Northampton voters can weigh in on $126M budget

  • Main Street and Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2022 7:22:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The public will get several chances to weigh in on Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s first budget proposal, a $126 million package that boosts spending on schools and public health while raising property taxes 2.5% and projecting lower revenues for parking and marijuana.

The City Council’s Finance Committee will hold virtual public hearings on May 31 and June 1 at 6 p.m., and the full council is set to deliberate on June 2 at 7 p.m.

“In the meantime, councilors are available for phone calls, chats over coffee, email discussions,” City Council President James Nash said during Thursday’s council meeting. “Feel free to reach out to us and to ask us questions and share your thoughts.”

Before Sciarra presented her budget on Thursday night, councilors passed an order that changed the responsibilities of the Health Department as well as its name. Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary’s title has become commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), a team of experts with an expanded role in addressing not just public health but also the causes of health inequities.

The order also codified the Department of Community Care (DCC), an unarmed emergency response alternative to policing, into the city’s governmental structure under the purview of DHHS. The DCC will not have a separate budget, but money is included in Sciarra’s plan for DHHS to cover DCC operations and personnel.

Sciarra’s plan calls for an influx of spending on DHHS, representing the single-highest increase by dollar amount among all departments except for schools. The $1.26 million for DHHS represents a 112% jump, or $666,019, over last year’s allocation.

When Mayor David Narkewicz presented the current fiscal year budget last summer, the final budget of his decade in office, he reported that 49% of Northampton residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. A year later, 81% are fully vaccinated and 56% have gotten at least one booster shot, according to the city’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

In a letter to the council that she read aloud on Thursday, Sciarra wrote that the pandemic “radically altered expectations for local public health responses across the country,” including Northampton.

Sciarra’s letter also warned that although the public school budget would increase by 5.07%, it relies heavily on school choice reserve funds and temporary federal assistance.

“The use of reserves greater than incoming revenue and one-time federal funds to such a degree will create a gap that will exceed the city’s capacity to raise additional revenue to cover it,” Sciarra wrote, “and I am concerned about our ability to maintain our educational programs and staffing at current levels in near-future years.”

Sciarra wrote that Northampton Fire Rescue saw a 14% rise in calls for service during the current fiscal year, which ends next month. The department’s budget is climbing to keep pace with fuel and supply costs.

Fire Rescue employs 68 people. This year, EMS personnel transported nearly 1,000 COVID-19 patients or people with symptoms and doubled their prior-year mutual aid responses in other communities to 400 calls, Sciarra wrote.

Sciarra did not recommend rate increases for water or sewer service.

Resolutions, spending passed

Councilors conducted their second readings of several pending resolutions and financial orders before passing them on Thursday night.

Historic Northampton will receive $173,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for the ongoing Shepherd Barn preservation project, while $664,068 from CPA will go to Valley Community Development Corp. to support the creation of about 60 affordable apartments at the former Northampton Rehabilitation and Nursing Center at 737 Bridge Road.

The council passed an order that gives the city permission to request special legislation from the state, which would allow for a ban on Northampton landlords passing rental broker fees to prospective tenants. Tenants could still hire brokers if they chose, but a landlord who hires a broker would be responsible for paying the associated fee.

Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarrett, who cosponsored the order with Mayor Sciarra and Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore, has said that a broker’s fee is typically 60-75% of one month’s rent and due before moving in, placing an additional burden on renters who already pay several thousand dollars upfront.

Another special legislation request will ask the state for permission to introduce ranked-choice voting in the city’s local elections.

The council also passed an order that authorized borrowing $22.5 million for “the construction of sludge dewatering, clarifier, plant water system and SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition] upgrades to the City’s Wastewater Treatment Plant” in order to keep the facility in compliance with state and federal regulations.

A newly passed resolution calls on the federal government to reverse course on the proposed closure of the VA hospital in Leeds. A copy of the resolution will be sent to President Joe Biden, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and numerous other officials in Washington.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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