Democracy Hypocrisy, Bathtubs, and Taxes
Here is a brief rundown of three recent city council meetings that took place on Nov 1, Nov 15, and Dec 6, 2019.
While Councilor president Ryan O’Donnell sponsored what was originally titled, “an order to strengthen democratic representation in the Northampton Housing Authority,” in its amended version which is what the Council approved, the words, “democratic representation,” were removed from the order. Rightfully so.
The original order requested that six public housing tenants be added to the public housing board and that they be democratically elected by fellow tenants. A number of public hearings and reviews by council committees occured after the order was introduced to the council. After O’Donnell met with Mayor Narkewicz, the order was unrecognizable. The amended resolution reduced the original six tenants to one tenant and replaced “democratically elected” with “appointed by the mayor.”
In addition to a tenant being appointed by the mayor, a member of the city Housing Partnership (whose members are appointed by the mayor) will also be appointed by…the mayor. Despite its absence of democratic process, O’Donnell endorsed the amended version and the council passed it unanimously. O’Donnell noted that he preferred his original order. Councilors Sciarra (Ward-4) and Klein (Ward 7), also expressed their preference for the original version of the order.
In an attempt to stop property owners from disguising dwelling units as accessory structures, and ultimately making it more costly to create more housing in Northampton, the Mayor introduced an order to more narrowly define what an accessory property structure is by adding that it in addition to a list of other restrictions cannot include a bathing facility.
Currently an accessory structure is defined as, “Any structure which is incidental
and subordinate to the principal structure, but which is located on the same lot as the principal structure. Accessory structures shall not exceed 40% of the gross floor area of the principal structure(s) and shall not contain sleeping or kitchen facilities.”
The council forwarded the ordinance to the legislative matters committee.
Susan Wright led a public hearing to address Northampton’s 2019 tax classification. The council annually assesses the tax percentages to be levied on residential and commercial properties. In accordance with Mayor Narkewicz’ recommendation, Wright suggested the council levy a 1:1 tax ratio, or a single tax rate, in which commercial and residential properties would be taxed equally. She shared that 67% of Massachusetts communities have a single tax rate. Northampton currently has a ratio of approximately 80% residential and 20% commercial properties. Wright said that communities usually change rates when the ration is 70% residential and 30% commercial. In the case of a 70/30 ratio, communities then determine whether businesses are mobile or “can’t move.”
Cautioning against a higher rate for commercial properties, Wright shared that other towns have had to “slowly swing back” increased commercial tax rates due to businesses leaving town. In a frequently posed argument that surfaces when almost any public policy is discussed, Councilor Murphy asserted that raising taxes on commercial properties would threaten the livelihood of small businesses given that higher taxes could raise rents for small business owners. Murphy argued against a higher tax for commercial properties. The council unanimously voted in favor of a single tax rate.
A $632,000 garage
Mayor Narkewicz requested additional funds to the tune of $332,000 so that the city can build a new six car garage to house water treatment vehicles. The additional $332,000 is on top of $300,000 the city has to currently build the garage, bringing the total budget to $632,000 for a six bay garage that will have heating in only half of the structure. According to Narkewicz, the city has been unable to get a bid the project that is under $400,000.
A Resolution opposing Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School
Councilors voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that opposes the renewed application for the expansion of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School. The council passed a similar resolution in 2017. Northampton loses about 26% of its Chapter 70 aid due to that money being diverted to Charter schools. Councilor Sciarra said that the 2018 repeat resolution was to, “emphasize that our opposition is dogged.” Councilor Dwight predicted, “We will likely be doing this next year.”
Alex Jarrett, who frequently contributes to the public comments portion of city council meetings was appointed to the Northampton Housing Partnership. Jarrett is a worker-owner at Pedal People, recently supported the original version of the order to strengthen democratic representation in the Northampton Housing Board, and has asked the council to address the affordable housing crisis in Northampton.
Bikeshare expansion to Easthampton
The Council authorized the city to enter into intermunicipal agreements with Easthampton in preparation of the bikeshare program expanding to the town.
Parking Fee Increase
Upon the recommendation of the Mayor, the council approved an order to raise the hourly fee in the E.J. Gare Parking Garage from 50 cents/hr to 75 cents/hr. The first hour of parking in the garage will remain free. The mayor said that the increased fee will help to pay for the credit card fees created by the new kiosk system and shared that the new kiosks help to provide the city with a lot of data about people’s parking habits.
A Boost of Funding for Paving
The Mayor requested 2.5 million dollars to go towards paving projects in the city. This is a huge increase from previous year’s budgets which have allocated approximately $500,000 towards paving. Narkewicz noted that the increase in the paving budget is partially due to the inadequate infrastructure funding provided by Chapter 90 state funding. He noted that had the Fair Share Amendment passed it would have helped the city to pay for paving projects.
I left these meetings with a serious question:
Isn’t $632,000 a lot to pay for a house for six cars?