Northampton council OK’s $132.3M budget, with police dominating discussion

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-02-2023 4:50 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A majority of the City Council on Thursday backed a $132.3 million budget for fiscal 2024, but not before significant debate about whether the Police Department should get more money to create so-called student police positions to counter both turnover of full-time officers and the growing use of overtime.

Like the residents who spoke during public comment both for and against increasing the police budget, the council also did not have unanimous support for the overall budget presented by Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra because two of its members did not agree with additional money for police. In the end, the budget passed by a 6-2 vote, with one abstention from Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarrett. Voting against were Councilor At Large Jamila Gore and Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maoire.

While the budget featured initiatives such as a climate action department and the opening of a new Resilience Hub, much of Thursday’s discussion focused on the student officers who would supplement the 60-member department that had its budget cut by 10% three years ago.

The police budget is increasing to $6.84 million, a $363,411, or 5.6%, increase from this year’s $6.47 million spending. About $6.3 million of the police budget is for personnel.

Several residents voiced support for the police budget increase. Having enough police officers to serve the city is important, said Pennington Geis, a Ward 7 resident. “We need them just like we need good roads and good schools,” she said.

Tammy Suprenant, an administrative assistant at the police department and city resident, said she has seen firsthand the stress officers are under. “The issue of officer safety is a real one,” Suprenant said.

Countering that view was resident Mahajoy Laufer, who said another 10% cut in the police budget would be appropriate so money could be directed toward social programs and diversion initiatives.

During the council’s meeting, representatives from Northampton Abolition Now, which opposed the police budget, staged a “Party for a Police-Free Future” at Pulaski Park to advocate for mental health support, affordable housing, education, and community programs that address the root causes of violence, and provide individuals with the support they need to thrive.

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Lemy Coffin, a member of Northampton Abolition Now, spoke on behalf of others who stood behind her to deliver councilors a gift of “headlines of the future” showing their wishes, including a truly safe community for all members, not just the “affluent and white.” Coffin also quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about a budget being a moral document.

“If you vote for Sciarra’s pro-police budget, you will be betraying the community members in Northampton who need your support the most,” Coffin said.

Sciarra developed the plan in consultation with Police Chief Jody Kasper, as the department averages a shortage of 21% of its patrol officers every month, and last summer averaged 431 hours of overtime per month. In the coming budget year, the overtime line would need to be doubled to $456,098.

“The best we can do is try and recruit people and get them trained and get them serving and fill these vacancies,” Sciarra said.

At an earlier Finance Committee meeting, Kasper explained that the student officers are people hired as full-time police employees who plan to attend police academy, but until they go there they will get to know the department’s work, its policies and equipment.

“A student officer is someone who is going to the police academy,” Kasper said. “They’re non-sworn, they’re students, they’re learning, they’re going to the police academy.” In theory, as existing employees, they will graduate faster and be able to move into vacant positions quicker.

Sciarra said having the student officers will help to buttress the force as the department seeks to replace officers the city has lost, with eight leaving the force in 2022 and two more retiring this spring. “This isn’t going to solve the overtime problem immediately,” Sciarra said.

A majority of the council liked the plan.

Ward 4 Councilor Garrick Perry said the student positions are a good way to anticipate police hiring needs, while Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge said that officers are getting burned out and the city could be at risk.

“To me it seems like a reasonable solution right now to two problems,” Ward 1 Councilor Stanley Moulton said.

Council President James Nash said he understand the 10% police budget cut has continued to be a chink in the morale of the department and its officers. “They’re a terrific police department. They’re very thoughtful, ” Nash said.

Maoire, though, said that other departments are facing problems with staffing, including schools and public works, and that the budget shouldn’t prioritize police with uncertainty about whether it will ever solve the overtime issue.

“Every department has some real challenging issues,” Maoire said.

Gore said making student police hires before the Division of Community Care starts in September, and determining how much burden is removed from police, doesn’t make sense.

“I do wish that there was a different solution than hiring three officers,” Gore said. “I do think that adds to the footprint of policing.”

Other parts of budget

The budget launches a new Climate Action and Project Administration department, to be staffed by three people — a director, an energy and sustainability officer position shifting over from the Central Services Department, and the chief procurement officer from the auditor’s office, at a cost of $245,656. The budget also calls for ramping up the Division of Community Care.

The largest single expenditure increase in the budget goes to the Northampton Public Schools, which will get an extra $1.4 million added to its $36.5 million budget for the fiscal year, an increase of about 4%. An additional $1.2 million will be appropriated to the school district from the city’s Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund to prevent staff cuts.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural School is seeing its budget rise by $644,077, or 6.37%, from $10.12 million to $10.76 million.

Though Jarrett abstained from the full budget vote, he expressed hope for reducing the city’s carbon output. “The cost of inaction is very high,” Jarrett said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>