Elizabeth Dunaway: BID shift unfair to those who said no
Downtown Northampton JOSH KUCKENS
NORTHAMPTON — I take great exception to the Gazette’s blithe endorsement of mandatory Business Improvement District membership. And I reject the Gazette’s characterization of non-BID members as somehow civically irresponsible and getting a free ride (“Stronger BID law has merit,” editorial, Oct. 22).
The Gazette is missing the point on both counts.
On the first point — mandatory membership — it is precisely because membership was not mandatory that the BID passed. It passed as a voluntary membership organization with a voluntary tax. There was an opt-out clause that was repeatedly touted by the BID proponents and the City Council. “What harm could there be?” went the assurances.
The opt-out clause is a principal reason that the BID came to a successful vote in Northampton.
To then declare, through a dubious legislative process, that the rules are changed and everyone in the boundaries of the Business Improvement District now must pay, does not pass any commonsense smell test, legal or otherwise.
Should your neighbors be able to describe a district and within that district establish a house and garden club? Yes. But can they then vote among themselves to compel you to paint your house or manicure your lawn and also dictate who is providing the service and at what cost? Of course not. It is just as wrong with the BID.
On the second point — free ride — if there is free ride, those that opted out of the BID are the minority of the beneficiaries. Thousands of tax-paying residents, many of whom want to live here because of the vibrant, attractive downtown, get a free ride. But even if you brush aside a citywide social fabric argument and take it to BID statistics, let’s see who we are talking about: Residential condominium owners within the Business Improvement District — 177 of them — by statute pay no fee, but may vote in the BID, and thus get a free ride. Smith College — with 13 buildings gerrymandered into the BID — pays no fee, but may vote in the BID. It gets a free ride.
Houses of worship, state buildings, not-for-profits — even Amtrak — all get a free ride. And the city with 20 buildings in the BID is not technically assessed a fee. The city makes a voluntary transfer of money to the BID from the parking fund — of quite small proportion. It is little more than double what my one family would owe if compelled to join, and less than 5 percent of possible fees in the district.
There are about 83 fee-paying voting members of the BID. They represent only about one-third of the commercial property in the district. They also in turn represent only one-third of the current voting membership. When the election is called to renew the BID, the majority of commercial property in downtown — which is now opted out — could be forced by the minority to become fee-paying members.
This, in fact, would be true even if not a single current fee-paying member votes that way because two-thirds of the votes are held by nonpaying members.
Finally, to credit the strength of downtown to some nice things the BID has done in a few years is off base. Downtown is strong because of 35 years of next-wave businesses.
My family is proud to have tenants in their 20s and 30s opening creative and successful establishments and I like to think we support them as most any landlord would. It’s entrepreneurs — including landlords as good stewards of their properties — and not the BID that gives our downtown its strength.
Elizabeth Dunaway of Northampton represents the Dunaway Properties and Dunaway Trust.