City Council approved an order allocating the fund’s $2.6 million, among many other financial orders
By Brian Zayatz
Northampton City Council heard a slew of financial orders at April 1st’s meeting, among them an order to allocate the last of the city’s Marijuana Impact Fees. Mayor Narkewicz announced in January he would no longer collect them, though the city reserves the right to do so in case a specific local impact related to the industry’s presence in the city is identified.
The $2.6 million in the fund came from a 3% impact fee on marijuana businesses collected by the city, which is the maximum allowed under state law but has so far been standard in host community agreements across the state. The Mayor explained again his reasoning in introducing Thursday’s financial order: the impacts that legal marijuana’s critics predicted have simply not come to pass, and the fee represented a financial strain on an already highly regulated business that prevented smaller players from succeeding in the business.
The Mayor’s proposed expenditure of the funds allocates $1.6 million to the acquisition and development of the planned Community Resilience Hub, another $1 million to improvements on Pleasant St, and $15,000 each to an accessible bus stop construction at 34 Bridge St (in front of Jack’s Cannabis Co., formerly Colonial Cannabis) and a ValleyBike Share installation at 81 Conz St, by the Salvo House public housing building.
The impact fees are supposed to be spent to mitigate unforeseen impacts of marijuana businesses, like a spike in teen use (which, as the Mayor noted, has not occurred). With a lack of unforeseen impacts and overflowing coffers of weed money, host communities across the state are struggling to figure out ways to spend these not insignificant funds ($2.6 million is roughly equivalent to 2% of the city’s general fund budget), and the issue of collecting and spending these fees has now made its way to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Mayor Narkewicz’s introduction of the financial order highlighted that the businesses that have been paying into the fund support the proposed projects; the implication being that they do not plan to sue the city for using the funds on things that, particularly in the Resilience Hub’s case, can really only be considered ‘impact mitigation’ by a stretch of the imagination.
In some ways, Mayor Narkewicz’s order is quite savvy, in that it allows the city to allocate these considerable funds towards projects that theoretically benefit everyone before court rulings may make it harder to do so, all while keeping the business community happy. Yet it is also in keeping with the Mayor’s preference for wielding power and influence with little public input, as displayed last year when he and Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) designed the Policing Review Commission, and appointed its members, entirely behind closed doors. It is somewhat ironic that funds meant to mitigate negative impacts of marijuana stores are now being dispensed at the stores’ approval on projects that will improve access to said shops.
Such a setup is in direct contrast to calls from members of the public for more community input on how these funds are dispensed. “I’m excited to see revenue generated from the impact fees being used to work on projects to improve our city,” said Ward 3 resident Robert Eastman, “but I wonder how we might hold ourselves accountable to the Black and Brown communities who have been disproportionately impacted by decades of racist and militant drug policy.” Eastman suggested that the city create an advisory board with representatives of these communities, particularly those directly impacted by the Drug War, to “take a deeper look on the impacts on our community that are not so visible” as traffic and wear on streets.
During discussion, a similar point was raised by Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6), who quoted an emailed comment from Ya-Ping Douglass of Great Falls at length. “She’s aware ‘that the Community Resilience Hub intends to benefit people of color and poor people, but if the people of color and poor people are not included in decision making roles of the Community Resilience Hub, it is likely the good intentions will not have the impact desired,’” read Councilor Labarge. The Mayor responded that that has more to do with the “working order” of the hub, but added that Community Action, an organization partnering with the city on the hub, recently received a grant to hire an organizer to do outreach about the hub.
Douglass, reached for comment, told The Shoestring that she was “extremely disappointed” in the Mayor’s response. “Rather than comment on what I heard him say, I’d like to review what he notably did NOT say,” Douglass continued. “He did not say the words ‘race,’ ‘racism,’ ‘Black,’ ‘brown,’ ‘people of color,’ ‘poor people,’ ‘war on drugs,’ ‘criminalized’ ‘decision making,’ ‘accountability,’ ‘leadership.’ He did not say, or express any sentiments remotely close to ‘I agree that Black and brown people harmed by the War on Drugs should have a seat at the decision making table in deciding how funds from the marijuana use fee should be used.’ He did not say ‘I agree that people of color, poor people, and people who will be using the Resilience Hub should be in leadership of the project.’”
The hub itself was first recommended in the report issued by the Mayor’s secretive Panhandling Work Group, which did not count among its members anybody who panhandled. Despite its dubious origin, the Resilience Hub is intended for use by the chronically distressed and as an emergency shelter during disasters and other climate-change related stresses. It has received a glowing endorsement from the Policing Review Commission, and has more or less lined itself up with demands from community members for permanent facilities and peer-led services for unhoused residents (though not on their preferred timescale).
In many ways, the financial order allocating marijuana impact fees is similar in that it allocates money ostensibly for an ‘impacted’ group, while consulting only with those who inflicted the impact. At no time did anyone mention whether residents of Salvo House had expressed interest in having a ValleyBike station outside their building, but that did not stop Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) from praising it, calling it possibly his “favorite financial order of all time” for its funding of the resilience hub and “bringing to [public housing residents] one of our wonderful amenities in our community.”
Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) raised some questions during discussion, asking first about whether the city would be able to justify this spending as ‘impact mitigation’ if asked. This time, Mayor Narkewicz pointed more explicitly to his contact with the business owners who had paid the fees. He noted he had consulted with City Solicitor Alan Seewald on the matter, and admitted that they were “probably stretching it a bit, but it’s an important stretch” for a “once in a generation” project. Councilor Jarrett also asked whether other bus stops would be updated and if any money could go directly to the PVTA, as well as whether the city could charge impact fees to bigger companies rather than small startups. The Mayor responded that he hoped the pending court cases would provide clearer precedent for these questions.
The order was recommended positively out of Finance Committee, and passed in first reading in a package with all of the evening’s other first-reading financial orders. It will face a second reading on Thursday, April 15th.
Other financial orders
The Councilors heard a number of other financial orders on Thursday, including most notably a $6 million borrowing authorization over two years to upgrade the city’s radio communications system, a $450,000 borrowing order to fix Leeds’s Hotel Bridge so that it is accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, and a $400,000 allocation from free cash towards the building of a permanent animal control facility.
Regarding the radio system, Mayor Narkewicz told the Council that some of the equipment is no longer serviceable or replaceable, and that in some cases the city has been “buying stuff on eBay.” The radio system connects all city departments—while obviously police and fire come to mind, it’s also the school principal talking to bus drivers, or the water department communicating to the treatment plant, the Mayor explained. Councilor Jarrett clarified that if the city set up a non-police emergency response system, they would also use this system. “This is a science,” the Mayor said, that will involve a survey of the city’s topography to figure out where to put repeaters and towers.
During discussion of the Hotel Bridge, the Mayor and Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7), who represents Leeds, explained the bridge’s place in the community. Built in 1881, the bridge first had to be closed to car traffic, then altogether, and has been the subject of fundraisers, from t-shirts to tea parties, for years, until the city finally made a plan, in conjunction with the Leeds Civic Association, to restore the bridge. Councilor Maiore described the bridge as a “seasonal meeting place,” where “artists used to set up their canvases.” She also noted that the bridge was built from a kit manufactured in Ohio, and that there are only 27 like left in the entire country. The Mayor added that he hoped there could be a plaque or historical marker placed upon the completion of the repairs.
The allocation of free cash towards the construction of an animal control facility was the subject of lengthy discussion and received support from members of the public who hoped it would mean police would not be responding to animal control calls. Mayor Narkewicz explained that the city has been working for years to find the right location for the facility and finally settled on a Village Hill parcel given to the city by the state in 1994. In recent years, Sheila Howe, the city’s animal control responder, has worked with shelters in Amherst and Hadley to house lost dogs.
Councilor Jarrett asked what the return on the investment would be, and was answered by Finance Director Susan Wright that the savings would largely be time spent driving back and forth to other towns (Mayor Narkewicz added that residents have high expectations of service for “furry family members”). The shelter would not be staffed overnight, but monitored remotely, and would have accommodations for six dogs at a time, plus a quarantine room for suspected cases of rabies, and a cat room. Councilors Maiore and Labarge expressed support for overnight staffing—Councilor Maiore pointing to the burden the Policing Review Commission found animal control calls to be, and Councilor Labarge for the purpose of better animal care. Council President Sciarra asked if heated floors could be incorporated into the animals’ pens.
All three orders passed in first reading, as well as many smaller allocations, including improvements for some school buildings, a $10,000 gift for public art from D.A. Sullivan and Sons, fire suppression at the Academy of Music, and water line replacements.
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring.