Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Northampton residents will head to voting booths across the city Tuesday to vote on a measure that would override the restrictions of the tax-limiting law known as Proposition 2½. Below are answers to commonly asked questions about the override request.

What is an override?

Proposition 2½ limits the increase in the property tax levy of cities and towns to 2.5 percent each year. With voter approval, an override allows communities to increase property taxes beyond this limit. Northampton is asking for a $2.5 million override this year.

If approved, next year’s levy limit is calculated by adding $2.5 million to the current levy, along with the 2.5 percent increase allowed by law and new growth. This new levy limit then becomes the base for future years.

Another type of override is a debt exclusion, which allows communities to increase property taxes for capital projects and for payment of specified debt service costs — only for the life of the loans. These increases are temporary.

What will it cost?

A $2.5 million override would add $235 a year in property taxes for the owner of a house assessed at $297,323, the value of an average single-family home. That’s about $20 a month. The override would add $158 more a year to a home assessed at $200,000, $316 for a $400,000 home, and $395 for a $500,000 home.

The city just had an override in 2009. Why again?

The same issues that dogged city leaders four years ago continue, chiefly steady erosion of state aid and the city’s lack of options for raising revenue. State aid has dropped from $13.5 million in fiscal 2002 to a projected $9.8 million next fiscal year, a difference of $3.7 million.

Had state aid been level-funded at 2002 levels, the city would have had $35 million more to work with. As city councilors have repeatedly said for years, the city’s fortunes are tied to a state funding formula that doesn’t provide enough money. That leaves the city struggling to make up the difference between what it costs to run the city and what it can legally raise through local tax options.

What do proponents say?

Failure will lead to cuts of 18 jobs in the school and police departments, which they say will bring down the quality of life and hurt property owners in the long run.

What do opponents say?

Many opponents are feeling taxed out. They note that this is the city’s third override request since 2009: one $2 million general override and another $10 million debt exclusion override for a new police station.

Combine those tax increases with other rising expenses, and many people, especially those retired or on fixed incomes, worry they won’t be able to continue living in Northampton.

Other opponents say that even though the solutions aren’t easy, the city should live within its means just like they do at home. Doing so, they say, requires difficult decisions that might include layoffs.

How do property taxes in Northampton compare to neighboring communities?

Middle of the pack. The average tax bill in Northampton this year is $4,240, below the state average of $4,846. The tax burden is less in Northampton than in Longmeadow ($7,362), Amherst ($6,508), and Westhampton ($4,650).

The city’s property taxes are higher, on average, than those in Belchertown ($4,158), Southampton ($3,912), Granby ($3,766), South Hadley ($3,501), Easthampton ($3,311) and Hadley ($3,214).

Are there exemptions and who qualifies?

Yes. Senior citizens 70 or older who own and live in their homes and meet certain income requirements and asset limits qualify for a $650 exemption from their annual property tax bills. Seniors not qualifying for the exemption may be eligible for other programs for widowers, veterans and blind people administered by the Board of Assessors.

If the deficit is $1.4 million, why is the override asking for $2.5 million?

For financial stability beyond one year, and so the city won’t be forced to ask for another override for at least the next four years. The mayor presented a plan to the City Council in April that will give the schools $1 million, other city departments $726,000 and create a special override stabilization account with the remaining $773,000.

Why can’t the city tighten its belt more rather than seek an override?

The city has made cuts in every department over several years, laid employees off and let positions go unfilled. Other measures less noticeable are upgrades to nearly every city building that has reduced energy costs and, starting next fiscal year, significant costs cuts in health insurance costs. That’s because the city adopted municipal health insurance reform by signing on with the state’s Group Insurance Commission, a move expected to save $900,000 in the next fiscal year alone.

Why are the schools in line for the largest share, at $1 million, of the added tax revenues?

As the largest city department, both in the number of employees and the size of its budget ($28.6 million), the impact of a financial shortfall “is exponentially greater” on the School Department, said Mayor David J. Narkewicz. Rising fixed costs and declining state aid added up to a shortfall of more than $700,000 in the school budget for the coming fiscal year. If approved, the override money would restore some of the 14 full-time teaching positions and busing services that are eliminated from the current budget.

Why is the city spending money to conserve land and expand bike paths when it can’t pay more important bills?

The city spends no money out of its general fund to buy conservation land. These purchases are made through money raised from the Community Preservation Act, special state and federal grants and private fundraising. In all cases, the money is earmarked for specific purposes and can’t be diverted to meet other city needs.

Narkewicz maintains the city should not turn away a chance to improve its community with projects that it would otherwise not be able to afford.

Why is the city building a boathouse during tight financial times?

The city is not constructing a boathouse. It did, however, secure a $400,000 state grant and a $190,000 Community Preservation Act grant for the creation of a new Connecticut River Greenway park off Damon Road, just north of River Run Condominiums.

The park will provide access to the Connecticut River with the construction of docks, a walkway, a walkway along the river, a parking area and access to the historic New Haven and Northampton Canal. If that project occurs off Damon Road near the Connecticut River, it will be funded through a combination of federal and state grants earmarked for recreational purposes and private money from groups like Northampton Youth and Community Rowing.

I make hard decisions in my family budget, why can’t the city?

It has and it will, but Narkewicz and most city councilors believe that they should not make drastic decisions such as losing teaching and police jobs without giving voters a say. “Given the magnitude of the cuts we’re facing that I really feel like this has to be put to the voters,” Narkewicz said.

What are the past override votes and how did they turn out?

2010: Debt exclusion for new police station passes

2009: General override of $2 million passes

2004: General override of $1.7 million fails

1998: Debt exclusion for high school passes

1996: Debt exclusion for new fire station passes

1994: Debt exclusion to renovate JFK Middle School passes

1992: General override of $1.281 million fails

1988: General override of $650,000 passes


 


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