Northampton mayor makes his case for $2.5M override


For the Gazette
Published: 1/17/2020 3:17:01 PM

If passed, about $1.12 million of the $2.5 million override on the March 3 ballot would fill a projected budget shortfall. The rest would replenish the city’s fiscal stability fund — a pool of money created as a result of the $2.5 million override in 2013 that helps stabilize the city’s budget.

Although the fund was initially expected to last for four years — through fiscal 2017 — modest gains in some state aid and an uptick in development in the city are a few reasons why the fund has lasted, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz has said.

Because of Proposition 2½, there are limits on how much a city can raise property taxes. Not including additional growth from new construction, for example, a city can’t raise taxes more than 2.5% of the amount of property taxes they collected the previous year unless residents vote to allow it. The problem with that rule, Narkewicz said, is that “many other fixed costs grow at a higher percentage.” Costs such as insurance and labor have risen more than 2.5%, he said.

If the override does not pass, there would need to be budget reductions, said Narkewicz, who told the Gazette last month that “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.”

“Whether you’re going into City Hall to get a birth certificate or you’re going to pay bills or you’re calling 911, we have trained staff that are responding,” he said more recently. “That’s really what it comes down to — the workforce that’s providing the services.”

And those services could be affected, too: “To the extent that there’s less funding,” he said, “that means less services, whether it’s having staff to plow the roads or having enough staff to have the library open on the weekends in the summer.”

Larger departments including schools, public safety and public works would feel more of the effects of a failed override. “The largest departments would obviously have a larger share in any reductions to the overall general fund budgets,” Narkewicz said. “That’s just how the mathematics work.”

Education takes up the largest chunk of the city’s budget. In the fiscal 2020 budget, $39.4 million of the $100.4 million general fund expenditures go toward education.

How the override would impact individual property tax bills is complicated, as the actual tax rate can’t yet be calculated because, among other reasons, there is no finalized budget and property values may change, Narkewicz said.

For the average single-family home, the property tax bill in fiscal year 2020 was $5,571, according to Narkewicz. If the override passes, the property tax for an average single-family home will increase by an estimated $225, the city has projected.

The mayor’s office created a calculator tool now on the city website that allows residents to type in their information and find out how much more they would pay if the override passes. There’s also an online visual budget where residents can enter their tax bill and see how much of it goes to each city or school service “to the penny,” Narkewicz said.

“I think it’s helpful for people to be able to drill down and actually see how much they’re paying a year to have a fire rescue department with some of the best-trained firefighters and EMTs in western Massachusetts … the average taxpayer is paying $353.28 a year to maintain that, as one example.”

Residents can also view how much of their bill is going to schools and libraries, among other places.

‘What about the pot money?!?’

Some Northampton residents interviewed by the Gazette said they still don’t understand why another override is needed, particularly when the city has reaped nearly $1 million so far this fiscal year from the retail marijuana industry.

Narkewicz said people often ask him about marijuana sales. There’s now a slide in his town hall presentation titled, “What about the pot money?!?”

“I say, ‘Thank goodness,’” he said.

Without that funding, the mayor said, the city would have had to consider an override sooner. But because it’s an early industry, it’s unclear how much the city will continue to collect, he added.

“It’s excellent — it’s non-property tax revenue,” Narkewicz said of gains like excise taxes from recreational pot sales. “But I also think people need to keep it in perspective.”

Narkewicz said he is addressing the question head-on in town hall presentations that began earlier this week and will continue through mid-February. 

Part of the reason he’s holding these town halls, he said, is so that “people can make an informed decision” over the next 45 days leading up to March 3.


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