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Editorial: Northampton’s choice

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

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 »

In the 31 years that the state’s tax-limiting law Proposition 2½ has been in effect, Northampton voters have been asked eight times to consider measures that would allow the city to increase its tax base above that limit. Six times, voters said yes.

We think it is reasonable they do so once again and approve the $2.5 million general override request city leaders say will preserve essential services this year and shore up the budget in the coming years.

Four of the previous overrides were debt exclusion requests that allowed the city to invest in capital projects such as the police station, the fire station and school building projects. No community should be expected to pay such large costs out of its basic operating budget, so these overrides are more palatable for many residents. Besides, once those debts are paid off, the tax hikes they caused go away.

The override proposal before voters next Tuesday is a general override that will be incorporated into the city’s tax base, which is why it is called a permanent increase. This, in part, is why many residents have a harder time supporting it.

We respect that this may be a commitment some city residents feel they simply cannot take in these financially precarious times. As one resident told the City Council recently, “you want too much.”

While it may be true that some residents find themselves unable to ante up this time around, we believe this is not a case in which the city wants “too much.” Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz is doing the right thing by asking residents to contribute to the effort to provide basic services, which he says will be impossible without the override.

He has made a succinct and compelling case for the override. We know he does not ask lightly.

Due to 10 years of cuts in state aid — not just level-funded state aid, but actual cuts — the city has seen a drop in revenue from the state to the tune of $35 million. Meanwhile, the city bears the burden of certain fixed costs — including pay raises and health insurance fees it is contractually obligated to cover.

These factors are why, when crafting the fiscal 2014 budget, the revenue stream did not allow Narkewicz to develop a level services budget, forcing cuts to key city services, including the schools — by far the biggest part of the budget — and police.

He did what should be done in this situation — he took the issue to the people who will be most affected, the people who live in this city and the people who have it within their power to change the variables.

When Proposition 2½ was approved by Massachusetts voters in 1980, it was with the understanding that during years when inflation is higher than 2½ percent, revenue for cities and towns in real terms would decrease. Since that is the case more often than not, the effect of the law has been to put even the most frugal of communities in an untenable position. Meanwhile, the state has pulled back on its commitment to provide revenue to its cities and towns.

All of these factors mean it is not possible to balance the city budget without finding additional revenue or reducing basic services residents in most cities take for granted.

The creators of Proposition 2½ included in its anatomy exceptions that would actually give residents of each city and town direct control over their property taxation.

In other words, governments could take it to the citizens to ask them to override the restrictions of the law in order to cover the costs of unmet community needs.

That is what is happening on June 25.

Narkewicz has looked down the road several years and determined that in order to have a more secure budget in the future, the city needs to invest in its reserve account. In order to stave off the loss of 18 city jobs, including 14 in the school department and four in the police department, the city must immediately find additional revenue for the fiscal year that starts in nine days, on July 1.

At a forum this week, several residents wanted to know why Narkewicz didn’t come to the city asking for an override that would cover the budget gap for the coming year, which would be $1.4 million, an amount perhaps more manageable for city residents.

Narkewicz has said the additional money will provide the city with a measure of financial stability needed for the long run. Without it, for example, the city may lose its ability to enjoy favorable bond rates.

Others wanted to know why the city couldn’t simply cut expenses. The city has eliminated jobs and trimmed expenses in all departments.

Narkewicz has examined city spending in minute detail to cut costs, including making any purchase over $250 come through his office for approval. Substantial savings were realized this year when the city adopted municipal health insurance reform by signing on with the state’s Group Insurance Commission, a move expected to save $900,000 in the next fiscal year alone.

At the same time, the city has taken advantage of many revenue generating opportunities, including meals and hotel taxes.

But those steps are not enough to cover basic city expenses. So, when Narkewicz says he has exhausted all other measures and that asking voters for an override is the last tool in the toolbox, we believe him.

Yes, there are residents for whom this request is a tall order. For some it is an impossible order. And it is a request each city resident must weigh carefully, and in the context of their own personal financial reality.

But we think what city leaders are asking for is reasonable.

It is a measure of last resort. We hope the voters respond in kind.

Legacy Comments14

I work in the private sector. I cannot retire until I am 66 1/2 and receive full social security benefits, unlike those employees in the public sector. If I stay in Northampton, where I was born, I will NEVER be able to retire if the overrides and water/sewer bills continue to add to my cost of living here. I do not understand why people like councilor Pamela Shwartz can feel such empathy for the homeless in our community, while she and others ignore those less fortunate who have worked hard all their lives and simply want to be able to retire here in their modest homes. Have mercy. Stop being so greedy for yourselves and your kids; if the override doesn't pass, the children will be fine. Northampton will still be safe. Have mercy on those less fortunate - if the override passes, Main Street is going to need a lot more benches. Save one for me.

I do not understand why people like tputnam can feel such empathy for themselves while he/she ignores those who have worked hard all their lives and simply want to work, but are going to be losing their jobs because of these cuts. Oh, wait - they've ALREADY lost their jobs, only the override can reverse that. Stop being so greedy for yourselves. If the override doesn't pass, these people will not have jobs and they will not be fine. Have mercy on those who are losing careers in which they've invested their entire lives. If you think it's tough paying bills on a limited income, try paying bills on ZERO income. Sorry, tputnam, if the override fails, you can sit in the comfort of your modest home while those benches will be full of teachers.

Many of Northampton teachers are not Northampton residents anyway!

I'm way over 65 and my annual income is less than a full time city employee like a teacher or a police officer will make, BUT I'm going to vote for the override because I want this city to continue to be wonderful, to be a place where people contribute extra for a wonderful celebration like the Family Fourth was yesterday, where there are free concerts and hula hoop displays, and chalk art festivals and where the young people get a good education. And if I have to "tighten my belt" a little, and eat out a little less often, it's worth it. It's really worth it.

"...hula hoop displays"? "...free concerts"? "...chalk art festivals"? "...eat out a little less often"? For heaven's sake, what on earth are you thinking? There are people, possibly your neighbors, who decide every day whether to buy their medications or pay their water bill. Whether to put gas in their car, or food on their table. They DON'T eat out at all; they can barely afford to eat in! Try to think outside of your happy little world for once. The concept of 'community'? What does that mean for you? I see Northampton becoming ever more an elitist community, with the well-to-do feeling ever so righteous about caring for the homeless, after all the hard-working middle class has left. Is that what you want?

EXACTLY! Thank you for your posts today, tputnam.

I thought I saw on gazettenet last year that there are at least 1,500 employees on the Northamton payroll (for a city with 26,000 people). Part of the discussion should have been on what those people do and what it costs the taxpayer. At the city's website there's a list of their salaries and at least 200 make over $100,000 a year if you add in benefits of 30% which is the average benefit cost for a federal worker. Are all those dollars being spent most efficiently. All this talk about losing teachers and how the children will suffer. Are there 1,500 school teachers? Can't some of the wasted fat be cut first? Social security is bankrupt in 2030. We need $230/year the city wants to fund our retirements. Why provide a nice early retirement for a city employee while the rest of us won't have the same luxury? And as for all the comparisons about how we are taxed less than other towns - well those other towns have higher median incomes. Maybe thats why. All the union talking points - please spare us.

Homeowners who can't afford their medications, don't qualify for tax abatements, and can't afford to eat but own their home? Where are they? How many of them? I'd like to know the actual numbers, the actual incomes, what they do spend their meager earnings on. Are you one of them or are you pitying imaginary people?

tputnam, I apologize. I got caught up in the controversy. I just wanted to voice my support for the override, but I understand that there are people who see things differently. And I'm sorry that you feel you will have to move (earlier post) if the override passes. I hope that is not the case. I do want the override to pass, but I don't wish hardship on you.

No apology necessary, dear. This is a difficult topic for many reasons, and folks get understandingly emotional. Thank you. (I couldn't reply to your apology post, because the link is missing).

Gary - What is this anger toward teachers all about? Retirement? You're angry because a college-educated person who puts 25 or 30 years into a career gets a retirement package? Maybe you need to be angry at your employer and multinational corporations that are sucking the lifeblood out of this country while evading their own tax responsibilities. Why don't you turn your anger and vitriol toward them? Comfy jobs? Tell that to the 40 teachers who have already lost their jobs over the last 10 years and the next 14 teachers who are in line this year. Tell that to the teachers who have ZERO budget for supplies and pay for them out of their own pockets. Comfy? Tell that to the mass of teachers who spend countless hours on special projects and programs ON THEIR OWN TIME because there are no funds, yet they are dedicated to the children of this town. Finally, Gary, no "elite" has decided to tax anyone. YOU and your fellow citizens are going to decide that on Tuesday.

balh blah blah blah blah. We' ve heard all that before and it doesn't hold water. Each year the taxes taken in by the city go up and up and up. What are they doing with all that money? Can't they manage it better? What I want is not to see teachers and school administators retiring at 62 with 70% defined benefit pensions. They should all move into a defined contribution plan like the rest of us. Why don't we have a discussion about the extra benefits the city employees have that the average tax payer doesn't have. What I want is to see them work until they are 70 like the rest of us are going to have to do. Even with these 'staff reductions' are there less govt workers on the city payroll than there were 5 years ago? Please, I don't believe it. And don't blame the big companies - its the unions fault that they are moving jobs overseas and cutting wages in the US. Everybody has woken up to the damage the blood sucking municipal unions are doing and their partners in the socialist progressive democratic party. I'm tired of the socialist view of how the world should work.

...and the Koch brothers thank you for your service.

Can anybody find any editorial where the Gazette came out against a tax increase? I think that says it all. The elite rulers have decided to tax the working people more. The gazette being the voice piece of the rulers passes along the message. Never mind that the alarmists warn that nobody will get an education worth anything if we don't spend more and more of our hard earned dollars and there is no place to make further cuts - but really we all know its so the teachers union can have comfy jobs and retirement pensions nobody else in the world has. The working class has to pay the elites. Its always been that way and will always be that way. Go ahead and raise the taxex but please don't say its for the children - its for the teachers and other municipal workers. We get that. Thats what all of us are saying behind your backs as we drive around in our cars. PS- where I work this week - we're having layoffs. So far over 20,000 people have been laid off in my company. Does the city realise we are in the modern depression? The worst is yet to come.

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