Northampton override vote is up against rising cost of living, higher taxes, fees

Last modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — The numbers don’t lie. It’s becoming more and more expensive to live in Northampton these days.

Owners of an average single-family home in Paradise City pay 20 percent more in property taxes than they did four years ago. Water and sewer rates have each gone up 35 percent in that time frame, and more than 100 percent over the last decade.

People are facing higher prices at the grocery store. If they have children in the school system, they’re likely paying more in fees for transportation, sports and extracurricular activities.

Up next is a soon-to-be-adopted stormwater fee, continuation of significant increases in water and sewer rates — after a one-year reprieve — and, maybe years from now, another override request to fund a new headquarters for the Department of Public Works.

Some of these increases began to hit property owners about the same time as one of the worst recessions in years, when salaries stagnated and many jobs vanished. Other residents have retired and are on fixed incomes with benefits that have not increased nearly enough to keep up with the cost of living in the city.

So, when a parade of people steps before the podium at City Council meetings these days to express concerns about the city asking for more money in the form of a $2.5 million general override, the frustration is palpable.

“I feel that you want too much,” resident Andrew Church told the council several weeks ago. “Every time you move to balance your budget, you are breaking our budgets. Enough already.”

Mayor David J. Narkewicz and other override supporters acknowledge the frustration, yet at the same time they fear the alternative will lead to a drop in the city’s quality of life. Deep cuts to the school system, to public safety and to general city services will have significant negative consequences that could end up hurting home values in the long run.

“I definitely understand and acknowledge what people are expressing, that the cost of everything is going up,” Narkewicz said. “City government is no different. We aren’t in a bubble insulated from the same economic pressures.”

Yet for many, next week’s Proposition 2½ vote leaves them in a conundrum.

Do they make a statement about the city’s fiscal policies and what’s happening with their own bank accounts and cast a no vote on June 25, knowing the damage it could cause to the school system and public safety?

Or do they vote yes in hopes that the additional money will help better the community in the long run?

History of override requests

The city has approved six of eight override requests in the last 25 years, including back-to-back citywide votes in 2009 and 2010.

Four of those approved overrides have been so-called debt exclusions, which enable a community to increase property taxes for capital projects. These increases are temporary and last only for the life of the loans.

The city currently has four debt exclusions on the books: JFK Middle School’s addition and renovations, Northampton High School’s expansion, and new fire and police stations.

Three of those projects are nearly paid off, with the last payment for JFK due in fiscal 2016, followed by the fire station in fiscal 2019 and the high school in fiscal 2020.

Payments on the new police station, meanwhile, are pegged to run nearly 20 more years, through fiscal 2032.

The other four override requests are known as general overrides that allow communities, with voter approval, to increase property taxes beyond the 2½ percent limit.

The increase in the levy limit becomes part of the base for calculating the current year’s and future years’ levy limits, which means it’s a permanent increase.

Voters approved a $2 million request in 2009 and a smaller, $600,000 override in 1988. They rejected overrides in 1992 and 2004.

Personal decisions

Anthony Patillo has already made his decision. After voting to support each of the city’s eight override requests since 1988, the city’s former building commissioner has said publicly he simply can’t support a measure that will harm many of his fellow residents. He said people who are retired or on fixed incomes are the most vulnerable.

“A lot of people are really afraid to speak out because they don’t want to seem like they are against the schools or ogres who don’t support kids,” Patillo said. “But a lot of people have very deep concerns about being able to stay in the city.”

Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy, who will argue against the override at a forum sponsored by the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association Wednesday, has echoed similar sentiments in the past few weeks.

At the council’s June 6 meeting, Tacy said many people in his ward are making tough decisions at the grocery store, filling half of their prescriptions and taking other steps to cut costs. He said he can’t support an override in the face of all the other rising expenses city residents face.

“I will not vote yes to push that anguish on other citizens,” he said.

This is a position override supporter Robert Reckman doesn’t argue with. When someone tells him they can’t afford to pay more property taxes, Reckman gets it. He knows the reality of what the city is asking of many people.

“I do understand what people are saying, and if they say ‘I can’t afford it,’ that’s the end of the discussion,” said Reckman, who is a ward leader for Yes!Northampton, the pro-override group formed during the city’s last override request in 2009.

Though they disagree on many points, people on both sides of override debate won’t argue with Reckman’s next point: He doesn’t want to fork over more money in taxes.

“I suspect most supporters don’t want to see taxes go up,” Reckman said. “But I believe our city is better off with level or improved services than with the cuts we’re facing without the override.”

Property taxes

For Northampton property owners, the financial pinch is real. Here’s a look at the numbers. First, property taxes.

The tax bill for an average single-family home, valued at $306,109, in fiscal 2009 rang up at $3,514, according to statistics from the state Department of Revenue.

Today, the value of the same single-family home has dropped to $297,323, while taxes went up to $4,240. That’s a $720 increase, or about 20 percent.

About half of that increase would have happened anyway because the city is allowed to increase its tax levy by 2½ percent by state law. The other half is in the form of a $2 million general override and debt exclusions for building projects, especially the new police station.

Without the override, the city will still factor in the 2.5 percent allowed by law and $1.4 million in debt exclusion payments, among other items. The tax bill for an average single-family home valued at $297,323 would go up by $143, to $4,383.

If the override passes, the same homeowner would pay $235 more in property tax next year compared to this year, an amount calculated by subtracting the amount of tax increase allowed by law ($142) from the increase derived from the override ($377).

Water, sewer rates

Meanwhile, though not as large as property taxes, water and sewer rates have risen rapidly over the last decade as the city moves to fund expensive infrastructure improvements and meet unfunded mandates from the state and federal government.

Next fiscal year, an individual will pay a combined $388 for water and sewer service, based on an average use of 3,400 cubic feet of water and sewer per year. Extrapolated to a family of four, the estimate jumps to $1,550.

Since financing for the water treatment plant began in 2002, water rates have gone up between 8 and 11 percent each year, following an initial 22 percent increase the first year. Next year, the rate will increased nominally by 1.3 percent.

A family of four who paid $299 for water service in 2002 now pays $744. That’s a 148 percent increase.

Sewer rates have also climbed steadily over the last decade. A family of four who paid about $400 for sewer service in 2002 now pays $812, or 103 percent more.

And rates are expected to go back up at a clip of 9 percent each year starting next fiscal year as the city prepares to tackle several looming capital projects, said DPW Director Ned Huntley.

“This year, we deviated from the 9 percent increases, but the (five-year) projections show rates going back up again based on assumptions of the work we’re going to be doing,” Huntley said.

In recent years, the board has chosen to increase water and sewer rates incrementally to prepare for the work, though it chose a nominal increase next fiscal year and will instead will spend money out of reserves for several projects.

Huntley said the board did not consider the override in its decision to keep rate increases small next year, despite rumors to the contrary.

“The override has nothing to do with water and sewer rates,” he said. “Enterprise funds stand on their own.”

While it won’t kick in next fiscal year, the city is also moving ahead with plans to create a new stormwater enterprise fund to help pay for expensive and, in some cases, required upgrades to the city’s stormwater and flood control systems.

A special task force is poised to recommend two fee structure models for future consideration by the City Council. One of the models calls for the new fee to range from $86 for homes on smaller lots to $169 for large lots. Another model would institute a fee of $110 for all single-family home lots regardless of size.

These fees would raise about $2 million in the first year. The committee did not consider future years.


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