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 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.