Snow is Expensive
On April 19, the Northampton City Council held its seventh meeting of the year. Councilor Dennis Bidwell (Ward 2) and City Council President Ryan O’Donnell (At-Large) were not present. Approximately 10 people attended. A reporter from the Gazette was there. The publisher of the Gazette was also present.
Immediately after releasing a controversial survey on panhandling, Mayor Narkewicz left for a vacation in Greece. While he is gone, President O’Donnell is the acting Mayor. Due to Charter rules, the Mayor cannot preside over a City Council meeting. In his place, Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra (Ward 4), who is vice president of the City Council, presided over the meeting.
Two people spoke against two ordinances which would eliminate the requirement to place legal notices in the newspaper for site plan review projects and projects that need central business architecture review.
Michael Rifanburg, publisher of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Recorder, Amherst Bulletin and the Valley Advocate, and Chamber of Commerce board member asked the Council to vote no on the ordinance making the argument that, “Newspapers serve an important monitoring function.” He warned that government should not be the exclusive publisher of its own activity.
An employee from the Gazette’s legal department argued that newspapers play an important role in the democratic process, saying, “The newspaper is still the community bulletin board.” She went on to ask the Council, “Are we simply acknowledging the world is changing, and that more and more people are accessing things digitally? It is considered just as accessible to access the internet as it is to get a paper. Are we just naming what is already happening or are we driving it?”
Two people spoke on a resolution that would change the voting age from 18 to 16. (This resolution will return to Council after it is discussed in the Legislative Matters Committee.)
Tucker Quinlan asked the Council to support the resolution saying, “It is fundamentally good for democracy to enfranchise more citizens.” He also commented on the arbitrary appointment of the voting age saying, “Studies have shown that there is no difference between 18 year olds and 16 year olds to be able to choose in an election. So, 18 is basically an arbitrary number.”
Margot Schocket-Greene, the chair of the Mayor’s Youth Commission, said the Council should vote yes, because, “The youth of Northampton especially have demonstrated a really strong commitment to civic engagement.” She added, “The youth has a lot to say and we should be represented in a way that is productive for our community and on a larger scale our democracy ”
One person told the Council that he has seen an increasing amount of trash on the bike paths. He suggested that the Council create a volunteer program that would do trash removal.
Two people spoke against the recent ‘Opinions on Downtown’ survey released by Mayor Narkewicz.
I asked that the Councilors demand disbandment of the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling. The Mayor’s Work Group includes no houseless people in its membership and holds secret meetings that are inaccessible to the public. I described my experience of answering the survey as, “a horror themed roller coaster ride that I didn’t ask to be on.” I went on to question the intention of the questions and asked how exactly such questions could be used to create actual policy.
Will Meyer (fellow Shoestringer) told the Council, “Lower the voting age and the panhandling survey is not good.”
The Council has been processing an ordinance regarding taxi licenses for many months now. At this meeting, they discussed the particular operations of Cosmic Cab. Despite the fact that the company is not operating in compliance with building inspector codes, the Council granted the company a temporary license while the rest gets sorted out. The main issue of dispute was that the company parks its cabs on Hooker Ave, which Councilor Maureen Carney (Ward 1) argued is in violation of the city’s building and zoning board.
The Council voted unanimously in favor of the ordinances to restrict the publishing of legal notices for site plan review projects and projects that need central business architecture review, which were recommended by the Mayor and Office of Planning & Sustainability. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) recused himself from the vote due to the fact that his cousins own the Gazette. At a joint hearing with the Legislative Matters Committee earlier this month, the Planning and Sustainability Board informed the Council that historically, the legal advertisements for these projects do not result in public attendance at board hearings, while the cost of the notices add up to approximately $2000 per year. A number of Councilors made the point that the listings are available online. Councilor Carney pointed out that anyone within 300 feet of such projects receive direct mailers announcing the projects. Councilor Alisa Klein (Ward 7) argued that the notices were anachronistic and that most people today get their news online. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) acknowledged that by cancelling the requirement for newspaper notices, the Council would be creating a “change in formality.” He suggested the Council provide adequate plans to announce the change.
Financials: Hospitality, Snow, Ice
Susan Wright, the city’s Finance Director, gave the Council a quarterly financial update for the third quarter. She described the General Fund as “on track.” She reported that there has been an increase in revenue from hospitality taxes, citing that the, “hotel/motel tax in comparison with the third quarter last year is up 15%,” and that the “meals tax is up 7% from the third quarter last year.” She informed the Council that snow and ice removal will require an additional $400,000 more than expected. This money will be transferred to the General Fund from the city’s Free Cash account.
The Council accepted the Property Assessed Clean Energy Program (PACE Massachusetts) which was enacted by Massachusetts General Law in 2016. The law serves to address the fossil fuel environmental crisis by focusing on the energy output of commercial and industrial properties. The PACE Act provides a financing mechanism to private owners of commercial and industrial properties for certain qualifying commercial energy improvements. Northampton is actually ahead of the curve regarding this law. In September 2011, Northampton became the first community in Massachusetts to adopt a property assessed clean energy (PACE) program ordinance. However, it was not implemented due to the lack of a non-municipal financing mechanism. Councilor Dwight made one amendment to the order asking that it encourage commercial and industrial property owners to seek out alternatives other than natural gas as an alternative energy sources.
I left the meeting with a few questions:
- How much does $400,000 worth of snow weigh?
- Next to Smith College, is Michael Rifanburg the most powerful person in Northampton?
- If hotel/motel and meals tax revenue is higher than it was this time last year, does that mean Main St. revenue is up?