The purpose of the stormwater fee is to provide a dedicated funding source for operating, maintaining, and upgrading the city’s critical stormwater and flood control infrastructure. This infrastructure is spread throughout our city and includes 120 miles of stormwater lines, 5,000 catch basins and intakes, 400 outfalls to streams and rivers, 200 culverts, 6 miles of drainage channels and ditches, two levee systems, and a flood control pump station. It is properly referred to as a fee because similar to our water and sewer utilities, Massachusetts law specifically authorizes cities and towns to establish stormwater utilities and charge utility fees for the purpose of managing stormwater. In our immediate area, Northampton, Westfield, Chicopee, and Longmeadow have established stormwater utilities and they are under consideration in many other communities in order to maintain and upgrade this critical infrastructure that protects residents, businesses, property, and our rivers and streams in the face of ever-increasing storms brought on by climate change.
Other infrastructure issues will be and are handled through our capital improvements budget, which is funded primarily by the city’s general fund. Taxpayers should not anticipate a street fee (which would not be allowed under Massachusetts law) or an override in the near future to fund other infrastructure issues. As Mayor, I have worked within our current budget process to make responsible long-term investments in infrastructure, including especially our streets. In the last four years, my capital budgets have allocated $1.5 million in local tax dollars to supplement state Chapter 90 paving funds in order to address deferred street paving and maintenance in Florence, Leeds, and Northampton. My most recent capital improvement program approved this spring calls for an additional $4.25 million investment in our streets and roads over the next five years. Again, all of this would be within our current budget process and does not involve a separate fee or override for streets and other infrastructure.
I supported Chief Jody Kasper’s request to initiate a community dialogue about downtown cameras and she held a well-attended public forum seeking resident feedback on this issue. Northampton currently uses cameras at our police and fire stations, in schools and buses, our parking garage, and for large-scale events and specific criminal investigations. NPD has used camera technology responsibly and effectively to prevent and solve crime. The Chief’s purpose in exploring cameras downtown was to bring this same crime prevention and investigation technology to a busy area of our city that accounts for 25% of all police calls annually. Public concerns that cameras could be used for surveillance, privacy violations, and by federal law enforcement led to a City Council resolution opposing additional city-owned cameras downtown. Companion legislation to ban any new cameras remains under Council consideration. I respect the concerns and deeply held views of residents about cameras as well as the City Council’s authority to prohibit them. I also support and appreciate Chief Kasper’s thoughtful approach to this issue, which exemplifies her professionalism, leadership, transparency, and commitment to community engagement and public safety. Northampton police currently have dash cameras, but do not have body cameras. For several years I have been reviewing the costs and benefits of this technology with our police. In compliance with the MA requirement that body cameras are subject to collective bargaining, I recently secured language in our union contracts creating the required framework for future implementation if warranted. Meanwhile, I will continue working with the Chief to ensure rigorous and diverse police hiring practices, transparent policies, strict accountability, and ongoing training of our officers in crisis intervention, anti-bias, and fair and impartial policing.
My approach to improving our city and solving problems, both previously as a City Councilor and now as Mayor, has not been to keep ideas to myself but rather to put them forward, seek community feedback and input, and then do my best to bring them to fruition. That said, if I had a completely free hand to change two things our city does I would: (1) Institute universal pre-K in all of our four elementary schools to level the educational playing field for Northampton children and families of all incomes and because the research is clear that investing in early childhood development during the critical years of birth-5 could pay significant dividends, particularly for our growing population of high-needs students. (2) Remove (or refuse to implement) any unfunded mandates from the state or federal government that put additional strain on our already limited city budget and staffing resources. Examples include high-stakes testing, the broken charter school and school choice funding system, and countless other state/federal requirements and responsibilities that are increasingly placed on municipalities like Northampton without any reimbursement or additional resources to carry them out.
I believe it is called a fee rather than a storm water tax because the Mayor and City Council did not want to put it up to a vote, as all of our other taxes and overrides are handled. The storm water fee was pushed through City Council using scare tactics, such as showing photographs of the 1938 Flood and suggesting that could happen again unless the fee was imposed, while the facts are that the United States Army Corps of Engineers built and certified our dikes for potential flood threats. In addition, the Corps built 17 other dams on tributaries of the Connecticut River to contain flood waters. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have taken prudent and scientific measures to maintain our city's flood preparedness and water quality. There is no mandate to spend two million dollars a year forever with no sunset clause other than the decision of the Mayor and the City Council to over-fund the Department of Public Works, which already runs a surplus.
Fees should only be imposed for direct usage costs, such as drivers licenses or trash removal. The storm water fee is a textbook example of a fee that is not correlated to usage. Some houses with no discharge into the city system pay the highest fees and farmers outside the city dikes pay exorbitant fees for their multiple parcels. Courts across the country have found storm water fees to be illegal, because citizens were not allowed to vote on them. Our Mayor's appointed Solicitor chose not to allow citizens to challenge the fee on a ballot, citing a 21 day limit on repealing ordinances, even though no one received bills for over a year and the DPW didn't report on where the money was going for over two years. This fee sets a bad precedent for future actions by the Mayor and City Council. Will we now see fees instead of override votes? This is bad for democracy and bad for citizen participation in our local government.
The Mayor and the Chief of Police would have us believe that widespread installation of surveillance cameras will somehow stop "stealing" in Northampton. This was the main justification given by the Chief of Police who was appointed by the current Mayor for installing surveillance cameras. Banks and businesses already have cameras installed to thwart shoplifting. Northampton is not suffering a downtown crime wave that merits such a draconian change in policing. In fact, according to the Police Chief, the crime rate is down across the board. The city and the police department are trying to implement more "community policing." Cameras do not take us in that direction. In the interest of mutual trust I would not seek to implement body cameras for our police force. I do believe that dashboard cameras are useful, both to citizens and police.
I would like to see full cooperation between the town's museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions in order to maximize their impact on our city's cultural life and draw visitors nationally and internationally. Northampton already has great cultural institutions, but we can do so much more if we unite them to help share resources and goals.
If I could remove one thing it would be our lack of diversity. We need a more diverse police force, fire department, school system and government. We already see great strides towards diversity at Smith College and at our surrounding colleges and universities. I hope that Northampton can also recognize our growing diversity by reflecting that in its seats of power.