Guest columnist David Narkewicz: Fiscal Stability Plan beats school budget overreach

David Narkewicz walks outside City Hall during his last weeks as mayor in December 2021.

David Narkewicz walks outside City Hall during his last weeks as mayor in December 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By DAVID NARKEWICZ

Published: 05-10-2024 4:42 PM

Since leaving office I have avoided the public spotlight, but recent controversy regarding Northampton’s budget and the city’s Fiscal Stability Plan compel me to offer some historical perspective.

When I was sworn in as mayor in 2012, our finances were recovering from the Great Recession. The city’s stabilization fund for emergencies contained just under $250,000. The capital stabilization account had $4,684 and we could not afford to fund a capital plan. Our credit rating with national bond rating agencies was “A+ with Negative Outlook.”

Northampton mayors, City Councils, and School Committees would routinely agonize over what staff or services would need to be cut to balance effectively level-funded budgets where revenues, capped by Proposition 2½, were outpaced by inflation.

In May 2013, Northampton faced a $1.4 million deficit and double-digit city and school staff layoffs. I submitted a balanced budget implementing those difficult cuts as required by law, but I also offered the voters of Northampton an alternative path forward. We proposed a $2.5 million general override accompanied by a multiyear Fiscal Stability Plan to solve the immediate crisis and provide an estimated four years of stable funding.

This plan was not enacted by mayoral fiat. This was direct democracy using the only tool available to municipalities for raising property tax revenues above the 2.5% cap. A vigorous community debate ensued. Town hall meetings were held in every ward attended by hundreds of residents. On June 25, 2013, Northampton voters had the final say and adopted a $2.5 million general budget override.

We worked hard to adhere to the plan and updated it annually with revised revenue and expenditure forecasts. Not only were we able to stabilize city and school budgets for the originally projected four years, but stronger than expected economic growth allowed us to extend the plan for three more.

We were not treading water during this period as some have implied. Seven years of stability not only helped preserve and strengthen our city services and schools, but also allowed for critical investments. We tripled our road paving projects, expanded our rail trails and conservation areas, planted 1,000 shade trees, launched climate resilience and clean energy initiatives, increased arts funding, expanded hours at Forbes and Lilly Library, and made improvements to parks and playgrounds.

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Revisionist historians have implied that the schools have not benefited from overrides or the Fiscal Stability Plan. In fact, the single largest beneficiary of this and every general override has been our schools, and second place isn’t even close! Between FY 2014 and FY 2020, override-created funding allowed the Northampton Public Schools to add more than 53 full-time equivalent teachers and other licensed staff, resulting in one of the lowest student-teacher ratios in the area.

We reached an important crossroads in 2020, however, having drawn from our override reserves to balance two consecutive budgets. With a fiscal cliff looming on the horizon, I brought a proposal to the City Council, and ultimately the voters of Northampton, to renew our Fiscal Stability Plan in conjunction with another $2.5 million general override.

Once again, town hall meetings were held in every ward across the city, where I outlined our careful fiscal stewardship over the previous seven years. I made the case directly to voters for why we should renew the Fiscal Stability Plan in advance of inevitable and painful budget cuts that would result in layoffs.

In a citywide special election held on March 3, 2020 the voters of Northampton once again overwhelmingly approved an additional $2.5 million general override.

When I submitted my final budget in 2021, we had replenished the emergency reserve funds I mentioned at the outset as well as our dedicated “fiscal stability” stabilization account created with override funding. The aforementioned “A+ with Negative Outlook” bond rating had been upgraded to the highest “AAA with Stable Outlook,” allowing us to borrow for capital projects at the lowest interest rates.

We had been able to make significant investments in our city services and schools and had broken free from the pernicious cycle of annual budget cuts.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra served on the City Council during many of those years, and I know that she and her team have been committed to continuing the Fiscal Stability Plan and success of our city and schools. I also know that there are those that have opposed her efforts at every turn and have tried to rewrite history by denying the undeniable success of the Fiscal Stability Plan.

They cloak their opposition in the rhetoric of “democratizing” the budget process, yet their unsustainable budget demands have been developed with little process, democratic or otherwise, while the proven plan they deride has been endorsed in not one, but two citywide referendums.

I urge the City Council to exercise its fiscal authority and support MayorGina-Louise Sciarra’s efforts to create a stable, sustainable budget, pulling Northampton back from the fiscal cliff that our School Committee has inexplicably and irresponsibly sent us hurtling toward.

David Narkewicz served as mayor of Northampton from 2012 to 2022.