Pro or con, sides say misconceptions abound
Northampton Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene Tacy, from left, Gerald Budgar, president of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association, and Mayor David Narkewicz listen to a question during a forum on the city's Proposition 2 1/2 tax override Wednesday at Bridge Street School. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Nothing raises the dander of override supporters quite like being accused of using “scare tactics” in an effort to secure an override win next week.
Nothing is as frustrating to supporters as hearing residents say the city should trim the fat, when they believe the budget has been trimmed as much as possible.
These are just two of the misconceptions — and sometimes inaccuracies — about the override vote that make the job of advocating for it challenging.
On the other hand, override opponents say they battle their own set of misconceptions. They don’t hate schools. Being against the override does not mean they are against the city, though they do think officials should make better financial decisions or be prepared to do what they have to do at home: Tighten the belt.
And they are not stingy. On the contrary, many are genuinely worried about being able to stay in Northampton in the face of increases in taxes and fees for services such as sewer and water.
“I’ve lived here 40 years ... now I can’t afford to stay here,” said William Rakaska, of 571 Florence Road and a member of a small group of override opponents that began organizing earlier this month.
“A lot of my neighbors are on fixed incomes and retired. If the city can’t manage the money they get now, why should they get more?” he said.
Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy has been saying for weeks that the override comes at a poor time for many city residents who are struggling to get by.
“It does not seem like the right time,” Tacy said. “It’s too much.”
But as the side that is making the case for why the override is needed this year, override supporters say they’ve spent a great deal of time and energy not just on get-out-the-vote efforts, but correcting erroneous information about the city’s financial predicament.
It’s one thing if someone can’t or doesn’t want to pay their share of the $2.5 million request. It’s quite another if they are basing that decision on inaccurate or incomplete information, many override supporters say.
“The voters of Northampton are really committed to our city and community and they want to do what’s best for all of us together,” said Catherine Kay, a Yes!Northampton member. “By giving people information, voters will see what the best choice is to make.”
That choice comes Tuesday, when voters head to the polls to decide the fate of the city’s eighth Proposition 2½ override question, a request that would raise taxes about $235 a year for an average single-family homeowner in the city.
Supporters argue that the culprit in this budget malaise is not wasteful spending or poor planning. They lay blame 80 miles east on Beacon Hill, where the state’s “massive and persistent” cuts over the last decade-plus have left cities and towns drowning, said Pamela Schwartz, Ward 4 city councilor and one of Yes!Northampton’s leaders.
“The bottom line is we are feeling the squeeze here above all due to state local aid cuts,” Schwartz said. “And the state cuts are in large part driven by state tax policy that has drastically reduced state income tax revenue.”
If state aid had been level-funded in Northampton at fiscal 2002 levels for the last dozen years, officials would have had $35 million more to work with. Schwartz said this number speaks for itself.
“We’ve been scraping our way through these budget numbers for years,” she said.
While the loss of funding from the state tops the list of items some voters may be confused about, there are several other issues that get misconstrued. Here are a few:
∎ Threats to cut teachers and reduce art and music are merely “scare tactics” used to win the override.
Schwartz says this statement is “simply not true.” The school staff positions and programs on the chopping block aren’t coming back if the override fails. One of the Yes! campaign’s major goals is to make sure this message gets to voters.
“This isn’t information that we’ve made up,” Kay said. “The School Committee has been clear about what the budget will and won’t support.”
∎ The city has extra money in cash reserves. It should use that money to cover its budget gap rather than asking for an override.
While it’s true city officials have made a concerted effort to boost reserves, Mayor David J. Narkewicz and his financial team believe tapping into that money for a one-time fix is not a wise move and will cause significantly more problems — and expenses — in the long run.
Reserves are also critical for the city’s bond rating, an important measuring stick that dictates borrowing terms and interest payments.
“If our bond rating is downgraded, then the city will pay even more in borrowing,” Narkewicz said.
∎ There is waste in the city budget and more should be cut.
Override supporter Alex Ghiselin and others rebut this, reiterating the drop in state funding for everything from education to roads and more.
“I never bought into this waste argument,” Ghiselin said.
Plus, the city has eliminated a large number of jobs, especially in the schools, has taken numerous steps to reduce expenses across all city budgets and has adopted all local revenue options the state allows.
The most significant move occurred earlier this year when the city adopted municipal health insurance reform. In doing so, the city will move its health insurance plan into the state’s Group Insurance Commission, a move that is expected to save $900,000 next fiscal year.
Other initiatives have included adoption of the local meals tax, an increase in the hotel/motel taxes and adoption of the Community Preservation Act.
The mayor even goes so far as to approve any department expense over $250.
Short of considerable layoffs, it’s hard to find big areas in the budget the mayor has missed, override proponents say.