Easthampton business owner signals mayoral run against LaChapelle

  • In this 2016 file photo, Eric Berzins, owner of Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton, draws off a sample of beer. Berzins, 35, has pulled nomination papers to run for mayor against incumbent Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2021 8:00:24 AM

EASTHAMPTON — The owner of Fort Hill Brewery, Eric Berzins, has pulled nomination papers to run for mayor, though he said he will likely remove himself from the race if another qualified candidate runs against incumbent Mayor Nicole LaChapelle.

Berzins, 35, believes that contested elections are healthy for democracy, and he also thinks that several aspects of city leadership should be improved.

“Once I believe that a candidate who is stronger than myself enters the race, I will likely remove myself, but I do believe I am better for Easthampton than Nicole,” Berzins said.

Berzins said that “taxation in town is skewed towards residents, rather than businesses,” which he believes needs to change.

“Even if the taxes increased on my business, I’m OK with that,” Berzins said. “It’s part of owning a business.”

Berzins criticized the City Council’s vote to support a 30-year tax break for the 1 Ferry Street mill renovation project. Thirty years is “an awfully long time, yet the residents of Easthampton are certainly expected to pay taxes,” he said.

Berzins also believes that the assessor’s office is inadequately staffed and “in disarray,” and was critical of LaChapelle instructing city departments to cut their budgets by 2.5% for fiscal 2022 while whoever serves in the next mayoral term is set to receive a pay raise.

“People always say that if you don’t like it, just run for the position yourself,” Berzins said of the decision to pull nomination papers. Berzins has not previously run for elected office.

Berzins said he is set to officially appear on the ballot, having collected more than the 100 needed signatures. The City Clerk’s office was not open on Friday to confirm that Berzins will appear on the ballot.

Berzins moved to Easthampton from Vermont in 2012 to establish Fort Hill Brewery in 2014.

Asked about Berzins’ criticisms about tax rates, LaChapelle said she believes that Easthampton’s flat-rate tax system has served the community well.

“When you look at neighboring cities — Holyoke in particular — the split business rate is close to 40 dollars, and the residential rate is closer to $15 or $16 (per $1,000 of assessment),” she said. “Our rate across the board is $17.54 regardless of residential or business.”

Regarding the 1 Ferry St. tax break, LaChapelle said she was “disappointed to hear someone who has invested in Easthampton so much with his business cannot see the good investment that 1 Ferry St. and Easthampton as a whole deserves.

“The tax break, which rejuvenates a toxic mill site into housing and commercial (property) and protects the water all around the mill, I think, is a good investment for Easthampton,” she added.

The city has increased the assistant assessor’s hours and continues to evaluate staffing in all departments, LaChapelle said.

LaChapelle said that she did not partake in the vote to increase the mayor’s salary, which was decided by the City Council, and that the 2.5% cuts requested of departments did not cause any cuts to pay or hours.

LaChapelle was elected mayor in 2017 and is in her second two-year term. At the time of her first election, she was an attorney and 20-year resident of Easthampton. She ran against 21-year City Council member Joy E. Winnie, winning with 54% of the vote. LaChapelle ran unopposed in 2019.

A contested election is “one way an incumbent and also a challenger can show there’s a good comparison between the two candidates,” LaChapelle said, “that we can learn from each other, and the voters have the opportunity for a choice.”

For the first time, the next mayoral term will be four years, following a 2019 vote by residents to extend the term.

Other races

Meanwhile, most City Council members are seeking to return to their positions, while School Committee positions remained largely undeclared as of earlier in the week.

On Tuesday, all incumbent councilors aside from at-large members Peg Conniff and Erica Flood had pulled nomination papers. Conniff, who also chairs the council, has said that she will not run for another term.

Koni Denham, director of Center for Education Policy & Advocacy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has also pulled nomination papers to  run for an at-large City Council position.

David Meunier is running to represent District 4 on the City Council. Salem Derby currently represents the district and is running for reelection.

The School Committee race was largely still earlier this week, with just one incumbent, Shannon Dunham, having taken out nomination papers. Benjamin Hersey also pulled papers to run for the committee.

Six members and the mayor comprise the School Committee.

Nomination papers became available on July 2 and are due at the clerk’s office on Sept. 14. Nominees for mayor or at-large city councilor must collect at least 100 signatures to appear on the ballot, while nominees for district city councilor must collect at least 50 signatures.

The city election will take place on Nov. 2.

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