City Round Up
A Question of Money: A Matter of Fairness
and A Super-sized Senior Center
By Edward Shanahan
A short out-of-town getaway does wonders for clearing the mind. It’s only on returning home and catching up on the local news that questions fill a head all but vacant of other thoughts.
For example, in a report about a recommended $11,000 pay increase to $80,000 for the mayor, the hardest working Northampton citizen in either the private or public sector, comparative city salaries revealed many administrators, especially top brass in the Police and Fire departments as well as in the School Department, easily out-earned the mayor.
The police chief at $120,00 plus, three police captains at more than $90,000 each, the fire chief at $114.000, the school superintendent at $104,000, and the former Department of Public Works head at $99,000 were doing very ell by comparison.
Meanwhile, salaries for rank and file police officers and firefighters remain quite low as a percentage of that paid by those on the top. For example, the entry-level patrolman earns $36,534 a year, the starting firefighter $35,843. After eight steps or years on the salary scale the police officer tops out at $44,851, the firefighter at $43,997.
The Grade 3 public works laborer starts at $23,495, and at Grade 6, which constitutes a larger number of department employees, the annual wage goes to $28,643.
The pay disparity between those at the municipal pinnacle almost apes that which is so commonplace in the corporate world—regally rewarded CEOs at the top and the rest of the work force.
One reason for such disparity in police wages may be the unstated assumption that police officers can supplement their base pay by performing those unnecessary but state-mandated highly lucrative police details at construction and utility work sites, generously paid by the utility not the taxpayers. And many firefighters, because of unusually flexible day-night work schedules, are able to moonlight at second and third jobs or operate their own businesses to boost their income.
Maybe it all makes sense, but to the outsider some of the numbers don’t seem to add up, at least in terms of fairness.
In the matter of the police department and the current search for a site for a new $12.5 million headquarters, I liked Natalie Canby’s idea, floated in a recent letter to the Gazette, for a new vertical police station to be erected on the current site. That way, the police stay downtown and a high-rise structure adds interest to the city skyline, rather than produce more sprawl.
I recall being involved as co-chairman of Mayor Ford’s Task Force on Public Safety some years ago when, after evaluating the needs of both the police and fire departments, the group settled on the idea of a combined public safety complex, which was quickly shot down by both the police and fire departments and City Hall, which preferred separate but equal facilities. So the city built a new fire station on King Street, sort of in the boondocks, and purchased the James House on Gothic Street, with a view to converting it into a new police station, only to then wind up renting it to the state for juvenile court functions. Thus, the city became landlord, and still is one today while seeking new quarters for the Police Department. Some missed opportunities along the way, in retrospect.
Meanwhile, setbacks at the new Senior Center under construction on Conz Street—a collapsing roof and missing sprinkler heads causing a cost overrun—have all but obscured the larger issue of the size and cost of the structure.
As I have watched the building take shape at a cost of close to $4 million and grow to some 20,000 feet, the behemoth center looks and feels totally out of scale to other structures on Conz Street. The nearby Housing for the Elderly structure, while tall and utterly sterile, at least is set back from the street so that it does not overwhelm, even menace, what is still mainly a pedestrian-friendly residential neighborhood.
With a building footprint equal in size to a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Senior Center is more like a MacMansion than the admittedly inadequate space the Council on Aging inhabited for so many years in the bottom floor of Memorial Hall.
Having spent some time in the Memorial Hall location, I find it hard to imagine that all the active seniors in all of Hampshire County would require such a vast and costly structure to accommodate their varied activities.
Architecture and the statement it makes have just as much importance and value as the function its provides and the people it serves.
In my dotage, I’ve become more interested in reading about architecture and its history and the role buildings play in enhancing our lives, our neighborhoods and communities.
Not too long ago, I came across a piece in the May 1973 Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians titled “Victorian Architecture in Boston,”
The article that caught my attention was about the Boston firm of Peabody and Stearns, which operated between 1870 and 1917.
In describing the importance of the Peabody firm, the author quotes Karl Putnam of Smith College, who in the 1940s wrote that Peabody and Stearns were “the most important arbiters of building taste after H.H. Richardson,” a legendary figure in the field.
The firm’s reach was national in scope and many of the buildings it designed are now regarded as architectural gems.
An appendix to the article titled a “checklist of selected buildings by Peabody and Stearns” contains many buildings that were or are familiar to those of us in this part of the Commonwealth.
For example, The First Congregational Church, Northampton, (1877-1878), the A.L. Williston home, Northampton, (1881-1882), Smith College Gymnasium, Northampton, (1879), Easthampton Library, Easthampton, (1880-1881), Hillyer Art Museum, Smith College, (1882), Smith Academy, Hatfield, (1872), College Hall, Smith College, (1873-1875), Dickinson School, Deerfield, (1877-1879), and Walker Hall, Amherst College, (1882).
Unhappily, some of these once proud buildings no longer survive.
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