I Go to City Council Meetings #40

Tax classification, police misconduct allegations, municipal newspaper boxes

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On November 19th, 2020, the Northampton City Council held its 21st regularly scheduled meeting of the year. All councilors were present.

Police misconduct allegations

The meeting opened as usual with public comment, which began with Bob Nagel, who identified himself as a six-decade resident of Northampton, and as a person with bipolar disorder. Nagel identified three dates from June and July of 2010 on which he claims he had interactions with Northampton Police Officer Steven Digiammo in which Digiammo “tyrade[d]” against him. Nagel then filed a complaint, and was interviewed by then-Sergeant Robert Powers at his home, who he described as “supercilious, apathetic, and laconic.” Ten days later, the investigation was closed with no wrongdoing found on Digiammo’s part.

Nagel then noted reading a Gazette article in 2018 in which Chief Jody Kasper claimed all staff had completed an online training for dealing with people experiencing mental health crises. He then described an encounter he had with Digiammo later that year in which Digiammo allegedly publicly taunted him with comments implicating his mental illness, and claimed that cell phone footage of the encounter contradicts the NPD’s report of it. Two subsequent letters he and his wife have written about the encounter to Chief Kasper have gone unanswered.

Nagel also recounted an interaction a friend of his son, who he calls John, had with NPD when suffering a mental health crisis of his own. While trying to take a walk to clear his head, NPD officers confronted John and escalated the encounter, Nagel alleged, “leaving [John’s] mind in a ruinous state.”

At this point, Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) interrupted Nagel to tell him his time had expired. Nagel grew agitated, saying the city’s ADA coordinator told him he would have as much time as he needed, where Councilor Sciarra insisted he only had six minutes, or double time. Councilor Sciarra eventually relented, allowing Nagel to finish, detailing John’s difficulty accessing services via ServiceNet. After Nagel concluded, Councilor Sciarra raised the issue again, saying she would forward the email she received that asked for Nagel to receive double time, which again agitated Nagel. “I’m trying to give voice to people who don’t have voices, people who are walking the streets with mental health issues and are treated horribly by your police department,” Nagel said, calling the Council a “plutocracy [who] do not care about the citizens.”

Announcements

Though I don’t usually report on announcements, several seemed as though they might be of interest to The Shoestring’s readers. First, Mayor Narkewicz and Health Director Merridith O’Leary will be giving a covid update at the next City Council meeting on December 3rd at 7pm—interested parties can join via Zoom, or catch The Shoestring’s coverage of it later on. Next, the Policing Review Commission will have its first public hearing on December 1st via Zoom, where subcommittee chairs will give updates and the public may speak. Translation services will be available. And last, City Council met for a special meeting recently to enact free downtown parking during the Yule Days sales event to facilitate shoppers’ travelling from out of town during a pandemic for events that will be sure to crowd stores.

Tax classification

The bulk of the meeting was spent on a presentation by Finance Director Susan Wright and Principal Assessor Marc Dautreuil, and subsequent discussion of the city’s tax classification factor, which determines how much of the city’s property tax levy comes from residential property relative to commercial, industrial, and personal property.

The presentation was detailed and informative, this being the first tax classification vote for many of the councilors. Dautreuil and Wright, as well as the Mayor, strongly recommended the councilors maintain Northampton’s single tax rate across all property types, which is common to about two-thirds of Massachusetts communities. Dautreuil explained that a higher relative commercial and industrial tax rate is more common among communities with more commercial properties and large malls or chain stores; a higher relative residential tax is much rarer, and mostly found in areas with lots of vacation rentals. Wright attributed the single tax rate to the strong “new growth” (new buildings or renovations that expand the property tax base) experienced by Northampton for the last two years now: roughly $60 million in new property each year, the next highest in the region being Agawam with $44 million. During discussion, Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) illustrated the difficulty of going back to a single rate after changing the factor with the example of Holyoke, which shifted its tax burden towards commercial and industrial property when it was a manufacturing hub, and now has the highest commercial and industrial taxes in the state because no local officials want to run on a platform of raising residential property taxes. (Longmeadow has the highest residential tax rate in the state).

This is the first time in recent memory that the Council has decided the tax classification without having a final state budget. The classification would normally be decided in October, but was delayed in anticipation of a final budget being passed. This has not happened yet, so the finance department is using the governor’s proposed budget as an estimate, as it is the most conservative relative to the legislature’s budgets in the amount that it allocates to cities and towns. The Mayor requested two readings in order that the new tax rate will go into effect before third quarter property tax bills are mailed—the first two quarters of every year are always at last year’s tax rate, meaning that when the tax rate goes up (as it did by $0.57 per $1,000 of assessed property this year, or 3.34%), the increase is effectively doubled for the last two quarters.

During discussion, Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) said keeping a single tax rate was a great way to support small businesses right now, adding an anecdote about one business owner he spoke to while canvassing for the new plastics ordinance, who suggested tax relief in exchange for reducing plastics use, to which Nash replied, “wait a minute, you already have the lowest commercial tax rate in the valley!”

Councilor Marianne Labarge concurred that “it’s our job not to add to [business owners’] burden” during the pandemic.

Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) said he would support the single tax rate this year, but that given the pandemic-induced boom in residential property values, it may be necessary to consider a split tax rate next year. He also noted that he was disappointed in the lack of options for taking into consideration renters on the one hand and second homeowners on the other, and suggested a resolution in favor of more progressive property tax law in Massachusetts. After discussion concluded, the single tax rate passed in two readings.

Municipal newspaper boxes

The Council also considered an ordinance that would forbid private newspaper dispenser boxes being placed around the city, and instead provides for the placement of municipally owned boxes around downtown Northampton and Florence, in which publications can rent space. The ordinance aims “to prevent the unlimited proliferation of private news racks that cause visual clutter, reduce pedestrian safety, and negatively impact city aesthetics.” Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden spoke about the ordinance, citing a number of boxes that were being left empty. The city has apparently sought council regarding potential first amendment issues, and will ensure that pedestrians in the downtown area are always within 250 feet of a box, and that more racks shall be added should demand exceed the initial allotted space (the city’s proposal is to go from a counted 68 separate boxes to 48 individual racks across the several new locations). Upon placement of the new boxes, publications will have 30 days to collect their old boxes and rent a space in the new boxes, or else will have their old box removed and will have to pay a fee to get it back. The ordinance passed in first reading.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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