Editorial: ​​​​​Two cities face a taxing dilemma

Published: 1/21/2020 1:53:59 PM

Overrides and property taxes are on the minds of many residents in two of Hampshire County’s largest communities.

In Northampton, voters are about six weeks away from deciding whether to approve a $2.5 million general override — the third request in just over the last decade — to plug a projected budget deficit and funnel money into a special fund used to stabilize the city’s budget over the next few years.

This request from Mayor David Narkewicz and the City Council should not surprise anyone. When residents overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in 2013, the mayor warned that another override would be in the city’s future unless major funding changes occurred at the state level.

The city actually stretched the money from the last override far beyond its original projections, but that money is now gone. So here we are, debating once again whether to say “yes” to another property tax hike above the 2½% set by state law. If the measure passes on March 3, the owner of an average single-family home valued at $335,946 would pay an estimated $225 more in property taxes annually.

Some property owners are against the measure out of principle, arguing that the city should live within its means just as they have to do at home. Others, especially those on fixed incomes, say that the additional tax burden would be a hardship for them.

Property owners in favor of the measure argue the city has done a good job budgeting, but that more money is needed to maintain a great school system and provide other basic services expected of a municipality. They say capping property tax increases at 2.5% creates a revenue problem, as the costs to run a city routinely grow faster than that amount of money generated each year.

Then there are the undecided voters who understand both arguments but are on the fence about which way to vote.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the question, there will be many opportunities over the next month to learn why the city is asking residents to pony up more in property taxes. The mayor will kick off a series of seven town hall forums on Wednesday, where he will likely explain the city’s budget and financial position through the kind of detailed PowerPoint presentation he’s become known for.

Residents should attend these forums to gather information and ask questions. This mayor has done more than most city leaders to provide information about why the city is in this position, so there’s really no excuse for residents not to be informed about what this vote means for the city and for them individually.

The schedule for the forums, all of which run from 7-9 p.m. unless noted, is as follows:

■Jan. 22, Northampton High School, 380 Elm St.

■Jan. 29, Jackson Street Elementary School, 120 Jackson St.

■Feb. 4, Florence Civic Center, 90 Park St.

■Feb. 5, 1-3 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., Forbes Library, 20 West St.

■Feb. 12, Ryan Road Elementary School, 498 Ryan Road

■ Feb. 24, Leeds Elementary School, 20 Florence St.

Easthampton

In Easthampton, where voters in 2018 approved a $60 million debt-exclusion override to build a new K-8 school, many voters are not happy about the additional property taxes reflected on their most recent bills. Others are surprised, which seems silly given all the publicity that led up to the override vote, while still others complain that city officials didn’t do a good enough job explaining how the increase in taxes would roll out this year.

City Council President Peg Conniff noted that communication could have been clearer about the most recent bills and that the city could have included a mailer that would have provided more detail about the tax increases.

She has a point there. To many property owners, the bills looked higher than they will end up being because property taxes for the first two quarters are estimates until the tax rate and property assessments are set. But without that explanation, property owners were shocked when they opened their bills and saw what looked like huge tax increases way beyond the roughly $200 per quarter they were expecting.

There’s no question that any increase in property taxes is a burden on some property owners, particularly senior citizens and others living on fixed incomes. We encourage those individuals to reach out to City Hall for guidance on how to apply for programs that will reduce their taxes.

For others, however, increased taxes for a much-needed new school is the price of owning property in a growing city — and Easthampton is growing. Property values are rising as people continue to move to Easthampton, and that’s a good thing.

Residents in both Easthampton and Northampton may be at different stages in the override-property tax debate, but one thing is clear in both communities — the more information residents have, the better.




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