I Go to City Council Meetings #22

 Light pollution, senior property tax deferrals, Northampton goes 5G

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On Thursday, February 20, the Northampton City Council held it’s 5th meeting of the year. Approximately eight people were in attendance.

Light Pollution

Three of the six people who spoke during public comment argued that City Council ought to do more to combat light pollution in the city. One commenter noted that, on average, Northampton’s night skies are ten times brighter than a night sky without light pollution. Comments ranged from the anecdotal—a new street light shining into one’s bedroom window and interrupting sleep—to the poetic: a poem about the importance of dark night skies to the childhood imagination. The third speaker on this subject, who had not signed up but appeared moved by the others, mentioned that there were lots of simple fixes to some of these problems, such as glare guards on street lights that would make driving and biking at night safer, that are relatively inexpensive and often eligible for state funding. He offered to do any research that might help them take action on the matter

Property tax deferral program for seniors may see expansion

City Council recessed early in the meeting and a meeting of the financial committee (composed of several city councilors) was called to order. One of the main issues that was discussed was whether to lower the threshold for seniors to defer their property taxes from only those with gross income under $20,000 a year to those with gross income under $60,000 a year. The way the program works is that a qualified senior who owns property in the city does not pay property taxes until they choose to, or until the property is transferred—either sold or inherited. Upon transfer, the gross sum of deferred taxes, plus 5% interest, comes out of the equity on the house (e.g., proceeds from the sale of the house). $60,000 a year is the state’s regulation; for some reason the city’s cutoff for eligibility is currently much lower. The order was voted favorably out of committee.

When the order came up again once City Council was back in session, some questions arose from councilors as to the financial specifics of the program. Mayor David Narkewicz noted in response that participants can only defer up to 50% of the value of the property, preventing them from going “underwater.” When asked if there was any projection of what the increase in participation might look like upon raising the cutoff, the Mayor did not have figures, but mentioned that there are only about a dozen households currently participating, and that, because these properties are not usually very valuable anyway, it’s not a major source of revenue that the city is forfeiting, especially given its rolling nature (new participants enroll as others eventually pay up). The order passed its first reading.

Preparing for 5G

City Council also held a first reading of “An Ordinance Related to Wireless Antennas on Street Poles,” which has been passed around for months by the Planning Board, the Office of Planning and Sustainability, and the Legislative Matters committee, the latter having recently made amendments to the ordinance language. The ordinance lays out what kinds of fees a telecom company would need to pay to install wireless antennas (at this point, likely for 5G coverage) on existing telephone poles or similar municipal structures and holds the company liable for any damages or expenses that may come from placement or maintenance of such equipment.

After the amendments were approved, councilors Jarrett and Dwight had an exchange about how cautious the city should be in regulating 5G. Jarrett noted that studies are showing that 5G saturation could lead to 30% reductions in accuracy of weather predictions, and that there is still little scientific consensus on what health risks may be involved with having these antennas so close to human activity. Mill Valley, CA, he mentioned, has pursued a number of regulations that would limit the proximity of these structures to schools and homes, and otherwise generally discourage their use. Councilor Dwight, who sits on the Legislative Matters committee and had worked on the ordinance previously, stated that the Council cannot restrict the use of technology, but can govern its placement, structures, and aesthetics. Rules can be amended, but, he warned, the absence of rules makes us vulnerable. The committee needed to do more research into state laws, but felt some sense of urgency because there are “wolves at the door.” Jarrett said he would be happy to help research the matter further.

A note from your new City Council reporter that will be the most philosophical thing I write for this column ever I promise

Hello, my name is Brian Zayatz, and I’m taking over this column from everyone’s favorite city council stalwart, Jules Marsh. Theirs are big shoes to fill, but I look forward to learning the ins and outs of the beat and bringing the best journalism I can to our faithful readers.

Jules told me they usually include two or three of the most notable or consequential things that happened, and maybe something funny or odd that happened as well. For that I’ll take us quickly back to public comment, when one member of the public spoke seemingly without any relevance to a legislative matter. This person spoke about how her friends who work at State Street Fruit Store told her they throw away all the prepared foods at the end of the day. The speaker was aghast at this, and said she was going to tell all her houseless friends to start dumpster diving there. A lot of the shelters had been full lately, the speaker said, forcing some of them to sleep in the snow.

It always feels a little funny when someone interrupts the decorum in which these rituals are conducted (though council president Gina Louise Sciarra told the speaker she is always welcome after she mentioned it was her first time at a meeting). But my main objection to any hall of power, even down to the local scale, is that the people in them have the ability to positively impact the lives of their constituents, but usually do not break radically from the norms that their predecessors and peers expect them to uphold. This in turn allows things that should not be normal—people sleeping in snow—to become normal.

The City Council chambers are a place where, as yet, there are usually not armed agents of the state ready to enact violence on anyone who does not adhere to the decorum expected of the public. Weird things still happen there (for example, people elected by small minorities of their respective wards claim the right to govern on their neighbors’ behalf). I look forward to spending my first-and-third-Thursdays-of-the-months dispatching the weirdness at 212 Main Street to you all as best as I can, and if you see me in the Chambers someday, do come say hello.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

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