The City Council’s Committee on Finance, of which I am a member, will hold hearings at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 23, and Wednesday, May 24, on the $132,312,990 budget proposed by Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra for the fiscal year beginning July 1. That is $602,528, or 4.77 percent, higher than the city’s current budget for the year ending June 30.

The budget hearings will be conducted in a hybrid format, with participation in the City Council chambers at 212 Main St., and remotely.

Here is the Zoom link for Tuesday’s hearing:

Her is the Zoom link for Wednesday’s hearing:

These budgets will be presented Tuesday: Central Services, Northampton Fire/Rescue, Department of Public Works, and Health and Human Services Department.

These budgets will be presented Wednesday: Northampton Public Schools and Northampton Police Department.

Here is a link to the fiscal year 2024 budget document:

The budget also is available in print at the city clerk’s office, 210 Main St.; Forbes Library, 20 West St.; and Lilly Library, 19 Meadow St., Florence.

Sciarra, in her budget message delivered to the City Council on Thursday, said, “This year’s budget represents movement forward for key initiatives grounded in the values and expressed priorities of the City of Northampton and our community. … Initiatives like the Picture Main Street project, the Resilience Hub, and the creation of two new areas of city services with the Division of Community Care (DCC) and the Climate Action and Project Administration (CAPA) department represent an investment in Northampton’s future necessary to ensure our continued safety and success as a community.”

The proposed budget includes $358,234 in salaries for six staff members in the Division of Community Care, and a total of $245,656 for the Department of Climate Action and Project Administration, including three staff members.

Spending in the next fiscal year would increase by 3.46 percent for public works, 3.5 percent for culture and recreation, 5.08 percent for public safety, and 7.18 percent for education.

The proposed budget for the Northampton Public School Department includes a one-time allocation of $1.2 million from the city’s Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund to help fill a projected $2.3 million budget gap.

During my remarks Thursday, I supported the mayor’s decision to allocate the $1.2 million as an alternative to budget cuts, saying that it is important to guarantee stable funding for the schools as they recover from the pandemic and the learning deficit affecting many students (particularly those of color and from lower-income families) that is well-documented nationwide.

Compensation for elected officials

The City Council on Thursday heard a report from the Elected Officials Compensation Advisory Board that recommends increases in the mayor’s salary and the stipends paid to city councilors, School Committee members and the elected trustees of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

The seven-member board is required by city ordinance to review “the adequacy and equity of the compensation, benefits and expense allowances of municipal elected officials” at least once every 10 years. The board members who served this year are Chair John Bidwell, Vice Chair Peter Whalen, Tara Brewster, Felicia Corbeil, Deb Henson, Sam Hopper and Javier Luengo Garrido.

The recommendations are expected to be discussed by the City Council’s Committee on Legislative Matters, of which I am a member, during its meeting at 5 p.m., Monday, June 12. The City Council must act on the recommendations by June 30, and any increases would take effect beginning in January 2024.

The advisory board reported that increasing diversity was a key goal during its review of compensation for elected officials: “Encouraging a fair elected representation of the City’s diversity, especially underserved communities that traditionally have not been well-represented and historically have been denied equity, is most beneficial to the City as a whole.”

The report recommends:

  • Increasing the mayor’s annual salary from $92,500 to $130.000. It was last adjusted in 2016, increasing from $80,000.
  • Increasing the annual stipends paid to city councilors from $9,000 (ward councilors) and $9,500 (at-large councilors) to $16,931.20 for all. The City Council president’s stipend would rise from $10,000 to $21,164. The stipends were last adjusted in 2016 when they increased from $5,000.
  • Increasing the annual stipends paid to School Committee members from $5,000 (ward members) and $5,500 (at-large members) to $9,312.16 for all. They were last increased in 2016 from $2,500.
  • Increasing the annual stipends paid to the elected trustees of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School from $5,000 to $9,312.16. They were last increased in 2016 from $2,500.

Also recommended is a 2 percent annual cost of living adjustment for elected officials beginning in 2025 during the years that that the advisory board does not convene.

And the board also recommends continuing these elected officials’ eligibility for group health insurance benefits and retirement benefits.

Whalen dissented, writing, “I decided to vote to not accept the recommendations of the committee based solely on the amount of increases that were being suggested in all categories. … the recommended levels would put us far outside of what similar positions in the benchmarked cities/towns that are close to our city’s demographics earn.”

The Elected Officials Compensation Advisory Board’s full report is available here:

Bombyx shut down

Northampton Fire Chief Jon Davine on Friday issued a cease and desist order to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity at 130 Pine St., Florence, that immediately prohibits it from holding “all events that constitute a nightclub, dance hall, discotheque, bar or similar entertainment purposes inside the premises until automatic sprinklers are installed.”

The order came eight days after two city inspectors, “responding to noise complaints from neighborhood properties,” viewed the venue used by Bombyx, and one day after a meeting in City Hall to discuss the relevant regulations that was attended by multiple city officials and representatives of Bombyx.

The City Council voted unanimously on Sept. 1, 2022, to approve a zoning change that allows Bombyx to operate as an arts and cultural center. During deliberations last summer, I was among several city councilors who spoke positively in support of Bombyx’s mission “to serve as a hub for arts and culture in the Village of Florence and the region.”

In fulfilling that mission, it is the responsibility of Bombyx to meet all relevant city and state codes. As a result of the May 11 inspection, the city determined that Bombyx has been operating as a nightclub with live music and alcohol on the premises, which necessitates the working automatic sprinkler system.

As Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra states: “Naturally, our state and local regulators prioritize human life above all else … The responsibility rests with Bombyx to be compliant with all safety codes, and I believe that Bombyx was given instruction that fire safety equipment was necessary to operate as a music venue by city regulators enforcing state codes and, as I understand it, by their own consultants.”
I support the mayor’s position.

Bombyx may within 45 days appeal the city’s ruling to the Massachusetts Fire Safety Commission and Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board.

If Bombyx chooses to install the automatic sprinkler system in order to continue its indoor music events, the mayor’s office is willing to explore grants that may be available to help pay for that cost. I also support that effort.

The cease and desist order issued to Bombyx is available here:

Memorial Day parade

The 155th annual Memorial Day parade in Florence will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, May 29, from Trinity Row. Organized by the Veterans Council of Northampton, the parade will proceed to the Park Street Cemetery for a ceremony honoring fallen service members.

The parade will include units from local veterans groups, Northampton police and fire departments, civic and youth organizations, and elected officials. I look forward to being among them.