by Edward Shanahan
The word that comes to mind when describing Northampton these days is not paradise; it's paradox.
Despite a robust downtown that features heavily patronized restaurants, packed music venues, high-end art galleries and shoppes that are the envy of every other city its size in the state, Northampton is hurting.
While residential property values and housing costs continue to rise and people aggressively looking to buy homes in Northampton find choices in short supply, municipal finances are in a mess.
School councils complain about the lack for city funds for essential educational programs, such as buying books for the school libraries or even new textbooks.
And the word has gone out from City Hall that current projections for the new budget year - fiscal 2002 - will require a five percent reduction in spending by most city departments, renegotiated health insurance benefits for city employees and an on-going review of the current level of city services.
Across the board, the sound of the tin cup being rattled to scare up new sources of money for municipal programs is drowning out self-congratulatory boosterism about Northampton's civic vitality.
It's a scenario that might be more appropriate to Westfield, Pittsfield, Holyoke, or Greenfield where jobs and populations have long since left town and whose downtowns are struggling merely to survive.
In considering this inexplicable reality - a bustling, much admired city that seems to be tottering on the edge of municipal impoverishment - Mayor Clare Higgins acknowledged in a recent interview: "I agree with you."
According to the mayor, "we're caught in a couple of different ways ... Northampton has a couple of more strikes against it" than other communities.
Revenue sources are limited, she said, including the property tax which increases by 2.5 percent of the total assessment each year, but which yielded only an additional $610,000 this year.
There has not been as much new growth in Northampton as in, say, Chicopee or Westfield where vacant land can be economically developed or in the eastern part of the state.
Over the short term the greatest new growth in the city will involve some $100 million in construction and renovations at Smith College, which does not help city revenue directly because of the college's tax exemption.
More crippling to Northampton has been the consequences of the 1993 state education reform act which locked Northampton into receiving only minimum state aid per pupil for the last eight years. Northampton achieved this unwelcome status because it was already spending on education and taxing at levels that met state guidelines. In addition, the poverty rate in the city was not high enough to justify it getting additional amounts of state education aid, as Lowell, New Bedford and Holyoke got.
"The other dilemma we have," Mayor Higgins said, is "on either side of us is a charter school." That has meant that now some 104 students, former city students, attend these schools at an out-of-budget cost to the city of $7,000 per pupil.
Additionally, Northampton pays more per pupil to send students to the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School than do any of the other communities whose students attend the vocational school. Also, Northampton is obligated to pay all of the capital expenses for maintaining the school, even though the majority of its students come from out of town.
Of the total current city budget of $55 million, 59 percent goes for expenses associated with education, and 80 percent of the school budget is committed to teachers and staff salaries. "That's high," says Higgins.
Meanwhile, health insurance costs continue to race out of control. The city has a generous benefits programs for its active and retired employees, paying 90 per cent of the health insurance premiums. In the current year Northampton spends some $8.4 million on employee benefits such as health and life insurance and pensions.
And, not surprisingly, the health insurance carrier is forecasting a 25 percent increase in premiums (currently $6,500 annually for a family plan; $2,450 for an individual) beginning July 1.
So faced with these daunting numbers, what's Mayor Higgins game plan? "We have to pay the bills, we have to look for ways to run a tighter ship.''
"We have to pay the bills," she says, repeating herself. "We have to look at the level of services that the community can offer."
There is no bravado in her comments, and she is not an all sanguine about predicting any measurable easing of the financial stress the city finds itself in, although over the longer term she sees some benefits accruing from the proposed development of the former Northampton State Hospital tract.
"I don't see it just as a way to feed the city's coffers," she said. "We grow a lot of small businesses in this city and we need to keep locally-owned business here."
Eventually she foresees "another small village center" emerging at the former hospital property. "It could be quite delightful," but the actual results could be a minimum of 10 years in the future.
She is somewhat miffed that an incipient preservation movement to save, renovate and reuse some of the state hospital buildings might stall efforts to move forward when a more far-reaching development seems to be taking hold.
The only other glimmer of hope for a change in the city's financial fortunes, she said, is that the education reform bill is up for review this year and thus an opportunity presents itself for Northampton to get a fairer shake when it comes to more state educational aid.
"As I look at the budgetary challenges, '' she says, "another asset we have are the bright, creative people who work for the city. We're in a challenging mode, but I have a lot of admiration for the people who work for us."
Still, she admitted, the current financial picture of Northampton is difficult to fathom - it is hard to square it with the buoyant health of downtown. "It's hard to reconcile and it's hard for city workers to reconcile."
View Northampton's Fiscal Year 2001 Budget
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