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Northampton City Council Passes FY2022 Budget in Second Reading

Despite hours of public testimony about the police budget, the Mayor’s proposed budget passed as planned.

By Molly Keller

After nearly four hours of public comment, the vast majority of which consisted of community members advocating for increased funding for the new Department of Community Care, Northampton’s City Council voted to approve Mayor Narkewicz’s FY2022 budget on second reading. The Department of Community Care, the new department that will provide peer-led alternatives to policing as recommended by the Northampton Policing Review Commision (NPRC), has been allotted $423,955 in this budget, or less than half of the minimum amount of funding recommended in the NPRC’s final report. Despite the hours of public commenters demanding City Council cut the police budget, as well as the months of public comment and activist demonstrations preceding this week’s meeting, the Council opted to not make any cuts to the Mayor’s budget. The police budget will increase by 3% this year, from its $6,030,801 budget in FY2021 to $6,209,434. 

Public Comment

68 people spoke during the public comment period. Many expressed their dissatisfaction at how little funding the department of community care received. Demands for increased funding ranged from $882,000, the suggested minimum stated in the NPRC’s final report, to $1-2 million. Cathy McNally of Ward 1 said the lack of funding was a message to the city that the Mayor would pay “lip service to this Department of Community Care, but [the department] doesn’t actually matter.’” Pat, an Easthampton resident, said the dramatic underfunding of the department “strikes me as a half-measure,” a “face-saving measure.” Jessica Brown, a Smith student, said that by ignoring the NPRC’s recommendations, elected officials have demonstrated that the commission was set up solely to “sideline our demands.” 

Many people said the budget would set up the department to fail; Danielle Amadeo, a Ward 3 resident, argued that “from an administration and management perspective, it’s sort of unfathomable to me that you would consider funding a department by less than half of what was requested, and asking one and a half positions to set up a department to be functional within a year.” Jonathan Volk of Ward 2 said that two staff members were “barely enough to run a hot dog stand,” let alone a peer-led emergency response department. Elliot of Easthampton and Erin of Turners Falls spoke to the burnout that employees will face if the department isn’t funded sufficiently.

Ezekiel Baskin and Lemy Coffin, both Northampton residents, voiced concern about the overall structure of the department as set up by the Mayor, arguing that it lacked the participatory, community-led structure necessary to be truly accountable to the community. Baskin said that initially hiring only one project manager and an assistant was a “top-down approach” that gave a tremendous amount of power to a single person to shape the whole department. Instead, they said, “I would love to see this department of community care built in a collaborative and responsive manner.”

Several people spoke to the Mayor’s intent to apply for grants to further fund the Department of Community Care. Carol Owen, a Northampton resident who served on the NPRC, advocated that the Mayor find funding for the department from “any available source,” not solely by defunding the police. Nicole LeRoux, who has worked as founder and director of nonprofit organizations, said that without proper funding, the department administrators will be in a perpetual cycle of chasing grant funding rather than spending their time on the work that they actually set out to do; they will not be able to plan ahead, because they will have to adapt their goals based on funding proposals; and there will be endless hours of unpaid labor. Dan Cannity of Northampton, Co-chair of the NPRC, argued that the department shouldn’t rely on grant money since it isn’t a stable source of funding. 

The majority of public commenters either advocated for divestment from policing or commented more generally that Northampton’s police department is overfunded or ineffective at keeping the community safe. Many explicitly demanded a cut to the police budget of 50% or more. Others told stories of how they and people they know have been harmed by police. Eight people spoke in defense of the police in some way, either advocating against cuts to police budgets or more generally expressing grievance at things like the “stereotyping” of police as racist. Most notable of these comments came from ServiceNet CEO Sue Stubbs, who said that Northampton has a “compassionate, understanding, and supportive police force, with a track record of treating the vulnerable people we serve with the utmost of respect and sensitivity. It turns my stomach,” she went on, “when people demean [police] and continue to refer to them as racist.” 

Stubbs also spoke in favor of a co-responder model, for which the Mayor also recently signaled his support, as opposed to the peer-led model that the NPRC recommended, saying, “I could tell you scores of stories of the positive outcomes for the vulnerable people we serve, when police and social services collaborate.” She also argued that many of the functions of the Department of Community Care are already carried out by ServiceNet and CSO, and that the community may be better served by investing further in existing public-nonprofit partnerships rather than recreating existing programs. Much of the conversation that followed consisted of community members refuting Stubbs’s claims with personal stories of interactions with police and ServiceNet. 

Jasper Cowley, a Ward 3 resident that works in human services said that police didn’t understand how to deal with people in mental health crises and don’t know how to properly de-escalate those situations. Ashlynn Cradic, a Ward 3 resident who has both been a client of and worked for ServiceNet, said of Sue Stubbs, “I have never seen someone that is so extremely removed from what the people in this community need and what marginalized people need, especially people with disabilities.” She said that as a ServiceNet employee, she and her coworkers had to intercept police harassment with clients, and a number of her clients won’t leave their houses without residential councillors present for fear of police brutality. Another ServiceNet employee echoed this, adding that Sue Stubbs does not listen to or respond to their direct care staff, “who report a myriad of traumatic conditions that they work within, and which people who consume services are also harmed by.” Olivia Larson of ward 2A spoke of a friend who was terrified of going to ServiceNet when in a mental health crisis because of their involvement with the police. Sean Don (Ward 3) spoke of how much of the support they have offered in their volunteer work has been working through institutional trauma, both trauma around interactions with police and bad experiences with ServiceNet and CSO.

Among the people that spoke against defunding the police was Kate Kelly (Ward 7), who expressed fear that with a diminished police force, no one would be there to respond to a school shooting or domestic violence incident. Several people argued that when police respond to domestic violence or abuse, they often make the situation worse. Katry Schroder (Ward 3) said that when they were being sexually harassed and filmed at work, the officer called to the scene berated them, and “I felt more unsafe in this interaction with [the officer] than I felt being sexually harassed by this other man.” Emily (Ward 5) said that when police were called during a mental health crisis following an assault, the officers berated her for not wanting to enter into a legal process when all she wanted was medical care; she “received no support from them in that moment or after.” Erin of Turners Falls, who has worked locally in domestic and sexual violence advocacy for nine years, said that survivors’ needs include “safe, accessible housing, subsidies that don’t take months or years to access, living wages, access to transportation, childcare, free education, access to free and appropriate medical and mental healthcare,” and that she has “never heard a survivor ask for more police.” Mayoral candidate Shanna Fishel (Ward 7), who supports participatory budgeting, asked the council, “Who are you listening to? Who is coming to these meetings and sharing the harm that has been done to them? How many people […] have been talking about their experience with suicidality, with mental health, and said that they feel unsafe with the police?”

Tracey, of Florence, and a woman who identified herself as “NPD Spouse” (Westfield) said that they would not feel safe if the NPD budget was cut further. Elliot (Easthampton), Katry Schroder, Grace Roundtree (Greenfield), and Bennett Sambrook (Ward 3) stated the opposite—that the NPD represents a direct threat to community safety, and the department budget should be cut to reduce the harm caused by police. Bennett and Katry both argued that even if the only thing City Council did tonight was cut the police budget, that would make the community safer.

Paul Waterman, a Northampton resident, said that he’s paid a quarter of a million taxes over the past 35 years so he should have a say in how that money is spent, and he does not want the police budget cut. Mareatha Wallace, a JFK Middle School employee who lives in Amherst, asked the council, “What is important to you? Listening to humans tell you what they need to survive? Or the guy who pays […] a quarter of a million dollars in taxes? I’m sorry, my life, my children’s—any black and brown person’s lives, is more than a quarter of a million dollars in taxes that you pay over 35 years.”

Other topics that came up during public comment included some of the parking ordinances up for vote in the meeting and issues related to zoning and affordable housing. 

Heidi Stevens urged the council to approve the parking ordinances set forth by Department of Public Works Director Donna LaScaleia to make streets in Leeds safer for cars, bikes, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles. She said they were a “long time coming.” Celina Della Croce, a renter in Leeds, brought up that landlords are not required to provide off-street parking, and asked the council to vote no on the Main St. parking ordinance (21.243) because it further restricts already limited parking for renters. She said she sent a letter to the City Council speaking out against the parking ordinance, which all of the residents of her apartment building signed on to. 

Several residents spoke about the relationship between zoning, development, and gentrification in Northampton, relating to the zoning amendments that the City Council discussed last week. Darcy Sweeney, a Florence resident, said that there should be a moratorium on builders like John Handzel of Nu-Way Homes buying up and knocking down perfectly good affordable houses and replacing them with expensive houses. It’s wishful thinking, she said, to believe that constructing expensive houses will make more affordable units available. Further, she invoked the ongoing threat of climate change, arguing that we should preserve existing homes to conserve resources. Jackie Ballance, another Florence resident, demanded more clear communication around zoning regulations. Danielle Amadeo (Ward 3) echoed concerns for how zoning amendments could contribute to gentrification. 

Budget Discussion

Councilor Alex Jarrett (Ward 5) kicked off the conversation by agreeing that the Department of Community Care should have sustainable funding sourced from the general fund. He said that it will need more funding than programs like CAHOOTS, since it will be a city department and not a contract with a nonprofit (which, he said, often leads to low pay and high turnover), and that the current budget does not account for the trainings necessary to make the department fully operational by this time next year. He called for additional funding for the department, but pointed out that if the Council were to vote against the budget, it would automatically go into effect anyway. 

This prompted a more general conversation about the City Council’s limited power with regards to the budget. Council President (and mayoral candidate) Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) explained that Massachusetts general law limits what a City Council can change in a budget, and that the Council is not allowed to increase funding for any department. Councilor Maiore asked to clarify whether offering an amendment would keep the budget from automatically going into effect after a certain period of time. City Solicitor Alan Seewald responded that the city charter “does not contemplate rejection of the budget,” and that it states that the council shall pass the budget with amendments within 45 days from when it was filed by the Mayor. Thus, if the Mayor declines to increase the line item for the Department of Community Care, the City Council has no power to increase it themselves. 

Before the vote, City Council members and the Mayor explored the existing and potential sources of funding for the Department of Community Care, and the pros and cons of each. Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) brought up the cost of relying on grants trickling in over time, and she and Councilor Labarge expressed concern that there was no funding for a community advisory board to guide the department. Labarge then asked about why the money brought in by State Senator Jo Comerford didn’t appear in the budget for the department. The Mayor responded that the extra money exists outside of the municipal budget process, but that it will be available. He added that he has every intention that the advisory committee will be a part of the process, but didn’t specify how that committee would be funded, or whether people serving on it would be paid at all.

Councilor Marianne Labarge (Ward 6) then asked how much money the city gets from the American Rescue Plan (ARPA). Mayor Narkewicz said that the total will come to $22 million, including county funds. The city must commit the funds according to the recovery plan law, but the definition of “recovery,” for now, is fuzzy, and it’s unclear which services it could fund. However, there is some money in the fund specifically meant for alternatives to policing. 

Councilors Karen Foster (Ward 2) and Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) said the majority of constituents they’d talked to didn’t want cuts to the police budget. Councilor Quinlan called on the Mayor to increase funding for the Department of Community Care, but said that he wants to “build something,” not make cuts from other departments. No one addressed that Mayor Narkewicz’s budget in fact raised the police budget by about $178,000. While City Council’s power to increase funding to the Department of Community Care is indeed limited, amending the budget to make cuts to certain departments is certainly within the rights of the City Council. Nonetheless, no Councilor proposed an amendment to the level-funding of the police department and the department’s budget increase went forward as proposed. 

Councilor Jarrett ultimately asked Mayor Narkewicz directly: “Will you work with us to allocate additional funds [to the Department of Community Care] now?” “This is the budget that I have submitted,” the Mayor responded, “and I will not be making any revisions to the budget.” This shut down any further discussion on the matter and the vote took place shortly thereafter. Despite Councilor Maiore’s request that they hold off on approval and work with the Mayor to create a budget that all could be proud of, the budget passed on second reading, with only Councilor Maoire voting against it. 

Other Items

Vice-President Jim Nash (Ward 3) announced that on June 26, from 10am to 1pm, Friends of St. John Cantius will be holding a rally to present alternatives to tearing down the church.

The other financial orders⁠ on their second reading—orders to approve FY2022 sewer, water, solid waste, and stormwater and flood control enterprise fund budgets, as well as an order authorizing acquisition of a parcel on the Easterly side of the Mill River and an order to approve the Mayor’s Youth Commission gift fund expenditure for t-shirts⁠—passed unanimously without discussion.

Of the six parking ordinances on the agenda, four passed without discussion. The first of the remaining two, Ordinance 24.241, bans parking on one side of the road on Grove Avenue. There have been parking conflicts due to the popularity of swimming in the river, explained Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large), and residents of Leeds were concerned about parking safety, since the road was too narrow for emergency vehicles to get down the street with parking on both sides.

Councilor Dwight then addressed what he called the “elephant in the room”—that the Leeds residents were concerned “about people who did not live in the neighborhood […] who were creating parking problems,” and that he was nervous about the precedent that would be set if restrictions were seasonal. Parking on both sides is no less dangerous, after all, if local residents are the ones doing it, and the ordinance shouldn’t only target one group of people. Further, he said, dangerous conditions in summer would be made worse in the winter anyway. 

The amended ordinance, which made parking restrictions year-round, passed unanimously on first and second reading.

Next was Ordinance 21.243, which would ban parking on one side of the road on Main St. in Leeds. This was the parking ordinance that Celina Della Croce brought up in public comment. Councilor Jarrett said that Della Croce told him over the phone that renters had to park on the lawn during a snow emergency and that during summers, with significant numbers of people coming into the area, renters already struggle to find parking spaces without additional parking restrictions. 

Jarrett said that, in contrast to Grove Avenue, the road on Main Street is wide enough for two narrow vehicles to pass, even with parking on both sides. He proposed having parking being fully allowed on the river side, and having some spaces where parking is allowed and some where it isn’t—spaces large enough for large vehicles to be able to pull over safely to allow passing. This would increase the amount of overall parking available from the currently proposed plan.

Director LaScaleia said that this change would send her back to the drawing board, since engineers would have to find optimal spots to put the sections where parking is allowed. This process will be difficult, and perhaps not very fruitful, since the non-river side of the street has several driveways and fire hydrants that limit the possible parking spaces. Nonetheless, she said, if she is approaching the problem with an “every parking space counts” mindset, she may be able to free up a few more spots. 

After some discussion on whether it would be best to amend the ordinance before the second reading or pass the ordinance as is and amend it later, adding the new spaces after Director LaScaleia has sufficient time to update the plan, the council opted to enact the ordinance as written and then repeat the process from the beginning to find additional parking spots. The ordinance passed unanimously on first and second reading.

There was also some discussion about Order 21.297, an order to authorize the city to take ownership of two privately owned sewer lines running under Damon Road. Director LaScaleia explained that the two sewer mains were constructed some years ago from asbestos cement, which is not ideal on any roadway, especially not one carrying roughly 20,000 vehicles per day. This order would take ownership of these lines so the city can replace them and control future maintenance and repairs. “It is a significant liability to the city to have privately owned sewer lines in a public right-of-way,” LaScaleia said. Councilor Jarrett asked why the city was both absolving the owners of responsibility and paying them damages, even though it seems to be to their advantage for the city to maintain the sewer lines. Mayor Narkewicz and Director LaScaleia explained that taking responsibility is in the city’s best interest, since no private entity has the ability to mobilize to repair these lines if anything were to go wrong. Further, the “damages” paid will only be a dollar to each private owner; a symbolic gesture to indicate that the transaction is a “friendly taking.” 

The order to authorize Damon Road sewer line taking, as well as the other financial orders on first reading passed unanimously on both first and second reading. These included an order to reprogram surplus funds from a project already completed at Forbes Library to the ongoing Forbes HVAC project and an order for FY 2021 budget transfers. 

Finally, the City Council unanimously passed an order transferring control of a certain area of land from Smith Voke to the Department of Public Works, an order comically called “An Order Further Amending Order 20.062 Entered on June 4, 2020, as Amended by Order 20.149 and Order 21.211,” and an order to authorize FY2022 intermunicipal agreements, which are all renewals of ongoing collaborations.

Molly Keller is a member writer at The Shoestring.

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