City budget, override focus of Northampton forum for at-large council candidates
|Published: 11-02-2023 7:10 PM
NORTHAMPTON — With a budget override looming for Northampton, spending and money dominated a significant portion of the conversation at a Wednesday forum featuring the four candidates running for two at-large positions on the City Council.
Candidates David Murphy, Garrick Perry, Roy Martin and Marissa Elkins also shared their views on the Main Street redesign project, the Police Department’s future as it seeks to replace Chief Jody Kasper, and climate and affordable housing initiatives in the city. The candidates also spent part of the hourlong forum held at John F. Kennedy Middle School making their cases for why they are the best person for the job.
Murphy, a former city councilor for Ward 5 who served for seven terms until 2019, said the city’s budget has gotten out of control with the city creating new offices such as the Division of Community Care and expanding its health and human services department.
“We’re expanding what the city does into areas that aren’t traditional city services,” Murphy said. “The only way the city is going to control its spending is if the voters say no, we’re not going to give you any more money.”
Elkins, the only incumbent councilor-at-large in the race, pushed back against the idea that an upcoming Proposition 2½ override vote necessarily signified overspending by the city.
“The override is and has been now for a very long time a part of Northampton’s long-term fiscal responsibility plan that has held us in very, very good stead for as long as it has been in place,” she said. “Overrides have been voted for overwhelmingly every time they’ve been put to the voters. And I thank that’s because this city’s government demonstrates at every turn they stick to the plan.”
Voters last approved an override in 2020, with 62% of residents voting “yes” to that $2.5 million request that raised property taxes to make up for a budgetary shortfall. The city has had three overrides over the past two decades.
Perry, who currently represents Ward 4 on the council, said the city needs to look at the budget override to fund its public school system next year, which this year had to rely on city emergency funds to stave off job cuts. He also said the city needed to improve its tax revenue through promotion of businesses and nightlife.
“We cannot continue to dip into our reserves because that is untenable,” he said. “We are a city that is only operating for half the time — our city becomes dark at night. We’re losing a lot of revenue potential there.”
Martin, who has run for mayor several times in previous years before running for councilor-at-large this year, said he had talked with Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra about the override several months earlier, and that many property owners have told him that they could not afford it.
“When I was out on the campaign trail, everybody I talked to, everybody I gave a card to, I told them you’re looking at an override,” Martin said. “I had a couple that owned their property, and they told me they can’t afford another override.”
The candidates were also asked about their views on the Main Street redesign, called Picture Main Street, another strong point of contention among city residents. The plan calls for narrowing Main Street into one lane each way while expanding the sidewalk and adding a separate bike lane, with a three-year construction period beginning in 2025.
Elkins said she favors the redesign.
“I think it’s going to be a transformative evolution of the life of our city and Main Street,” she said. “I know there can’t ever be a 100% consensus about every element of a plan like that. But the fact of the matter is that we are moving into an age where we need to be less dependent on cars.”
Perry also supports the project, and said there are ways to support businesses during the construction.
“I look forward to seeing a downtown which my kids can grow up in and experience what I can see is going to be vibrant,” he said. “I think that creating events and ways for people to come to our downtown is going to save our downtown.”
Murphy spoke more critically of the plan, saying that it would hurt businesses already struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even if this is the most insightful design possible, they’re going to go through another two or three years that is going to be very disruptive,” he said. “People are going to decide to take alternative routes so the city councilors who have wards around Main Street are going to be dealing with a lot more traffic coming into their wards.”
Martin called for a trial run, as advocated by many opponents of the current design, to test out the redesign before construction begins.
“I’m not really in favor of it,” he said of the redesign. “I say let’s try it, and if it doesn’t work we can always go back.”
Climate change is also a central concern in Northampton, with the city aiming to reach carbon neutrality by 2030 and recently creating a new Climate Action and Project Administration department [CAPA].
Perry said the city could reduce its emissions from buildings, although he acknowledged he was not an expert on the matter. The City Council recently adopted a new building code meant to curb carbon emissions from its infrastructure.
“Looking at municipal buildings is important for our climate action, but I also think that looking at our vehicles and our fleet, and making them more efficient is going to be very important in our future,” he said. “If I were in charge I would really continue to rely on the community members who are experts as well to help guide us forward.”
Murphy said he is in favor of addressing climate change, but that the city needed to start by doing things that are cost-effective, contrasting what the city should do with the $220 million geothermal project at Smith College.
“Do the most cost-effective things up front and get the most bang you can for your buck,” he said. “I don’t know where the money is going to come from to do the more expensive things.”
Elkins said addressing climate change in the city is one of her main goals as a city councilor.
“We have to look holistically to meet our promises and goals on the climate crisis,” she said. “I think CAPA has a focus on what they should be focusing on, which is to look very, very closely into the buildings and infrastructure.”
Martin seemed more dismissive of climate concerns, noting that electric vehicle manufacturing had been struggling in recent months.
“Which way are we going to go? Are we going into electric? Are we going into other ways?” Martin asked.
One of the more recent issues to come before the city is the looming departure of Police Chief Jody Kasper, who was recently named chief for Nantucket.
Murphy called Kasper a “world-class” police chief and criticized the city for deciding to cut the police budget by 10% in 2021 amid a national wave of protests following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“We’re going to have a hard time finding someone that wants to step into an environment where the City Council does not support its Police Department,” he said. “It’s going to be really tough. There’s no magic way to do this.”
Martin also lamented the loss of Kasper.
“She worked hard for the city. The police were under budget and trying hard to catch up,” he said. “A lot of people blamed her because the police didn’t have body cameras and stuff like that. That’s not right.”
Elkins praised Kasper as well, and said the city needed to find another chief who could embrace the city’s progressive ideals, and that the difficulty of finding a new police chief isn’t just a Northampton problem, but a nationwide one.
“I keep coming back to the words of values, calls for reform, calls for progressive ideas about the way we meet the needs of the city’s public health and safety,” Elkins said. “That we can protect the community while also being humane and respecting people’s due process rights.”
Perry called Kasper a “great leader” and recalled how he had joined the council amid the George Floyd protests, as well as serving on the interview committee for new officers.
“Whoever is next is going to have big shoes to fill, but one thing they have to understand is the uniqueness of the city,” he said. “I think the next chief is going to have to figure out a way to reimagine police and start working with our Division of Community Care, because we have shown that we want to see a different type of policing.”
Alexander MacDougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.