NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton City Council is set to vote Thursday evening on Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s proposed $132.3 million budget for the coming fiscal year.
The spending plan, which Sciarra presented to the City Council on May 18, includes a new climate action administration, a boost to the police department’s budget amid a plan to hire “student officers,” a funding increase to avoid steep budget cuts in city schools and other spending hikes to the IT department, fire department and elsewhere. The budget represents a 4.77% increase from the previous fiscal year and includes significant hikes to the water charges and sewer fees — which the City Council approved last month — due to Coca-Cola’s closure of its Northampton plant this fiscal year.
Presenting the budget to the City Council on May 18, Sciarra said that every year fewer of residents’ tax dollars are returning to Northampton from the state and federal governments. Yet at the same time, she said, residents are asking more than ever of their city.
“People have grown increasingly frustrated with their ability to impact the national and regional political landscape,” she said. “They have shifted their focus and expectations onto local government to provide not only traditional city and school services but also a bold response to climate change, social justice in all city services, answers to economic pressures that have resulted in vacant storefronts and to ensure that our most vulnerable residents receive the help they need.”
One of the most significant changes to the fiscal year 2024 budget is the creation of a Climate Action and Project Administration, to which Sciarra’s budget would allocate $245,656. The department, which will guide the city’s sustainability plans, will bring together a new department head together with two other positions that are being reorganized under CAPA: the city’s energy and sustainability officer and the chief procurement officer.
A budget item that drew scrutiny from the public during the City Council’s budget hearings last week was the 5.62% increase to the Northampton Police Department budget, including three new budget lines for “student officers” waiting to enter the police academy, bringing the department’s budget to $6,835,289.
Speaking during a hearing on May 24, Police Chief Jody Kasper said that the police department is dealing with understaffing and difficulty hiring. For that reason, she said the department is forcing officers to work overtime to cover shifts and paying lots of money to do so.
“I heard from a lot of folks, listening to a lot of community input on police — [it] seems that people want us to work less and make less money,” Kasper said. She went on to say that when the City Council cut the department’s budget by 10% in 2020, what resulted was “the same amount of calls but less people to do them.” Significant overtime followed as the department tried to keep up with calls for service, she said.
In her budget message, Sciarra said that she would allow the Northampton Police Department to hire student officers. That would allow the department to get people in the door earlier to cut down on the 12-to-18 month wait to hire new officers, she said. Those officers would work as civilians in the department ahead of their academy training, allowing the department to hold on to job candidates and assess them, Kasper said.
However, some members of the public questioned that narrative.
Speaking during a public comment period, the former co-chair of the city’s Policing Review Commission, Dan Cannity, said that the commission’s research showed that the only way to reduce police misconduct incidents was to reduce the footprint of policing. He said this was the reason for creating a Division of Community Care — the civilian-responder agency the city has created, though hasn’t yet fully staffed, to remove some types of calls from the police department.
“Is this reducing the footprint of policing, which you all endorsed in that report?” Cannity asked councilors.
City resident Lemy Coffin said that Kasper’s comments stem from one issue: “We are not reducing policing and punishment at the rates that we should be.”
“We are trying to maintain policing when policing is no longer in the interest of the people,” Coffin said.
Coffin is a member of the activist group Northampton Abolition Now, which is holding a “Party for a Police-Free Future” on Thursday beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Pulaski Park ahead of the full City Council’s vote on the budget.
“NAN invites individuals and groups from throughout western Mass to come dance, make art, build community, learn, make connections and have fun with others who want to build a police free future while Mayor Sciarra and city council pass a pro-police budget for FY24,” the group said in a press release.
According to Sciarra’s budget message, the Division of Community Care — which is now housed under an expanded Department of Health and Human Services — is set to hire community responders in the coming fiscal year. Merridith O’Leary, the department’s commissioner, told city councilors on May 24 that the department is interviewing candidates and hopes to get those responders hired by June 20.
The Health and Human Services Department would see a 1.18% increase under Sciarra’s budget. Her budget message notes that a state Department of Public grant funded a large chunk of the Division of Community Care’s budget this fiscal year, and that although funding for that grant isn’t included in Gov. Maura Healey’s current FY24 budget, she hopes it will be reinstated in the final state budget. The division’s personnel — a director, coordinator and four peer outreach workers — is funded at the level of $358,234, before benefits.
“The DCC is funded for operation this year through the General Fund, and we await news about whether those additional funds will continue,” Sciarra said.
One of the biggest percent increases in the budget is to the Information Technology Services Department, which would see a 12.7% increase in funding from the previous fiscal year. Sciarra said in her budget message that funding is a result of added security services as more municipalities, schools and agencies come under cyber attacks.
The biggest dollar increase in the budget is to the city’s schools, which are getting an additional $1.4 million — a 4% increase. In order to avoid budget cuts, the city has also contributed $1.2 million in emergency funding to the school district from its Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund. Sciarra said in her budget message that city and school leadership hope to avoid cuts by not replacing people who leave the district on their own.
“In pledging it, I proposed a two-year plan to work to balance the school budget and return NPS to strong fiscal principles,” Sciarra said. “These funds allow for decreased reductions this year which can be achieved by attrition. There will need to be additional reductions next year as the last of [one-time federal COVID-19 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds will have been expended, and the hope is that with smart management it can also be done by attrition.”
Sciarra called on the state to increase aid to schools and to establish “fairer funding formulas,” including for money that leaves the district with students attending charter schools.
The City Council’s Finance Committee voted 3 to 1 to move the budget back to the final City Council with a positive recommendation. Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore voted in opposition, saying she was uncomfortable with the police department’s proposed budget. The City Council begins its full meeting at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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