Proposed $2.5 million override debated at Northampton City Council meeting
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING Northampton City Council President William Dwight Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Lobbying for and against a Proposition 2½ override began in earnest at Thursday’s City Council meeting, as residents used the public comment time and a subsequent hearing about next year’s budget to state their cases in advance of the June 25 vote.
Several councilors, meanwhile, took the opportunity to point the blame squarely at the state for its lack of financial support, especially in the form of local aid.
In an impassioned five-minute speech, Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy urged residents to “bang on the doors” of state and federal legislators, demanding that they fix a funding formula that has left communities with few options for generating revenue aside from property taxes.
He lamented that the city is once again facing a division pitting those who can afford the additional tax that would come with passage of the $2.5 million override against those who struggle to stay in their homes and buy groceries.
“We’re going to divide the city again with an override,” Tacy said. “We’re going to make this good versus bad.”
Most override opponents shared a common message Thursday, saying that they are taxed out. Others said this year’s override, like the one in 2009, is permanent and would never come off the tax levy as debt-exclusion overrides for building projects do.
Edward Judge, of 30 Autumn Drive, said the amount seems like a manageable yearly tax on its surface. But when that tax is added to other rising fees for storm water upgrades, water and sewer service, the average homeowner will see a significant increase in expenses.
“Those on fixed incomes are being pushed to the financial brink ... we shouldn’t put the financial problems we are creating on the backs of those less fortunate,” Judge said.
Barbara Rakaska, of 571 Florence Road, noted that families making serious sacrifices because of limited budgets. She questioned how other communities are able to live within their means, but Northampton is not.
“Is this going to happen every four years?” she asked.
Several audience members said they would support the override because the alternative for the school system is unacceptable.
“This is a very, very hard time for the city because we have been cut from all directions ... we have to pass this override in order to maintain” art, music and other teachers and an adequate police force, said Martha Nathan, of 24 Massasoit St.
Amy Bookbinder, of 88 Grove Ave., said that while she does not relish having to pay more in taxes, she is going to vote yes.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
While the focus of the public hearing was supposed to be on the fiscal 2014 budget, many who spoke offered suggestions that councilors noted might be good to consider in future years. Among those were possible agreements with Smith College for a payment in lieu of taxes and an idea to promote and ask people to donate money to the city beyond the property tax they pay.
Joseph Tarantino, of 110 N. Elm St., said Yes! Northampton and other override supporters could declare victory and send in the extra money without an override, which forces homeowners who don’t agree with the tax increase to pay it.
“Why don’t we have something that’s voluntary for a change?” said Tarantino, later adding, “Why not ask?”
City Council President William H. Dwight said the city would need to investigate the legalities of such an idea, though he said an override is “an ask.”
Ernest Brill, of 7 Laurel Park Drive and a teacher at Northampton High School, questioned why the city needs to buy three new vehicles for the Police Department to the tune of $150,000. He noted that’s the equivalent of three teachers.
He said the consequences of losing art and music teachers are especially troubling, as is eliminating busing to the high school.
“You will increase the dropout rate, I guarantee you that,” Brill said.
Several councilors acknowledged Brill’s point about the vehicles, though they said the council cannot order the mayor to take that money and reallocate it to the schools. Decisions like that remain in the mayor’s hands.
Another resident questioned why the city needs to spend $1.7 million in capital projects next year. He wondered if any of those projects could be put off.
Several councilors noted that not only were the capital improvement projects next year “modest” but most of them were necessary, such as fixing a sinkhole in the high school parking lot or funding part of an elevator to make Forbes Library accessible to the public.
“This is a pared-down version,” said Ward 5 City Councilor David A. Murphy. “This was the important stuff we really needed to do.”
In the end, the council reiterated frustrations with the city’s lack of revenue.
“The frustration is there really is not enough revenue,” said Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen T. Carney.