Editorial: For health of city, vote ‘yes’ on override

  • Northampton City Hall, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Contrasting opinions on the Northampton tax override vote, which is March 3, are seen shared in chalk on a sidewalk in Pulaski Park, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 2/28/2020 12:06:40 PM

We’ll cut right to the chase. As in past years, we are urging Northampton voters to check the “yes” box giving the city permission to override Proposition 2½. But we don’t want to be asked again four years from now.

We think this $2.5 million override is a reasonable request given the financial mess that the state has left cities and towns in for the last three decades. The state, put simply, has not lived up to its end of the funding bargain it makes with municipalities from the tip of the Cape to the far reaches of Berkshire County. Municipal aid was cut deeply during the Great Recession in 2008 and during other rough financial times prior to that; as a result, funding is now millions of dollars below where it should be.

With local aid levels reduced so drastically, municipalities have come to rely heavily on local property taxes to meet contractual obligations to their employees, keep up with fixed costs such as health insurance and provide essential public services to residents. Local taxes fund $67.5 million of Northampton’s $100-plus-million budget, while the state pitches in $16.5 million.

Northampton is no exception. That’s something Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz has detailed hundreds of times since he took office in 2012, and the local aid conundrum stretches across many areas — from an outdated education funding formula to an underfunded charter school reimbursement program to numerous unfunded or underfunded mandates that fall on cities and towns to implement.

That said, the outrage over yet another override — the third request in just over a decade — that has poured out on these pages over the last few weeks is justified. Many residents are understandably angry. Some can’t afford it, while others think the city should live within its means. For them, this is not just about the current override request. It’s about the cumulative effect of overrides, a Community Preservation Act tax, stormwater fees, water and sewer fees and more. Combine all of these expenses into one big sum, and we get why many residents are fed up.

While we doubt these opponents will flee the city if the override passes — after all, the value of their homes have gone up significantly over time precisely because of the investments the city has made — their complaints should not be brushed aside. Northampton is becoming a city for the well off. Residents who have lived here for years fear they are being pushed out. Then there are those who want to call Northampton home but can’t afford to live here. Many don’t even bother looking to buy in the city, where the average single-family home costs $331,600.

Since Proposition 2 ½ went into effect 40 years ago, Northampton voters have been asked nine times to consider override measures. Seven times, voters have said yes. Four of the previous overrides were debt exclusion requests that allowed the city to invest in capital projects such as the police and fire stations and schools. Once those debts are paid off, the tax hikes they caused go away. The override proposal before voters next Tuesday is a general override that will be incorporated into the city’s tax base, which is why it is called a permanent increase.

For supporters, the request is of absolute necessity. Despite sound fiscal management by Narkewicz and his financial team, the city doesn’t have enough money to keep up with rising expenses. This poses a threat to the city’s viability. As was the case in 2013 when voters overwhelmingly approved the last override, which also was $2.5 million, the underfunding of the public school system is at the front and center of their argument.

For many opponents, the financial strain is real. Many taxpayers, especially those on fixed incomes, are struggling to make ends meet. More taxes will place a further burden on them, even if they qualify for the senior and low-income exemptions approved by the city. That’s the crux of the debate: a household’s ability to pay the additional tax. No one wants to see the school system struggle, but how can we argue with residents who say they simply can’t afford it? Opponents also raise some key questions about the budget and believe the city should have to deal with the pain of cuts just like a private business would.

Property owners of an average single-family home who can afford the additional estimated $225 a year would be wise to vote yes on the measure. The choice is between maintaining a strong school system and other city departments or settling for less in the form of cuts to both jobs and services. As he did with the $2.5 million override in 2013, Narkewicz intends to use this additional money to preserve essential services this year and shore up the budget in the coming years. He has a plan, and he has done an excellent job promoting it throughout the city in the last few weeks, hosting numerous forums and answering scores of questions from residents.

Let’s continue to push our state legislators to fix the funding problem at the state level and keep a critical eye on the city’s budget. We encourage all residents to ask hard questions of our mayor, city councilors and School Committee members.

These challenges weren’t new in 2013. They aren’t new now. In the end, the mayor isn’t making this decision unilaterally. It’s up to residents, and for the short- and long-term health of the city, we urge you to vote yes on the override.


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