Northampton City Council endorses PILOT program for nonprofits proposed by mayor



Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — City councilors voted unanimously Thursday to endorse the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, program proposal put forward by Mayor David J. Narkewicz. The decision followed little debate among councilors, with President William Dwight prodding his colleagues just to spark some discussion.

The program, which has been revised by the mayor after a 45-day public comment period, would ask 10 of the city’s largest nonprofit, tax-exempt property owners to make voluntary contributions to city coffers. As a voluntary policy, not a law, PILOT does not require City Council approval, so the mayor was simply seeking its endorsement.

During the public comment period of Thursday’s meeting, three people spoke in support of PILOT and two people spoke against it, including Smith College Vice President of Public Affairs Laurie Fenlason.

The college, as Northampton’s largest taxpayer and one of its largest employers, is committed to working with the city, but school officials question whether PILOT is the most appropriate approach, Fenlason said, echoing comments made by Smith College President Kathleen McCartney in a letter to the Gazette.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all program that would gain most of its revenue from a single institution, Smith officials would like to see the mayor work with nonprofits to arrange a voluntary contribution scheme that takes more factors into account, Fenlason said.

Joseph Tarantino, chairman of the Northampton Republican City Committee, called PILOT a “shameful” program that stems from a “Scarlet Letter-type mentality,” and asked how nonprofits, any more than the city, could be expected to find excess money in their budgets.

“I would leave the nonprofits alone and just expect the city to live within its means,” he said.

Kevin Lake, of 35 Washington Ave., said “whether to approve PILOT is the wrong question,” urging those at the meeting to consider the fiscal realities motivating a need for new revenue and asking city officials to educate the public about declining state aid so residents can petition their lawmakers.

When it came time for City Council to approve the resolution, the mayor briefly explained three revisions he announced earlier this week: exempting social service agencies, thus removing ServiceNet from the list of affected nonprofits, phasing in the program over five rather than three years and extending a community service credit, which allows institutions to pay part of their PILOT through in-kind services, above 50 percent in exceptional circumstances.

City Council Vice President Jesse Adams said he preferred the original version of the proposal, and questioned the mayor’s decision to extend the in-kind cap, pointing out that the purpose of the program is to get revenue for the city, calling it “relief for commercial and residential taxpayers.”

Narkewicz acknowledged that the program’s purpose is generating revenue, but said permitting institutions to exceed the 50 percent cap is allowed under Boston’s PILOT program and something that came up a number of times in meetings he had on the issue.

Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge, who disclosed her membership in the Northampton Lodge of Elks #977, which would be requested to contribute under the proposal, said PILOT is a program she has hoped to see happen for a while, and thanked the mayor for his thoughtful approach.

“These mumblings have been going on for a long, long time,” Dwight said. “It’s not out of the blue.” Dwight said he is “in favor of asking for help,” but would not support shaming institutions if they choose not to participate.

O’Donnell reiterated that this is a voluntary program, and emphasized the need for continued dialogue. As the mayor likely already plans to do, O’Donnell said, the city should measure the program’s success each year and reevaluate its approach.

Referring to a comment by Lake, Ward 4 Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra said given the city’s financial situation, particularly in the wake of the last Proposition 2½ override, it is important to explore new sources of revenue. Northampton is “blessed” with such a range of tax-exempt institutions, she said, calling them integral to the community and noting that they provide an economically stabilizing effect. Still, the city provides them services in return, Sciarra added

Sciarra said she has been glad to see such passion on both sides of the issue, but disappointed that the fervor had become so polarized and urged everyone to work together.

“The public discourse on this has been fraught with emotion and it’s unfortunate,” Dwight said. “But it’s the nature of these things.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


 

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