The $2.5 million question: Northampton residents weigh in on proposed override 

  • Rebecca Muller, of Northampton, talks about the proposed $2.5 override, which Northampton residents will vote on March 3. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Longtime Northampton resident Rebecca Muller is against general overrides in principle, as opposed to targeted overrides for specific projects. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerald Mins of Florence plans to vote against the proposed $2.5 million override on March 3, saying he thinks that taxes are already too high.

  • Gerald Mins, of Florence, talks about the proposed $2.5 override, which Northampton residents will vote on March 3. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bill Rakaska takes out signs from previous override efforts Wednesday at his home in Florence to use in the current campaign. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Barbara and Bill Rakaska credit their neighbor Anthony Patillo with this sign design from a previous override. Photographed in Florence on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Barbara and Bill Rakaska take out signs from previous overrides to use in the current campaign at their home in Florence on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Gram Flynn, 8, works on a “yes” sign with his parents, Jaime Olander and Kelsey Flynn, at their home in Northampton. City residents will vote on a proposed $2.5 million override March 3. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gram Flynn, 8, works on a “yes” sign with his parents, Jaime Olander and Kelsey Flynn, at their home in Northampton. City residents will vote on a proposed $2.5 million override March 3. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton residents weigh in on the proposed $2.5 million override, which will be a question on the ballot March 3. GAZETTE PHOTOS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2020 3:06:48 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On March 3, Massachusetts voters will choose a Democratic presidential nominee in the primary. That same ballot will include another question, one that hasn’t gotten as much attention as the presidential race but that affects every Northampton resident.

Should the city be allowed to permanently raise real estate and personal property taxes to help fund public services and public schools?

If passed, the $2.5 million override would be the third in just over a decade.

As elections near, the potential tax hike is becoming a topic of conversation around the city and online. The popular Facebook page “Only in Northampton” recently asked its followers for their thoughts on the override and garnered comments ranging from “Absolutely necessary” to “Hell no!”

For the past two weeks, the Gazette has been gathering residents’ impressions through a series of interviews conducted over the phone and on the street, as well as at spots such as Cooper’s Corner and Lilly Library in Florence and the Sunoco Gas Station in Leeds. A number of people spoke heatedly about the issue and are confident about where they stand, but others said they didn’t know enough details about the override to weigh in on it yet.

That’s partly why Mayor David Narkewicz has announced a series of town hall sessions — to make his case for the override to residents.

The override question is on the March 3 ballot because, under Proposition 2½, a state law adopted in 1980, municipalities cannot raise the amount of property taxes they collect by more than 2.5 percent each year unless residents vote to allow it.

For the average single-family home in Northampton, which is valued at $335,946, the passage of the override would tack on an additional estimated $225 in property taxes annually, according to Narkewicz.

Roughly half of the $2.5 million would go toward a projected budget shortfall; the other half would go to a fund that helps plug holes in future city budgets.

On the ‘yes’ side

A group of residents launched Yes!Northampton last month, a campaign in support of the override. They are working to educate neighbors and other community members about the issue: “what it is, why it’s needed and why it’s ultimately worth every penny,” said the organization’s co-chair, Marissa Elkins.

“The bottom line is, this is what funds our schools,” Elkins said. “This is what funds our police and firefighters — basic city services.”

Elkins highlighted the limitations Proposition 2½ imposes on communities as a problem.

“As long as we live under Proposition 2½, we’re always going to have a revenue problem — all towns in Massachusetts have a revenue issue.

“We recognize it is a structural issue with the way we’re being asked to fund our cities’ and towns’ needs and priorities across the commonwealth,” she added.

Yes!Northampton Treasurer Stacey Dakai echoed Elkins in a statement: “Structural deficits are inevitable because property tax increases approved by City Council are capped by state law at 2.5% per year while the city’s costs, from health insurance to wages to asphalt, routinely grow faster than 2.5% per year.”

Kelsey Flynn, who is volunteering with Yes!Northampton, agreed. “I just think the math is pretty clear. Massachusetts general law caps the property tax,” said Flynn, who has lived in the city for more than 20 years. “Costs of most things don’t stay capped, and they go up year after year … just look at health care and how much that goes up.”

Public education is one reason many voters say they support the override. That’s true for Claire Lobdell, a resident of Ward 4 who is helping Yes!Northampton. “I think a lot of it stems from, I have two kids in the public school system,” she said of her support.

“I think the mayor and the City Council have been very fiscally responsible with our taxpayer money,” she said. “I don’t want to see the funding for schools slip, or funding [slip] for the other things I care about that make this a really great community to live in.”

Kate Cardoso, a resident who recently ran for the School Committee, also said she is a strong supporter of the override.

“I really do feel like we’re not getting the state funding we need, in particular in the schools,” she said. “We’re underfunded right now, and we’ll be more underfunded if this doesn’t go through.”

She also expressed concern about people who may struggle with higher taxes. “I do feel like we need to find a way to pass this override and put in some exemptions for those who can’t afford it.”

On the ‘no’ side

Although some voters said they are undecided about the override, others opposed to it said they worry about not being able to afford a tax hike; then there are those who are just opposed to it in theory.

“In principle, I’m opposed to general overrides,” said Rebecca Muller, a city resident of four decades, as she walked down Main Street in Florence. “I much prefer targeted overrides.”

Gerald Mins, a Florence resident, said he will vote against the override. 

“I think the taxes are too high here,” he said as he headed into Cooper’s Corner. “No more taxes.”

Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne LaBarge was the sole “no” vote on the City Council, advocating to not put the override on the March ballot. She has heard from too many people in her ward who are struggling financially and who oppose it, she said.

“People are living within their means. They’re trying very hard. A lot of them are embarrassed to say they can’t afford it,” she said. “People are frightened of the extra expenses here.”

Bill Rakaska, a Ward 6 resident who is retired from the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, is worried about rising costs and is also against the override. This year, his taxes have increased by several hundred dollars, he said.

“We have to live within our budget, so why can’t the city?” Rakaska asked. “It’s so cold today, Narkewicz should have his hands in his own pockets, not ours.”

Rakaska and his wife, Barbara, are both seniors. “We are struggling to stay here,” he said. “I love the area, but it’s getting harder and harder … Nobody but the rich can afford to stay here.

“I’m not poor; I’m surviving,” he said, “but it’s not easy.”

Narkewicz said the city has been implementing as many cost-saving measures and efficiencies as it can: for example, reorganizing city departments, refinancing debt service in fiscal year 2015, joining a state employee health insurance group for its competitive rates, and implementing energy conservation measures.

“The fundamental challenge is that our ability to raise revenue has been artificially capped at a number, 2½ percent, and many of our fixed expenses rise much faster than that,” the mayor said. “Things like our insurance, retirement obligations, the cost of outgoing charter tuition — those can’t be cut. So the only place we can cut is city services. That’s the fundamental pressure, the fundamental imbalance of Prop. 2½.”

To assist seniors, the mayor and City Council approved expanded property tax relief to income-eligible seniors by lowering the age of eligibility and increasing the maximum tax exemption amount. Seniors 65 or older whose income and assets are lower than a certain amount can get up to a $1,000 reduction in property taxes.

Still, some seniors reject the call for an override. Phillip Sullivan, a Ward 2 resident who has been living in the city for 75 years, also voiced his opposition.

“It’s really getting tough for people who were born here to stay here,” he said. “My children couldn’t afford to stay here.”

He believes the city should be more fiscally responsible and isn’t convinced that the override is the way to go. “I’m not sure that we really need it,” he said.

Anthony Patillo, a 68-year-old resident of Ward 6 and a retired Northampton building commissioner, is “strongly against” the override, he said. Patillo said rising expenses are pushing people out of Northampton.

“It’s hard for a young family to buy a home unless their parents help them or they have a windfall to do it,” he said.

Rising costs are “forcing a lot of people out of this city who helped build this city,” he continued. “All the neighbors on my street, they all complain of this.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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