Pamela Schwartz: With override, ‘we all win more than we lose’
NORTHAMPTON — A yes vote on June 25 is the best choice for each of us individually and as a community. It is also our only choice if we want to continue receiving the services we expect from our city:
1. Quality public school education for Northampton’s children. Without the override, we will lose 14 school staff positions, resulting in drastic cuts to art and music at the high school and middle school levels, the loss of physical education and classroom teachers at the elementary level, cuts in special education system-wide, and further reductions of supplies and books.
2. Adequate public safety. Without the override, we will lose four police officer positions in an already stretched-thin police department. In addition to other staff re-allocations, this loss will mean decreased patrolling of our downtown in order to keep the entire city safe with fewer personnel.
3. Fiscal stability for at least the next four years. Mayor David J. Narkewicz has presented a detailed plan to ensure that new override revenues provide fiscal stability both now and into fiscal 2017. A no vote would result not only in massive cuts now, but budget projections make clear such a vote would mean even more budget gaps and deeper cuts to services in the years to follow.
We face this choice between a healthy city and higher property taxes mainly because of dramatic cuts in state aid over the last 10 years. Had the state simply level-funded us since fiscal year 2002, our city would have collected $35 million more in revenue. We have pursued every possible resource to fill this massive hole: budget cuts, cost-savings (Mayor Narkewicz’s recent $1 million savings in health insurance costs is just one example), increased efficiencies and city department reforms (including mayoral approval of any expense over $250), and the adoption of every local revenue option available to us such as the meals and hotel taxes.
But in the end, a $35 million state revenue loss requires more to keep us afloat. It requires the override, our one and only remaining solution.
We have already cut spending over the last decade to the point where more cuts will seriously threaten our core community value of providing quality public education to all our children. We have lost 37 teachers in the last 10 years due to budget cuts. We are down to a school supply budget of zero for every elementary school and are now without a single librarian at the elementary level. We already have police and fire departments protecting us with bare-bones staffing.
Voting ourselves a property tax increase is never easy. For the average home valued at $297,000, the cost is an additional $235 for the year or roughly $20/month. Thankfully, exemptions apply for low-income seniors and others on limited incomes, so they will pay less.
Some may say this override is too much in light of current and future fees. The reality is this: water, sewer, solid waste and, potentially, storm water fees cannot be spent on public safety, education and other general operating expenses. State law limits their use to city services such as delivering clean water or maintaining our aging flood control and storm water infrastructure. Until we get the state and federal support we deserve, we must decide whether we pay for essential service systems ourselves or let them collapse.
We have also heard this override decried as a permanent tax increase. But it is no more permanent than any tax change voted on by government; after all, both our state and federal governments have enacted a number of tax decreases. The only difference here is that voters get to decide directly whether this particular tax should increase beyond the 2.5 percent limit.
Proposition 2½ recognizes that a community may need to increase its tax base to catch up with rising costs. Northampton has passed only two general overrides since the state law took effect 31 years ago, and this third attempt arises from unprecedented losses in state aid. Proposition 2½ envisioned the override as an option to exercise when appropriate, not one to avoid at perilous consequence.
Our elected leaders, with Yes!Northampton’s support, will continue to work on creative ways to make the state and federal governments accountable to our community, to raise locally generated revenues, and to save and consolidate wherever we can.
But right here, right now, we have a clear choice where all of us win more than we lose. We have the chance to come together as individuals, as families, as community and declare with our vote: we will do what it takes to protect what we value most for our own quality of life and that of our neighbors.
Please vote yes on June 25.
Pamela Schwartz represents Ward 4 on the City Council and wrote this on behalf of the Yes!Northampton committee.