Guest columnist Dennis Bidwell: Why I’m urging a yes vote on the override

  • Former Northampton Ward 2 City Councilor Dennis Bidwell. gazette file photo

Published: 2/10/2020 8:00:19 PM

When Northampton voters go to the polls on March 3 to vote in the presidential primary, we will also have an opportunity to decide the kind of city we want in the future.

By voting that day to approve or reject a $2.5 million Proposition 2½ override proposal, we will be making a choice — to either keep our schools vibrant, our streets safe and our infrastructure strong, or to experience cuts in essential services of all kinds.

Without the added revenue from the proposed override, the city will need to cut the budget by over a million dollars, with 75% of those reductions likely coming from our schools, police, fire and rescue and public works. With the additional tax revenues provided by an override, Northampton will save the services and programs we have come to depend on.

During my terms on the Northampton City Council, I made a special effort to study the budgets and capital spending plans submitted by the mayor, the annual audits, and the quarterly financial reports. I asked tough financial questions until I was satisfied with the answers. I emerged convinced that the mayor, with oversight and input from the City Council, has managed the city’s finances prudently and professionally, entrusted the city’s departments to extremely well-qualified and innovative managers, implemented consolidations and efficiencies in many areas, tapped every revenue source made available by the state, and succeeded in attracting a wide range of state and federal grants.

This pattern of management, along with new growth attracted by Northampton’s desirability, has given us seven years of financial stability since the 2013 override, rather than the four years predicted at the time.

Any time voters are asked to vote themselves a tax increase it’s a big deal. It’s critical that important questions be asked and answered. These are the questions I’ve most often been asked in recent weeks.

■“I can see the need for more money for our schools and street paving, but I’m not so sure about the money we spend on things like bike paths, shade trees, conservation land and art programs.”

Part of living in a community is recognizing that everyone has different priorities and relies on city government for different things. A municipal budget that allocates resources to the full range of city services — including senior services and affordable housing — is a budget that embodies the belief that we support one another’s needs. That’s what makes a community work.

■“What about the pot money?”

By hosting one of the first retail marijuana stores to open east of the Mississippi, Northampton has indeed experienced new revenues — about $3.8 million in calendar year 2019. Half of those funds are restricted by law to addressing the impacts of this new industry on our town, such as roads, traffic safety and public health. The other half is appropriated as part of the city’s budget process. In the current fiscal year, these monies account for about 1.2% of the city’s total general fund revenues.

The city is conservative in projecting retail marijuana revenues because so little is known about what Northampton’s “market share” will be as establishments open in surrounding communities. These revenues help balance the budget, but they alone won’t close the gap in the future.

■ “How often can we expect to be faced with these override decisions?”

Since Proposition 2½ went into effect in 1980 (historical note: 54% of Northampton voted “No” on the statewide ballot measure), the city has passed three general operating overrides in 40 years.

Prop 2½ included a recognition that municipalities, limited to increasing their property tax collection by only 2½% per year (in addition to revenues from new growth) will find themselves with inflation-influenced expenditures exceeding revenues. The law provides the thoroughly democratic mechanism of allowing voters to override this tax ceiling, provided their municipal leaders make a strong enough case.

While maintaining services at a steady level from one year to the next, the pattern has been for the city’s expenses (health care, retirement fund contributions, union-negotiated wage increases, the cost of asphalt) to increase an average of 3.4% annually. With a 2 ½% cap on property taxes that can be collected, it is a structural and arithmetic inevitability that even with the best of financial management, the cost of continued services will exceed projected revenues.

At such times municipalities face a choice — cut services or seek increased property tax collections. Unless the state recognizes its need to increase revenues to fulfill its promises to cities and towns in such areas as education and highways, Northampton will down the road likely face another tough decision about an override.

■“What about folks on fixed incomes — how can we help them manage a tax increase?”

Those among us living on fixed incomes struggle to make ends meet when the cost of utilities, health care and food rises. Increases in property taxes add to the affordability conundrum.

Northampton has chosen to provide several property tax relief programs for income- and asset-eligible seniors, and the city has been a leader in supporting affordable housing construction. But the affordability crunch will persist in Northampton and other desirable cities until more state and federal resources are made available to supplement limited local sources.

For residents undecided about the merits of the override proposal, don’t take my word for it. Take a look at the financial information available at

Also, please attend one of the remaining Town Hall meetings with the mayor. The next one is scheduled for Wednesdsay, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m., at Ryan Road Elementary, followed by a meeting on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. at Leeds Elementary.

Contact your city councilor with your questions. I am convinced that a study of the city’s financial situation will lead the objective voter to vote “Yes” on March 3.

Dennis Bidwell is a former Ward 2 city councilor for Northampton.

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