Northampton approves $2.5 million override

Last modified: Thursday, August 29, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Northampton voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 million Proposition 2½ override Tuesday, the second time in four years residents agreed to permanently pony up more in property taxes to retain city and school services.

“I’m thrilled that the community would come together and dig deep and do as much as we can for the schools, for public safety and for all of us,” said Catherine Kay, an override supporter and Yes!Northampton member.

The override passed by a tally of 6,065 in favor to 4,646 against, a 1,419-vote difference that nearly equaled the landslide victory override supporters secured for a $2 million override in 2009. The margin of victory was 57 percent to 43 percent, compared to 60 percent who voted in favor of an override four years ago.

In voting to allow the city to raise property taxes beyond the limits imposed by state law, residents said yes to an additional tax burden that may save 18 jobs, including 14 in the city schools and four police officers. The override also will keep other city services intact and give the city extra money to keep a level-funded budget for the next four years.

• Click here for a precinct-by-precint breakdown of the voting.

“This was a chance to take control of our destiny,” Mayor David J. Narkewicz said. “I’m pleased that a majority of voters supported this plan and I will work hard to make sure that it is successful.”

Those opposing the override were disappointed with Tuesday’s result, with many saying they may have no choice but to leave the city.

“We can’t afford it,” said Ruth McGrath, who watched the results come in at City Hall shortly after the polls closed. “Money is extremely tight for us.”

These sentiments were echoed by many voters and at least one city official, who has been voicing concern about numerous property tax and fee increases in recent years.

“Too many people are hurting right now for this,” said Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy. “It’s too much at all once.”

Like four years ago, the vote swung heavily in favor of the yes voters, with many wards seeing significant margins of victory, especially in wards 2, 3 and 4.

Two wards — 6 and 7 — voted against the override, most significantly in Ward 6 where 425 more people cast no votes than yes. Ward 7 was closer, but the anti-override side won by a margin of 90 votes.

Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne L. LaBarge said she figured the override would not win the day in her ward, and she understands why.

“A lot of my constituents are feeling that their pockets are running dry,” LaBarge said as the votes were coming in at City Hall. “I’m understanding of that.”

Nevertheless, some voters interviewed said they had a hard time coming to a decision on the override question.

“I still have mixed feelings about it,” said Kate Mlechick of Northampton. “That was a real hard one.”

Others on both sides felt the decision was more clear.

Daniel Kramer, 49, said he voted for the override to support the city’s school system.

“It’s important that the schools have longer-term funding so it’s not just year by year. I have a child who I hope will be going there someday,” Kramer said.

Richard Cooper, a downtown business owner, said he’s pleased the city won’t suffer the significant cuts that were on the table, even if that means he’ll pay more in taxes both through his business and at his home.

“My primary concern was the quality of life and what would happen to the community if this didn’t pass,” Cooper said.

Jay Fleitman, who stood holding a no override sign outside the polls less than two hours before they closed, said the case for this override was poorly made without other options for cuts put on the table. He maintains it was a divisive vote for the city.

“We’re being asked to pass this enormous override in perpetuity for no apparent reason,” Fleitman said moments before a thunderstorm ended his campaigning. “I think it’s an act of sloppy and destructive government.”

“We’re very disappointed,” said Barbara Rakaska of Florence. “I think the no override people did well for the little time and money they had for this override.”

Rakaska, who campaigned with her husband, William Rakaska, against the override, said the Yes! campaign had a lot of “political power” behind it and a lot of backing long before the issue hit the public.

“We’re not going to get hoodwinked again if another general override comes down,” she said. “Northampton can’t do this again.”

Mayor reflects

Narkewicz and other override supporters said they understand the opposition arose because many people are so hard-pressed financially.

“I have no doubt that the folks who voted no care about this city just as much as the folks who voted yes,” Narkewicz said. “This is really not a referendum on what our community is, which is a great, caring community.”

He said he’s ready to “redouble” his efforts at the state level and continue to talk about budget challenges the city faces, and he hopes to enlist all city residents in this challenge regardless of how they voted on the override.

Meanwhile, he said he hopes the work he did to explain the city’s financial predicament helped voters understand why the override was necessary.

“I would like to think the city of Northampton responded to that,” he said.

The override translates into about $235 a year in property taxes for the owner of a house assessed at $297,323, the average value of a single-family home in the city.

Of the $2.5 million approved Tuesday, the Northampton schools will get $985,000, close to what they received following the 2009 override. The remaining $1.5 million would include $726,000 for other city departments and $773,000 for an override stabilization account to help the city level-fund its budget for the next four years.

School officials intend to craft a plan based on the override’s passage for the School Committee’s discussion Thursday night. The School Committee said that if the override passed, it would keep busing to the high school, associate principal positions at the high school and JFK Middle School, and some of the 14 school positions on the chopping block. The School Committee meets at 7:15 p.m. at JFK Middle School.

The City Council will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday to consider a handful of amendments to the city’s budget for next fiscal year reflecting the additional revenue approved by voters Tuesday.

Override supporters cheer

Supporters who crowded into a standing-room-only McLadden’s Pub on Pleasant Street celebrated the vote and what it means for the city, especially the school system. They cheered loudly when Pamela C. Schwartz, Ward 4 city councilor and Yes!Northampton organizer, thanked the hundreds of volunteers who helped with the aggressive Yes!Northampton campaign to educate voters and secure votes in the weeks leading up to the election.

“I am deeply relieved and deeply happy ... on balance, people were willing to pay more to save education and public safety,” Schwartz said.

“The Yes! campaign was the vehicle for hundreds and hundreds of people to get involved with the override. The campaign was nothing less than inspiring.”

While override supporters were happy with the vote, many said they understood that the additional taxes won’t be easy for many residents.

Schwartz said she looks forward to moving ahead with services intact and joining together across the city.

“I want ‘no versus yes’ to become irrelevant so we can focus on working at the state level to get the revenue we need,” she said. “Property tax increases are a last resort.”

Several no voters, including some members of an opposition group that formed earlier this month to organize against the override, said they felt taxed out given that the city approved a $2 million general override in 2010 and a $10 million debt exclusion override to build the police station the following year.

Some expressed concern with the tax increase being permanent, while others complained of what they see as unwise financial decisions by the administration and a lack of alternatives to the override.

“Never anywhere did I hear what Narkewicz considered cutting elsewhere,” said Fleitman, who was part of a final weeklong push to get out the no vote. “Having this override, doing it this way, was lazy.”

Still others accused the city administration and Yes! supporters of using schoolchildren as pawns in the budget game.

Tacy said some of his constituents voting against the override put Yes! signs on their lawns so as to be left alone by the Yes! campaign. Others wanted to be more active, but couldn’t “because they’re too busy working,” he said.

Supporters said the city had exhausted its options and was left with the override as the only remaining alternative. They cited significant cuts in state aid as the main culprit causing the city’s financial distress, noting that had the state level-funded local aid since 2002, the city would have had $35 million more to work with over that time.


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