Feelings run high over Northampton’s $2.5 million override

  • Contrasting opinions on the Northampton Proposition 2½ override vote on Tuesday are seen shared in chalk on a sidewalk in Pulaski Park this week. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephanie Agnew, a “yes” supporter, stands in front of the house where she rents an apartment on South Street, where her landlord has placed a “no” sign in the yard. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A ‘no’ override sign on Fort Hill Terrace in Northamtpon. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Angelo Vacchelli explains why he is against the override at his home on Sylvester Road. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Volunteers for Yes!Northampton gather for a meeting at the law office of Marissa Elkins, top right, on Wednesday. She is the organization's co-chair. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Volunteers for Yes!Northampton gather for a meeting at the law office of Marissa Elkins, third from left, on Wednesday.. She is the organization's co-chair. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2020 3:16:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — South Street resident Stephanie Agnew plans to vote for the override in Tuesday’s election, but a prominent sign in her yard might make anyone passing by think otherwise.

“Vote NO March 3,” reads the sign that her landlord put in the yard. “I hate it,” she said. “I really hate it.”

It’s one of many signs that has popped up in yards around the city as the $2.5 million Proposition 2½ override vote looms.

“Vote Yes!,” some read, while another says, “NO OVERRIDE,” with a note underneath that reads: “Stop the gentrification of Northampton.”

City residents are debating and weighing the question: Should the city be allowed to permanently raise real estate and personal property taxes to help fund public services and public schools?

The override is the third that’s been put before city voters in just over a decade. Under Proposition 2½, a state law adopted in 1980, municipalities cannot raise the amount of property taxes they collect by more than 2.5% each year unless residents vote to allow it.

Roughly half of the $2.5 million would go toward a projected budget shortfall; the other half would go to a fund that helps plug holes in future city budgets, according to Mayor David Narkewicz. For the average single-family home in the city, a successful override would add an extra estimated $225 in property taxes annually, according to city figures. Homeowners can use a calculator tool on the city website to see what the override would cost them.

On the “yes” side, Yes!Northampton has been organizing to get residents to vote in favor of the override. Every weekend over the last several months, the campaign has canvassed in the city, said volunteer Bill Scher, who is married to City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra.

“Our goal for everybody to have accurate information and make informed decisions,” said Scher, a Ward 4 resident and a contributing editor to Politico Magazine. “We’re confident that if everyone has accurate information, they will choose to stay on the path we’re on and vote yes.”

“I’m hopeful at this point,” he added.

Despite the sign in Agnew’s yard, she said, “I’m totally for the override. If we want good things we have to be willing to pay for them.”

Agnew is a renter and willing to take on some of the cost. “Roll it into my rent,” she said.

Lilly Lombard, chairwoman of the Public Shade Tree Commission, believes the city manages its money well.

“I’ve worked pretty intimately with the city in my various roles on commissions over the years,” Lombard said. “I’ve seen how well the city manages its budget and how lean the city already is.”

She worries about what a failed override would mean for the city’s initiatives addressing climate change.

“We have such a short window to turn around climate change, we need to be allocating more, not less, resources to that task,” she said.

Passing the override is “essential,” said Margaret Miller, a resident who has been involved in campaigning for previous overrides. “I just think people don’t understand the degree of the impact on their lives of not passing it … I think there will be, over the years, significant cuts to things that they depend on.”

If the override fails, city services will be impacted, Narkewicz has said.

“If we reached a place where our budget needs to be constricted, it’s going to be looking at making departments smaller — and that’s people. It’s eliminating people,” he has told the Gazette, making the point that the largest departments, such as the schools, would feel more of the effect.

Voting ‘No’

Many residents are against the override for a variety of reasons.

“I’m not an anti-tax person,” said Lois Ahrens, who is 73 and has lived in the city for four decades. But she worries about the affordability of Northampton, including for low-income seniors.

“I think there also has to be some consideration for how people can continue to live here,” Ahrens said. “What kind of diversity do they value if low-income people can’t live here?”

There are property tax exemptions for low-income seniors, which the mayor and City Council have expanded, but Ahrens said the details of the program make many ineligible. In the fiscal year 2020, single seniors can’t have more than $28,000 in assets to qualify for a personal property tax exemption.

“I’m not eligible,” Ahrens said, “because, thankfully, I have more than $28,000 to live the rest of my life on in the bank.”

Next fiscal year, that limit will rise to $40,000 for single seniors. As she wrote in a recent letter published in the Gazette, “ … with high Medicare co-pays, or a house that needs a new roof, or if the person needs home care, $50,000 in reserve over the rest of a lifetime is not very much money.”

Some feel as if increased taxes are pushing them out of the city. Bill Rakaska and his wife, Barbara, are both seniors. He said he is against the override.

“We are struggling to stay here,” Rakaska said. “I love the area, but it’s getting harder and harder … Nobody but the rich can afford to stay here.”

Angelo Vacchelli, a lifelong city resident, is retired from working for the city’s Department of Public Works and voting no for different reasons. He said he feels that the city’s money should be spent more carefully.

“A lot of money is being spent foolishly,” he said. As an example, he pointed to the city making land purchases.

City resident Arnold Levinson echoed Vacchelli. “Continuously running a deficit budget is disingenuous,” he said in a statement. “The citizens of Northampton do not have a money printing press to satisfy the appetite of spending.”

James North, a Northampton homeowner, agreed. “Every time they pass an override does everyone’s paycheck go up? No! They don’t go up,” he said.

On the “no” side, the Gazette could not reach any public campaign, though there’s evidence some organized group or groups exist. Some matching green and white yard signs that urge residents to vote no saying, “Enough! Keep Northampton Sustainable,” can be found around the city. Some leaflets were distributed to homes telling residents to vote no, stating, “fiscal responsibility is better achieved by living within our current means.”

Narkewicz, on the other hand, has been making the case for the override for months. “The fundamental challenge is that our ability to raise revenue has been artificially capped at a number, 2½ percent, and many of our fixed expenses rise much faster than that,” he has said.

“I feel like I’ve done everything I can do as a leader of the city to make the case to the voters,” said Narkewicz, who has hosted town halls about the override in every ward of the city.

Early voting in Massachusetts has already begun, and information about Northampton polling locations can be found on the city’s website.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@  gazettenet.com.


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