Thursday, April 23, 2009

An override

The big issue in town lately is our $6 million budget shortfall. That includes $3 million from the schools, and this ain't New York City. Three million is a very big number here. In 1982 Massachusetts very foolishly voted in Proposition 2 1/2, following the lead of California's Proposition 13. It's the one that says taxes can't go up by more than 2.5 percent every year unless a municipality votes for an override. And an override is hard to get.

Of course I'm for an override, and I would be even if Lily weren't headed to public school here next fall. It will mean an average increase of about $164 per house per year. Qualifying senior citizens who can't pay are given dispensation. As my mother says, we do enough for seniors, it's about time we do something for the kids. And this hits the schools directly, severely, profoundly. The group organizing in favor is Vote Yes Northampton and has more information on its website.

I suppose Northampton isn't unique in that there's some conflict between so-called old Northampton and new. Old calls the town "Hamp." New calls it "NoHo." So I of course make a point of saying "Northampton." I try never to abbreviate it. It is a small town here, even though it's referred to as "the city" -- it's the county seat -- and the population is a healthy 34,000 or so.

I find the new versus old Northampton arguments interesting, and try not to take them personally. Of course I don't think that makes me any less of a citizen of this town, or that the opinions of old-timers matter more. I don't see that all the newcomers are rich and the old-timers poor, either. I see using someone's tenure here as a weapon to use when you disagree with them; there's no way I can change when I moved here.

New York City doesn't really have this issue, of course, since everyone is from some place else. More than 50 percent of the population was born in another country. Read that again. Not just born in another state. Born in another country. The folks I know who grew up there, especially in Brooklyn, are a bit astonished at what's happened to their city, and not entirely happy about it. But they are far outnumbered.

I did run into this issue once in Brooklyn, about the future of the community garden on our block. It hadn't been used much, and like many community gardens in the city, had become the fiefdom of one person. She held the only key and she made pronouncements about what could be grown where. It wasn't being used much. This garden was huge, three lots, and it extended all the way across the block to the next street. Two of the lots were owned by the city, but one was owned by the Fifth Avenue Committee, a fantastic local community development corporation where I later worked parttime for several years. Habitat for Humanity had offered to buy it from FAC for the cost of the taxes. The decision to sell did not have to be put up to the block, but FAC is a great, fair organization, and felt it was only right.

Here's the thing: Many people lived on that block because of FAC's help, yet many of those people were aghast that Habitat wanted to take away the garden that they weren't even using. In the early '80s FAC joined with the city's department of housing and public development to put 16 abandoned houses up for sale for $1. FAC had run the lottery and helped the new owners fix up their properties. Yet here were many of those families against doing the same thing for other needy people.

At one point in one of many loud discussions, the woman with the key said my opinion didn't matter because I hadn't lived on the block long enough. I just said simply, I've been here for three years, when does my opinion matter? She didn't respond. But I never did hear that argument again.

In the end, the block voted to allow FAC to sell the lot to Habitat, which then tried to develop it and found that the ground water was too close to the surface and to shore up the foundation would be phenomonally expensive (a big reason why there were so many empty lots in the city). Nothing was built, and a couple of years later the city sold the garden, along with about 30 others, to the Trust for Public Land. TPL invested about $50,000 in that garden alone, including putting up new fencing, building a retaining wall, and cleaning out a foot of the Habitat lot, which was a lot of construction material and cruddy dirt, and replacing it with good soil. Today that space is a great community garden.

For more about Hamp versus Noho, here's an op ed by my former Wondertime colleague, Rachel Simpson, that ran in the local paper on March 31.

City Override a Civic Responsibility

Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 31, 2009

I was watching the Northampton City Council meeting recently when a Baystate resident spoke about her opposition to a Proposition 2 1/2 override to help close Northampton's budget gap.

She called for an end to isolating "the differences between old Northampton and new Northampton, and to not just expect that those who are hurting financially to keep on hurting."

I'm pretty sure she was saying that "old Northampton" could not afford, and was not interested, in an override. I think she needs to do some more research.

I'm "old Northampton," as I understand the term. I remember downtown when it had a McCallum's store, before Thornes was even a concept. I remember when Woolworth's had a lunch counter, and Newberry's was open, and when students could smoke under the mini gym at the high school (not that I did that). I say I am from Hamp, not Noho. I own a home right across Route 9 from the street where I grew up. I married a townie, and my daughter was born at Cooley Dick (that's what we townies call the hospital).

My husband and I both recently lost our jobs, and frankly, are worried. Still, I wholeheartedly support an override. To do otherwise would be irresponsible and selfish.

And I am so tired of people presuming to speak for me - people who say they don't want to be divisive, and then talk at length about old and new Northampton, painting one group as victims and the other as some sort of annoying interlopers. That is about as divisive as it gets.

Please don't think you know what I want, or what I can or can't afford, when you haven't bothered to ask me.

When did being from Hamp start to mean that you don't want good things for Hamp, or that you shouldn't have to pay for them? It wasn't that way when I was growing up here. (Don't get me wrong - I do understand how annoying it can be when new people come in and tell me how much better it was where they lived before. Sure, some newcomers are arrogant, but some of us Hamp people are pretty arrogant too.)

I was very fortunate to grow up here, and I want others to have the same good fortune People paid taxes so that I would benefit from city services (before Proposition 2 1/2 was even passed), and I am obligated to do the same - whatever it takes. Even if I don't have a job right now. My hometown is facing what amounts to one of the biggest budget crises in its history, with a $6 million-plus shortfall expected. Now is not the time to be setting factions against each other. It's time for the community to act like a community - for disparate groups to come together and work in Northampton's best interests.

Passage of an override, in whatever form it takes, helps all of us. If it closes - or at least narrows - the school budget gap, other city departments may have to take less of a hit. You can't have a functional city where one department's success depends on other departments' failures.

I'd like to see the formation of a coalition dedicated to a united community. If the pro-override Northampton Education Action Team is that coalition, which I hear it may be, I'm joining it. I'm going to do whatever I can to ensure the passage of an override. It would be wrong not to.

Rachel Simpson, a writer and editor, attended the former Vernon Street School, the former Florence Grammar School, and the former Hawley Junior High School, and is a 1981 graduate of Northampton High.

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