Voters sound off on proposed $2.5 million tax override at Northampton forum
Ellen Goldsmith, standing, asks a question during a forum on the proposed 2 1/2 percent tax override Wednesday at Bridge Street school. The forum was sponsored by the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
Northampton School Superintendent Brian Salzer answers a question about school staffing and bussing during a forum on the proposed 2 1/2 percent tax override Wednesday at Bridge Street School.
JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — If voices heard at Wednesday’s public forum on a proposed $2.5 million Proposition 2½ override were any indicator of public opinion, the vote on the measure at the June 25 election will be a close one.
Supporters and opponents of the override who spoke at the two-hour forum at the Bridge Street School seemed equally matched at the microphone. The former blamed the $1.4 million budget gap on dwindling state and federal aid and predicted dire consequences from layoffs, while the latter said city officials should be more creative when budgeting and need to stop burdening residents with more and more taxes.
“We’re looking at very significant cuts to services,” Mayor David J. Narkewicz said in support of the override.
But Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene Tacy, who spoke for the opposition, said residents can’t afford it. “They’re barely hanging on,” he said. “The anguish this will put on people is tremendous.”
If approved, the override would raise the tax rate 79 cents for every $1,000 of assessed home valuation. That would mean an increase of about $235 for an average single-family home valued at $297,323. The increase in taxes would be added permanently to the city’s tax levy.
Narkewicz said the money would close a projected $1.4 million budget gap for the fiscal year starting July 1 and provide $1.1 million to help support the city for three years after that. It would restore some, but not all, of the positions that would be cut with the current budget: 18 total, including 13 in the schools and the rest in the Police Department.
At the forum, sponsored by the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association, Narkewicz told the audience of over 100 that the city has done everything it can to keep spending in line with revenues, from adopting a meals tax to reforming health care spending and combining departments. “We’ve used every tool we can, which is why I’m putting this forward and supporting it,” he said.
Resident Susan Timberlake said that if the mayor had asked for an override in the amount of $1.4 million — the size of the fiscal 2014 gap — she would support it, but she doesn’t support the “cushion” of funds that would be used for the following three years that is included in the $2.5 million override.
“That’s $1.1 million you want to take out of my pocket,” she said. “$1.1 million that we don’t need right now.”
Ernie Brill, a retired Northampton High School English teacher, questioned the practicality of cutting busing to the high school, which school officials have said will be done without the override. Schools Superintendent Brian Salzer said that of the approximately 900 high school students, 242 take the bus.
Tacy said he thinks the buses are currently inefficient. “It’s frustrating to see buses leave with one or two kids in it,” he said.
“I think Northampton would be one of the only districts in the area to eliminate busing for one of its schools,” Narkewicz said.
Roni Gold, a parent and teacher, wondered if it would be better to let the budget cuts happen this year and go for an override next year when they could see what the effects were. “Maybe you would get more support from the community and it wouldn’t be as divisive,” he said.
Ward 4 City Councilor Pamela Schwartz said she has three children in the Northampton schools and she is afraid of what the schools will look like without the override. “This is the only option to preserve basic services and what it is that makes us proud to call Northampton home,” she said.
Hill Boss of Orchard Street said he rents his home and his landlord has vowed to raise his rent if the override passes to cover the increase in property taxes. “If he raises the rent, I’ll be forced to move and there’s nowhere in Northampton where I could escape the raised rent,” the 84-year-old said.
A retired New York teacher, he said he doesn’t believe the dire predictions of override supporters of the effects on students’ education if the override doesn’t pass. “There were budget cuts in New York, but the quality of education was not reduced,” he said.
Spring Street resident Andrew Church said people couldn’t afford the permanent tax increase. “Perpetuity is a long time,” he said. “I think if you asked the kids in town if they would be happier having three more kids in their classroom or being able to afford to live here when they grow up,” they’d choose the latter.
Laura Fallon of Massasoit Street said that her daughter’s class would likely swell by 11 or 12 students without the override. She is concerned not only about the impact on her daughter, but about the students who might choose to go to charter or other schools, costing Northampton more school-choice money, if class sizes here increase. “I’m worried that this could snowball,” she said.
Richard Cooper, owner of Cooper’s Corner in Florence, countered remarks that there would be an exodus from Northampton if property taxes got much higher. “What about people moving out because things are going downhill?” he said, reasoning that strong schools attract and keep residents.
Lucy Longstreth of Lake Street in Florence said she was worried that passing overrides could be a “slippery slope.”
“What happens next year when we need a sewer project or a new public works building?” she said. “Is this just going to keep happening?”
Resident Brenda Sprague Kent asked if the city could get some added revenue from Smith College, which has a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with the city. “Smith gets all these benefits from our tax dollars,” she said.
Tacy said he supported the idea and Narkewicz said it is something that will be on the table in the future, but Smith College funds “aren’t going to help us on July 1.”
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.