to understand is that there will be four less people on our police force” if the cuts go through, he said.
On the expenditure side, Narkewicz said his plan departs from past practice of funding departments equally.
The $1 million proposed for the schools, for example, is larger than that department’s anticipated gap of $773,403 for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The $773,715 the mayor proposes to use for a stabilization fund would appear as a balance at the start of fiscal 2015. Based on what Narkewicz termed “conservative” estimates of revenue growth over the next few years, the plan anticipates budget surpluses of $458,876 in 2015 and $58,072 in 2016. That money would go into the stabilization fund.
In fiscal 2017, the plan calls for using the additional tax revenues banked from the override and spending $1.27 million of the stabilization fund to maintain city services. That would leave a balance of $13,918 in the fund for fiscal 2018.
In that year, based on an anticipated decline in state aid and a continued rise in fixed costs such as employee health benefits, the mayor’s plan anticipates Northampton will once again face a budget shortfall of $1.9 million.
“My goal will be to try to work very hard to make this (plan) last longer than four years,” Narkewicz said, citing strategies such as lobbying for more local option revenues and more state aid.
Meanwhile, the budget the mayor will present to the City Council on May 2 will include cuts to close the anticipated $1.4 million gap for the coming fiscal year.
The override plan will be posted Friday on the city’s website at www.northamptonma.gov and plans are to have a tax calculator on the site that will help residents calculate the impact of the override on their tax bill.