I Got To City Council Meetings #9

The City Budget, no Weed Cap, and the Grateful Dead


JULES MARSH

 

On May 17, the Northampton City Council held its ninth meeting of the year. Approximately 7 people attended. A reporter from The Gazette was there.

Public Comment

One community member noted that he was a father of a 14 year old and praised the Council for voting in favor of lowering the voting age for municipal elections at their last meeting. He shared that he is an advocate for youth civic engagement. Because of this, he is troubled at the challenges that his son is facing in his efforts to become involved in his community. , “What my son has been experiencing in Hampshire heights is many difficulties in his efforts to do programming and help the community out.” He continued, “I’ve spoken to the director. I’ve been personally targeted for work I’ve been doing and for calling out things that aren’t right. As a concerned father, I want my son to feel safe that we aren’t going to get evicted because we are building our community. My concern is that i need help from other folks in how to get things done in our community in Hampshire Heights.”

A number of community members commented on the Ordinance Limiting the Number of Retail Marijuana Establishments in the City.

Heather Warner, a coordinator with the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth, asked the Council to vote in favor of a cap on the amount of retail weed shops in Northampton, arguing both that numerous weed shops may be a detrimental to public health and that a certain amount of numerous weed shops would be good for business, “Marijuana and alcohol are not an ordinary commodity. They warrant thoughtful education. A cap on marijuana establishment is good business.”

Kip Armstrong, an addiction therapist, asked the Council to proceed with caution saying, “Thoughtful and take things slow, no need to rush in.” He shared, “I spent ten years touring with Grateful Dead,” and said he didn’t want to Northampton to become a Grateful Dead parking lot.

Another community member said, “Marijuana is a problem for teenagers. It is harmful to the developing brain and adolescents. I think people who voted for it did not think there would be an unlimited number of shops. Limiting number of shops doesn’t mean you are ignoring voters.”

I spoke, agreeing that I too did not want Northampton to become a deadhead haven (for musical reasons). I asked the Council to put pressure on Councilor Dennis Bidwell and Mayor Narkewicz to persuade them to stop the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling from functioning.

Two military veterans announced that there will be Memorial Day Parade on May 28.

Budget

Mayor Narkewicz presented the city budget for fiscal year 2019 to the Council. The proposed budget of $111,976,953 is a 2.3% from last year’s budget. In order to proceed with this budget, which requires $278,000 more than is available, the city will need to access money from an override fund created in 2013 to provide funds in the event of a budget shortfall that the city will experience with the proposed 2019 budget. Some of the largest expenses in the proposed budget would go toward spending on public schools, the Northampton police station, Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, and retirement programs.

Narkewicz commented on the loss of funding caused by charter schools citing that the public schools have had a, “10 million dollar loss in last 5 years.” He debunked the myth that less students at public schools would cut costs for those schools saying, “Losing 200 students does not allow us to reduce school budget.”  He went on to name the state and local government regarding the role it has played in the defunding of the Northampton public school system, “The Governor and senate have failed Northampton. We have been shorted $873,000 due to chronic underfunding of charter mitigation formula.”

He noted that the 3% sales tax and the Fair Share Amendment tax which would create a 4% tax for all incomes over $1,000,000, could be new possible sources of revenue for city.

Graves, old guns, and opera boxes

The Council approved of the appropriation of $100,000 to be spent on restoring historic grave sites, $2,900 on storing historical local firearms in climate controlled displays, and $50,000 on opera box improvements and historically appropriate architecture lighting for The Academy of Music. It also appropriated $3,000 toward historical information signage near conservation sites and $2,900 toward informational signage at the no longer operating Northampton State Hospital.

Weed Cap

Before voting down an Ordinance Limiting the Number of Retail Establishments in the City in a 5-4 vote, the Council had a lengthy debate concerning the issue. During this debate, the Grateful Dead were referenced for the fourth time during the meeting.

The ordinance was sponsored by Councilor Nash (Ward 3) and Councilor Bidwell (Ward 2). Councilor Nash introduced the ordinance saying that he welcomed the new emerging retail sector of recreational marijuana. He framed the ordinance as a type of insurance or “surge protector” that could guard against the unknown consequences of people legally smoking weed, implying that the consequences would be different from people having access to smoking weed illegally. He went on to reference a number of limitations on business as examples of why it would not be unprecedented to put a cap on weed shops saying, “Our zoning is riddled with limitations with a multitude of business activities all is regulated within zoning ordinance. We cap the heights of our buildings downtown at 70 feet. Zoning stopped a walmart superstore form being built downtown.” Councilor Bidwell also commented that the ordinance is simply insurance. They both stressed that the Public Board of Health and Northampton Police Department supported a cap.

Councilor Dwight (At-Large) vehemently opposed the cap saying it was a “stupid emotional law.” He argued that the number of stores allotted by the ordinance was not based in data and cited other deadly industries that the Council had no interest in capping, “Tobacco kills 480,000 people per year, alcohol kills 300,000 per year. Cell phones kill 9-10 people a week.” He went on to say that he understood the concerns of the public, “Concerns might be genuine. But this isn’t he best way to make a law. We don’t know if a cap of anything will make a difference.” He criticized the packaged naivete of the ordnance and referenced the Grateful Dead, “The fear that this would be a dead concert is ridiculous.” He then acknowledged the interest of capitalists in liquor licenses after prohibition, “We develop theses absurd liquor laws coming out of prohibition. It isn’t out of altruism that liquor license don’t want to expand. It is because they are protecting government sanctioned monopolies. I don’t want to part of that without some really compelling reason.”

Councilor Carney (Ward 1) also opposed the cap saying that that the restriction reminded her of a 2007 zoning ordinance that succeeded in regulating the adult industry in Northampton which primarily regulated where adult shops larger than 1,000 square feet could be located.

In 2006, the community discussion around the adult-use ordinance included opponents of the now defunct 6,000 ft adult store Amazing.net, characterizing those who buy and sell pornography as deviant. These criticisms led Carol Gesell, co-owner of Oh My!, to denounce the portrayal of people who watch porn as sordid. Gesell also made the point that Oh My!, which escaped the ire of zoning ordinance proponents who considered it a small local store that sold a small amount of “erotica,” that there was “probably little difference between the films at Capital Video [of which Amazing.net is a subsidiary] and those for rent in her tiny shop.”

Councilor Carney went on to say, “I understand public health concerns. I don’t think a cap is the right way to approach this.”

Councilor Klein (Ward 7) also voted echoing the fact that there was no data to support a cap as a public health measure, “I feel like i don’t see enough direct causality or correlative data on how putting a cap will or won’t have an effect on whether kids will use at earlier age.” She also cited the variety of alcohol licenses issue to 90 businesses in Northampton. She said it was a difficult vote, “I am struggling, this is not a no brained vote. I do think we should err on the side of being open.  If a problem arises, we can address it then.” There is no time limit on the implementation of a cap on weed shops.

Councilor LaBarge (Ward 6), who later voted no on the ordinance, asked, “What about chamber of commerce? Why were they not here tonight? There needs to be outreach with business owners on how they feel about putting cap on ten. I’m uncomfortable for business people in this city who generate our business and make our city what it is.” She told a story about a business owner who had to pay $225,000 for a liquor license and went on to say that there was not enough data to support a cap.

Council Sciara (Ward 4), who clarified her yes vote, as a gesture to invite more public discussion before a second vote, talked capitalist economics, asking if the cap will have the opposite effect that Councilors Bidwell and Nash desire, “Is it possible a cap will create a sense of scarcity and more people will apply, thus the cap will be filled to ten?”

After having his eyes closed for much of the meeting, Councilor Murphy (Ward 5) chimed in at the mention of “markets,” sharing his insider information as a local realtor, “I have dealt with these folks. They are disappointed we don’t have a cap because they don’t want unlimited competition. But they don’t think the economic viability will hit ten.” He went on to recognize your local weed dealer saying, “We also have to remember that the market is quite adequately supplied at the movement. Marijuana consumption is not unique. The product is being supplied. It is not liked we are shutting them off. Independent contractors are not going anywhere.”

I left this meeting with a couple questions:

How many people a year die while waiting for Jerry Garcia to finish his guitar solo?

Can we use our city revenue from the 3% sales tax on retail marijuana to reimburse all people who have ever been arrested for marijuana related offenses in Northampton?


Jules Marsh is a co-editor of The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton, MA. 

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