Editorial: Northampton voters should ask tough questions about proposed override

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 12/6/2019 2:44:08 PM

Nothing is certain but death and taxes — that’s what comes to mind after the Northampton City Council voted 7-1 Thursday to put a $2.5 million property tax override before voters on March 3. The purpose of the override, which would permanently raise property taxes in Northampton above the tax-limiting law known as Proposition 2½, is to replenish the city’s fiscal stability fund, which would in turn help the city balance its budget.

Ward 4 City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra was not present at the meeting, and Ward 6 City Council Marianne LaBarge voted against it, saying that residents have pleaded with her not to put the override on the ballot and that “the outcry has been huge.”

We get it. Should the override pass, it will be the third successful override in just over a decade. That’s three times in 10 years the city has proposed voters permanently raise their taxes above the statutory limit, and while it’s definitely a big ask, this latest request shouldn’t come as a surprise.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Mayor David Narkewicz has been talking about the need for another override for years, and especially in recent months — at City Council meetings and town hall budget presentations, on social media, on the sidewalks and in the Gazette conference room, where he gave a PowerPoint-style presentation of his fiscal 2020 budget to the editorial board last spring. (He even offered to bring his own projector and screen.)

The city’s financial plan is finite, he has reminded residents again and again. “This is not coming out of left field,” Narkewicz told the Gazette last May, when he announced he would be campaigning for a property tax override on the Nov. 5 election ballot; he projected the $2.5 million figure at the time.

In June, after the council’s final approval of the fiscal 2020 budget, he reiterated that city coffers were running dry and that residents should consider a property tax override to avoid cuts to services and jobs.

The same issues that dogged city leaders in 2013 continue; chiefly, not enough state aid and the city’s lack of options for raising revenue. Without additional revenue, the mayor has warned, the city would exhaust its fiscal stability fund — a special fund created with money set aside from the last override — and be in the red. “We need to have a conversation about renewing the plan,” he said.

The time has come to have that conversation. Yes, recreational marijuana revenue has helped relieve some of the pressure, but not enough — it was never intended to be a magic bullet. Narkewicz even delayed the override vote from its original date to find out what a new education funding formula, through the Student Opportunity Act, would mean for Northampton. “That’s a fairly significant piece of legislation that could have an impact on our calculations,” he said at the time.

More recently, during a phone call Friday with a member of the Gazette editorial board, Narkewicz said that while he applauds and supports the Student Opportunity Act, “I also have to say that, for Northampton, it’s not going to have a major impact,” as the legislation primarily targets the poorest communities in the state. “Estimates we have received are indicating Northampton will receive a minimum aid increase of 1 percent in the Chapter 70 budget,” he added.

If the override passes, the mayor has said he would use the money to fund a new four-year fiscal stability plan. Created after the successful $2.5 million override in 2013, the last stabilization fund has allowed Northampton to maintain balanced budgets, with the city stretching that money a little longer than anticipated.

The mayor said that renewing the fund would allow the city to have four fiscal years of balanced budgets, with the city needing to next consider another override in fiscal year 2025.

This March, voters will have to decide who they want to back in the presidential primaries. In Northampton, residents will also have to choose whether to raise their taxes again — or whether they’re willing to see the city make painful cuts to balance its budget.

What kind of cuts, exactly?

“The city is a service-delivery organization,” the mayor said Friday, “and most of what we pay for is the people who deliver those services: police, fire, public safety, schools, teachers and staff. So, 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. The vast majority of our budget goes to people, whether that’s the people who plow our snow or patrol our streets or teach our children. These are the city employees who are the backbone of municipal government.” 

We can’t ignore that there are people in Northampton who are struggling and will continue to struggle with an increase in taxes. We just don’t see any other way to properly fund public schools and other services we depend on every day without the override. It’s worth noting that the mayor also put forward a package of property tax relief proposals for income-eligible seniors, which the council passed Thursday.

The mayor said he plans to participate in town hall meetings about the budget and the override, beginning in January, in every ward.

He will have to do a good job explaining what’s at stake so that voters, when they go to the polls, will fully understand what it means to pass or reject the override. Meanwhile, everyone in the city should be asking tough questions.


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