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Northampton City Council Passes Budget in First Reading

The heavily criticized budget faces a second reading on June 17th

By Brian Zayatz

On June 3rd, City Council passed in first reading the FY2022 budget proposed by Mayor Narkewicz, which has faced criticism for its level-services funding of the NPD and underfunding of the new Department of Community Care, which receives $424,000 (the NPD receives $6.2 million). Over the course of the meeting, as well as during a special meeting to finish the agenda, the Council also considered two significant capital improvements and passed in first reading an update to zero lot line zoning.

Public comment

Over 100 people attended the meeting, held via Zoom, and thirty-six spoke in favor of better funding for the DOCC, with most of these individuals also calling for further cuts to the NPD. 

Four members of the Northampton Policing Review Commission—Chair Daniel Cannity, Cynthia Suopis, Carol Owen, and Javier Luengo-Garrido—were among these commenters, and each called for a level of funding that would allow the department to begin its alternative response network within the coming fiscal year. “I ask you to consider the history of asking people of color and other marginalized groups to wait until we find a solution to problems that are over 200 years old,” said Suopis. She also cited the city’s response to the pandemic as evidence that speedy changes can occur when necessary. Cannity echoed these sentiments, saying, “slow change is easy and it feels good when you’re not the person that that change affects.”

Among other commenters, Shanna Fishel, a Ward 7 resident and mayoral candidate, called for more transparency around what additional funds the Mayor is applying for, one of which Fishel said is for a co-responder model in which police and mental health or substance abuse specialists are deployed in tandem. Fishel reiterated the need for a peer-responder model, which is what the NPRC report recommends as well.

Elliot Oberholzer acknowledged the legal limits of what the Council can do, specifically that they cannot reallocate funds themselves, but only cut funding. Oberholzer advised that even if all they could do was cut the police budget, that would still be a positive outcome, and urged the Council to make a 50% cut.

Lill, from Ward 6, said that they have had mental breakdowns and that they don’t want their mother to be forced to call the police on them. The current budget proposal sends the message that it will be at least another year before people can get the care they need, Lill said, and urged the Council to cut the NPD budget by 50% and fund the DOCC by at least $1 million.

Luke Midnight Woodward, of Ward 3, echoed this call as well. As a worker in Holyoke High School’s restorative justice program, Woodward told the Council that the program’s budget was $350,000, which was still not enough for their purposes. The proposed level of funding for the DOCC set it up for failure, Woodward said.

Mareatha Wallace, a JFK Middle School employee, said “I don’t have much hope that you will do the right thing… What I’m seeing is that you’re not really interested in helping at all. You have your ways set. There is not one thing that I or any other person of color can tell you that is going to change your mind.” After calling to defund the police and reallocate those funds, Wallace concluded that “I don’t think you care because you don’t look like me and you don’t walk around in society with my skin on. I think if you did, you might vote differently.”

Additionally, several speakers also spoke in support of Councilor Alex Jarrett’s (Ward 5) amendment to an update to zero lot line (ZLL) zoning regulations, which would stipulate rules for reduced setbacks if certain conditions are met, rather than allowing for buildings to be placed right up to the lot line (or lot lines to be placed right up to a building). Some also spoke in support of an amendment suggested by resident Bill Ryan, who has been outspoken on recent zoning changes, that would forbid extra wide houses in areas where a reduced lot line is permissible. One person, an NPD spouse and Westfield resident, called for more funding for police and defunding the DOCC.

Budget discussion

Discussion of the budget proceeded almost as if the hours of comment over the last several meetings hadn’t happened, save for the contributions of Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore, who opened discussion by echoing the calls for more funding for the DOCC. Acknowledging that state Senator Jo Comerford had told the city there would be $150,000 earmarked for the department in the state budget, Councilor Maiore asked for an additional $300,000 in funding to bring the department’s budget up to $882,000, which is the amount cut from the police budget last year and the number recommended by the NPRC for initial funding. She pointed out that an additional $300,000 was less than a financial order on the evening’s agenda for renovating the Academy of Music bathrooms (which she supported), and argued that since the Mayor was prepared to spend that amount on public safety last year, it is reasonable to make such an investment in the DOCC.

Mayor Narkewicz responded that there are many capital projects that cost more than annual department budgets, and that there are many budgets that come in lower than the DOCC’s, including City Council, parking, and libraries (Councilor Maiore later rebutted that none of these departments are expected to be 24-hour responders). The Mayor also said that $882,000 is not a “real number,” meaning that it was not actually the amount that was cut from the police budget and that it had become “larger than life” as a symbol. (While this is true of the difference between the FY19 and FY20 budgets, the number comes from the difference between what the Mayor proposed spending on policing and what was ultimately budgeted for it after City Council voted to make a reduction). He went on to say that he thought it was appropriate to rely on grant funding for startup costs like vehicles and equipment, and that concerns about one-time funding sources were a great reason not to dip into the fiscal stability funds (most commenters, however, suggested funds be reallocated from policing). It would be possible for City Council to transfer funds from those allocated for exploration towards personnel should hiring take place during the fiscal year, the Mayor added, and concluded that he knows what it takes to start up a department.

In response, Councilor Maiore addressed criticism that the 10% cut she proposed last year was “random,” instead arguing that it was based on her consideration of reduced need due to the pandemic and looking into what it takes to get alternative departments off the ground. The Mayor said he was at those meetings and didn’t recall such a justification, asking the Councilor “you knew this time last year that would be a proposed department of community care? That it would be proposed by a commission that [was as yet] unformed and that you didn’t vote for?” The Council President stepped in to say “We’re not gonna talk over each other, people.”

The rest of the discussion had an air of self-congratulation, during which time the Mayor said his staff was looking into grants for co-responder models, which were not favored by the public or NPRC, and has been communicating with a non-profit called the Center for Policing Equity, which he said has been helping Minneapolis and Ithaca, NY, on similar issues.

Councilor Jarrett asked about accountability of the new department to those historically most impacted by policing, a key recommendation of the NPRC report, and asked whether an advisory board could participate in hiring. The Mayor responded that this was a fairly significant departure from stipulated hiring practices, and said it was an area that would have to be “understood and explored.” Councilor Jarrett thanked him for being up to the challenge. Despite that, the Mayor also said, in response to a question from Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2), that he wanted to bring in members of the NPRC to serve on a “screening committee” for the project manager position for the new department.

Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) spoke at length about the overlap he sees between the resilience hub project and the new department, even though the Mayor insisted that they are separate projects. Still, Councilor Nash said that between the two projects, the city was committing over $2.5 million in the coming years to alternative services and public safety, and that “some of that is getting lost” in the discussion around the $882,000 number. That number, he said, was greater than what CAHOOTS, a non-police response program in Eugene, OR, runs on, despite the city’s budget being six times that of Northampton’s. He then claimed that there were many residents who didn’t come to the meeting who are saying they wanted to fund both the NPD and the DOCC, and testified to a “clear consensus in Northampton that we don’t want to defund the police.” He affirmed his support for the budget.

Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) chimed in that “hearing the Mayor talk about this is making me feel great,” and said that if 85% of the population felt comfortable calling the police, that was great, and that hopefully they could push the number as close to 100% as possible. He also asked the Mayor whether he would agree to transfer funds within the DOCC to hire more staff if they were ready to pilot within the fiscal year, to which the Mayor responded affirmatively.

Councilor Quinlan and Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra both affirmed that $882,000 was a “real number,” but the Council President also said she didn’t want the vision for the department to be limited by a number from the past. Though she said she heard the expressed need for more funding this year, she said she “wish[ed] those folks felt the same hope and excitement that I’m feeling” about the new department, recounting the trajectory from an expressed need to a funded department. “That feels like progress to me,” she said, and expressed her hope for future collaboration.

Councilor Maiore spoke up again to say she didn’t know why the Council was moving forward with a DOCC budget that “every single one of us knows is too low,” and countered Councilor Nash’s point by pointing out that CAHOOTS frequently point out that they are underfunded. Councilor Jarrett added that, unlike CAHOOTS, the DOCC is not a contracted service. He also said that he believed that police are the service we have now, and cutting the NPD budget too quickly could backfire and lose support for alternatives.

Soon after, the budget was called for a vote, and was affirmed by all Councilors except Councilor Maiore.

Other business

A few other financial orders were heard, including funding for the Academy of Music restroom renovation. Mayor Narkewicz said the AOM is the oldest municipally owned theater in the US, and that the renovation will modernize and expand the restrooms, adding ventilation and doubling the number of stalls. The city wants to do this work before the theater opens up with a full schedule in September, and Finance Director Susan Wright added that if the Council did not approve these funds, the Academy would also lose $300,000 already secured from other sources. Mayor Narkewicz asked for two readings, but Councilor Jarrett said they usually received more info in advance for capital projects, and that the need for two readings was not specified on the agenda. The Mayor agreed to bring more info to the special meeting on Monday, and the funding was approved.

The Council also approved in first reading $608,000 for the roundhouse parking lot renovation, which the Mayor said would expand the footprint of the lot and create twenty-two new parking spaces, reroute the bike path the expansion, address drainage concerns, and create EV charging stations. He also said the city was working on a temporary parking alternative, since this work will be occurring concurrently with work on the Masonic St. lot, which suffered a sewer collapse this year. Councilors Jarrett, Foster, and Maiore all spoke of concerns about the lighting plans, and Councilor Maiore said she would follow up with James Lowenthal, an advocate for dark skies and more efficient lighting in the city. This order also received a second reading on Monday, and was approved.

On Monday, the Council again considered an update to zero lot line (ZLL) zoning after declining to vote on it in May. The new rule would give landowners more options for subdividing a large lot into smaller ones, which would promote greater density and allow for more flexibility as to where structures are placed on new lots, which would help preserve features like significant trees. The discussion centered largely around an amendment Councilor Jarrett suggested which would effectively limit the width of structures on small lots and attempt to preserve the historical spacing of houses in a given neighborhood. Councilor Dwight expressed concern that this might be so significant a departure from the original wording and that it might require another hearing, although Council President Sciarra said she had already checked with the City Solicitor, who said this was not the case. Assistant Director of Planning and Sustainability Carolyn Misch felt the amendment limited options for homeowners on a zoning update that was meant to expand options. Councilors Foster, Nash, Dwight, and Labarge all expressed interest in taking such an amendment to the Planning Board anyway, and Councilor Jarrett withdrew his motion. The new rules passed in first reading.

The Council also considered an order that would extend current outdoor dining rules until November. The rules, which have been amended several times over the course of the pandemic and allow for certain public ways, like street parking, to be used for outdoor seating, would have expired sixty days after Governor Baker’s emergency order, which he will allow to expire on June 15th. Councilor Dwight said he would vote for the order, but wanted to be cautious about giving away public spaces to businesses, citing that some owners already have a misplaced sense of primacy over the public spaces around their businesses. Councilor Jarrett concurred, but also appreciated that so much space was reprioritized for pedestrians after being reserved only for vehicles. He also asked whether non-patrons have a right to sit in these spaces, which Mayor Narkewicz affirmed, except in the cases of businesses with liquor licenses, which he noted has always been true of outdoor dining. The order passed its first reading, and if confirmed will allow for another season of expanded outdoor dining while state regulations become clearer following the state of emergency.

Brian Zayatz is a member writer at The Shoestring. Avery Martin contributed reporting.

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