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Debate over Northampton’s BID brewing once again

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>(L to R) Mike Carr, Dan Yacuzzo, and Tom Willard of the Northampton Business Improvement District on Thursday downtown.
  • Ernie Booth is the owner of Ernie's Garage on King St. in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO<br/>Mike Carr (left) and Tom Willard (right) of the Northampton Business Improvement District work as a team to clean the sidewalk downtown.
  • Ernie Booth is the owner of Ernie's Garage on King St. in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Ernie Booth is the owner of Ernie's Garage on King St. in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

So, like more than 160 other property owners, he simply chose not to participate.

“I’m not against the BID, but I have nothing to gain from it at all,” Booth said.

Then came notice this summer of a new state law that will soon force him, and others who opted out of the BID, to join the organization. He calculates the fee for the 72 King St. property where he operates Ernie’s Sunoco at about $5,000 a year.

“I opted out of it last time and would be fine to opt out of it again,” Booth said. “But this here, they aren’t giving me any choice. What’s the difference between the mafia and this?”

Booth isn’t the only one crying foul about the new law, which some contend was pushed through the Legislature in secrecy and with no public discussion. The four-paragraph amendment was tucked inside a 40-page economic development bill.

Even the most ardent BID supporters in Northampton say the law isn’t doing them any favors.

“I didn’t go out and celebrate when I found out because I knew it was going to be contentious,” said Dan Yacuzzo, executive director of the BID.

Yacuzzo and other backers of the city’s BID are moving slowly in implementing the new law, which they say they did not push for. The organization intends to hold public forums after the first of the year on how to best comply with the law.

“I know people are upset about it and I sympathize with them,” said Jack Finn, who owns A2Z Science and Learning Store and is a member of the BID board of directors. “We’re upset, too. The Legislature has put us in a difficult position. Both sides of this discussion have had something terrible done to them.”

The new law eliminates the ability of property owners to opt out of a BID after one has been created, bringing Massachusetts more in line with BIDs in other states.

In BIDs that are already operating, such as those in Northampton and Amherst, non-participants would be forced to accept the additional tax after district members pass a renewal vote. This renewal, required every five years, gives property owners recourse to dissolve a BID if it is not providing an adequate return on their investment.

“That amendment changes the whole essence of the voluntary nature of the BID,” said Alan Scheinman, who is part of a lawsuit challenging the BID’s creation three years ago.

New BID members will have the same rights as all members, whether or not they initially opted out. That means they’ll be able to vote on BID initiatives and participate in annual elections for its board of directors.

This part of the law has one major flaw, opponents say. As nonmembers, they would not be able to cast a vote in the current BID’s first renewal election.

“There’s a lot of ill feeling that’s been created by this amendment,” Scheinman said. He added that the law “doesn’t pass the stink test.”

Several opponents, including former judge and district attorney W. Michael Ryan, are considering a lawsuit challenging the new law.

They are reaching out to fellow property owners who opted out of BIDs in six other communities across the state, and have started a letter-writing campaign. The Daily Hampshire Gazette has received numerous letters taking it to task for editorializing in support of the new law.

Additionally, approximately 80 property owners recently signed a petition to Mayor David J. Narkewicz asking the city to stop defending a lawsuit brought against the BID and the city by Scheinman, Eric Suher and David Pesuit. The plaintiffs argue that the city violated state law when it created the BID, something the city denies.

The BID opponents say their message is simple: Forced membership is unfair, especially for property owners who have already said they don’t want to participate. In Northampton, 60 percent of property owners chose to opt out the first time around.

“As a voluntary association I think the BID is perfectly fine,” Ryan said. “But this is involuntary servitude. If it was mandatory at the get-go, that would be one thing. But to change it midstream is grossly unfair to people.”

Ryan said he has no issue with the BID concept or the people who run and support the Northampton program, which he credits with doing fine work. That work, however, does not add to the value of his law office on Amber Lane, he said.

No rush to renew

As much as they believe in the benefits of the district, BID supporters say they understand that some property owners don’t want to participate. Convincing these owners to change their minds before a renewal vote is held is a top priority, they say.

“It’s to our benefit to bring members in to see the value of the BID and to make it palatable,” Finn said. “It’s really a membership organization.”

Yacuzzo said the BID board of directors will sponsor forums early next year on how to comply with the law.

As part of the process the BID will undertake a self-examination, Yacuzzo said. It might lead to varying fee structures depending on a property’s location, he said, or establishment of a smaller district.

“We don’t see any urgency to taking a vote or going through a renewal process,” he said. “This is about our outreach program. The board has no willingness right now to do anything until we have talked to as many people as possible.”

While the BID is forced by the new law to take the renewal vote, it does not have to do so until Jan. 1, 2018. Yacuzzo said it likely won’t take that long to come to a consensus.

“We’ve seen the results of our work. We know what our capabilities are,” he said. “How do we translate that into value for those who opted out? How do we now sell them on the BID?”

BID supporters

In separate letters to the editor, BID members Judith Fine and Charles Bowles sought to highlight the positive work the local BID is doing.

In addition to daily street cleanup, snow removal and beautification efforts such as maintaining hundreds of flowers and painting lampposts downtown, the letters said, the BID sponsors holiday lights, arts organizations, sidewalk sales, Restaurant Week and other events that bring people to the downtown.

“This is good for all of us — including the opt-out property owners,” Fine wrote. “If individuals had accomplished this on their own, there would not be a need for a BID, but they didn’t.”

Fine, who owns Gazebo, a lingerie store, urged opponents to engage lawmakers in an effort to change the legislation to pertain to only future BIDs, not existing ones.

Bowles, a landlord and a member of the BID board of directors, said that BID has delivered significant results over the last three years.

“I would respectfully ask that the opt-outs join with us and support the legislative change and keep our city a beacon of the greatest small town in New England,” Bowles wrote.

BID opponents

Many BID opponents, however, especially those who are not involved in retail, say the BID’s efforts don’t benefit their businesses.

“My clientele does not come because the town is pleasant; they come hoping I can help them,” wrote Frank Marotta in a letter to the Gazette. Marotta is a health care provider with offices in two downtown buildings.

He later added, “If those of us who opted out knew the opt-out would be eliminated, we would have fought much harder against it.”

Other opponents operate businesses that they say they don’t benefit from BID promotions.

“My property is not on Main Street,” wrote Richard Cooper, who owns State Street Deli. “I do not benefit from Restaurant Week, Sidewalk Sales Days or BID-sponsored marketing in Hartford and Brattleboro any more than someone who has property on Ryan Road.”

Cooper acknowledges the good work of the BID, but said forcing his property to join would increase his city taxes by 37 percent.

Yacuzzo says he plans to address such concerns in the pending discussions. The BID will take a close look at the district’s boundaries, he said, adding that the district might be too big to service.

“If we double our revenue but we triple the amount of work that we need to do, then it’s not good for the BID,” Yacuzzo said. “It will actually weaken the BID.”

“It’s a really, really difficult situation, and what’s happened with the amendment, it’s just changed everything,” Scheinman said. “When the BID was adopted, all of those property owners who didn’t want to be a member were perfectly satisfied just to opt out ... now they are mad as hell.”

Ryan saids he appreciates the willingness of BID leaders to open up the discussion.

“I’m kind of sad about the whole thing,” Ryan said. “I consider myself a big supporter of downtown. To see this kind of friction in Northampton is not good for anybody.”

Legacy Comments5

Could the city amend its specific BID provision so as to allow the original Opt-Out as it had originally intended and that the state law allowed? Or would state law trump such a specific local provision?

Unfortunately, many business owners weren't doing much to make downtown look appealing. Of course, that's the municipalities job, but there was no support for that so the BID was created.

Making a business owner have to pay someone to police up his area when he will do it himself. Is as Crazy Eddie would say...totally crazy.

Northampton has had a long history of a single tax rate unlike cities such as Holyoke. Holyoke has one tax rate for residential property and another for commercial property. The residential property tax rate is approximately half the tax rate charged for comercial property, and as a result, the investment in Holyoke commercial property is dismal and this is a contributing factor explaining why there is essential no economic development in the Holyoke downtown. The Northampton City Council apparently wants the commercial property owners to pay more property taxes towards the cost of maintaining the downtown. Consequently, they saw nothing wrong with allowing the voluntary payment of BID fees by those property owners willing to pay twice for what should have been funded through a portion of their commercial property taxes. But the city administrators in Boston and Springfield desperately wanted to eliminate Bill Weld's opt-out provision in the original MA BID Chapter 40O laws and force all the commercial property owners into the BIDs that had been established in their cities. There were very large dollars going uncollected in the seven MA cities. So in the back rooms of Beacon Hill, the opt-out language was eliminated and slipped into the jobs bill. Virtually no state pols without a BID in their district even read the language that changed the opt-out provision in the BID law. This is the type of governmental property rights grab that makes people very distrustful of their elected officials. In a show of fairness, the present City Councilors should admit that their predecessors got hoodwinked by some clever revenue seekers and revisit the whole establishment of the Northampton BID in light of the recent changes in the MA BID law and the mess that's still being litigated at great legal expense because of the botched original set-up of the Northampton BID.

The solution is to simply change the tax structure and charge businesses a slightly higher tax rate. Then, they city itself needs to pay for all of the efforts the BID did.. Wasn't this the original reason for the BID anyway? The City was letting downtown degrade?

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