NORTHAMPTON – After five hours of a meeting that aired emotional arguments for and against reallocating half of the police department’s budget, city council approved Mayor David Narkewicz’s 2022 tax budget in a vote 8 to 1 early Friday morning.

The $ 121.7 million spending plan increases funding for police and school services and restores full-time staff to senior and health services. A waiver of the 2½ proposal approved by voters in March 2020, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will come into effect at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Ward 7 councilor Rachel Maiore was the only councilor to vote against the budget. She expressed concern that the new Ministry of Community Care has not received adequate funding to be fully operational by the start of fiscal 2023.

More than 140 people joined the virtual board meeting which started Thursday at 5:30 p.m. About 80 people took the floor and the meeting lasted until about 1 a.m. on Friday.

A grant of $ 424,000 for the Ministry of Community Care was at the center of controversy for months before the final vote. Activist groups, including Northampton Abolition Now, wanted 50% of the police budget to be reallocated to other city departments and the new department’s budget to be increased to around $ 880,000.

Funding policy not recommended

The new department was proposed in a March report from the Police Review Board, which was formed in the wake of widespread unrest that followed the murders of unarmed black men and women by police and citizens. private throughout the country. The commission recommended a budget of $ 882,602 “as a minimum”.

Advocates for the Ministry of Community Care envision unarmed responders handling some calls that are typically handled by the police, such as suicide threats, substance abuse issues, homelessness issues and mental health crises. Other tasks would include responding to welfare checks, calls from suspicious people, non-violent public gatherings, animal control, minor traffic accidents and misdemeanors.

“Our report did not recommend funding the police service,” said Carol Owen, a member of the Police Review Board. “It was not our intention to torpedo the NDP, as some in our community advocate.”

Owen said she recommended Mayor Narkewicz “to find money from any available source … in order to adequately fund the new department,” listing several possible sources of funds such as criminal justice grants .

The current allocation of $ 424,000 will cover two salaries, advertising, travel, office costs, a community needs assessment and any other necessary studies.

“We’re going to do some research, and that’s great, but when we’re done, can we do something?” Said Dan Cannity, another review board member. He said the allocation will not allow the new department to operate by the start of fiscal 2023 – July 1, 2022 – which is the city’s stated goal.

Cathy McNally said she felt like Narkewicz was “pretending” to the Ministry of Community Care rather than making a serious effort to start and fund it.

“Is the mayor setting up (the department) to fail or waver?” McNally said. “Please do the right thing. Reject this budget. Tell the mayor that we can easily find the $ 800,000 and up. ”

Defending the allowance on Friday morning, Narkewicz offered a comparison between the Department of Community Care and CAHOOTS, a similar program in Eugene, Ore., Cited by some activists as a model for an unarmed peer-led response service.

“Eugene, OR has a population of 176,464 and a proposed fiscal year 2022 budget of $ 724.3 million,” Narkewicz said via email. “They are funding CAHOOTS at $ 800,000 through a contract between the Eugene Police Department and a local non-profit organization called White Bird Clinic.

“Northampton, MA has a population of 28,519 and a proposed fiscal year 2022 budget of $ 121.7 million. We are proposing an initial budget for the community care department of $ 423,955, ”the mayor said.

Emotional testimony

At Thursday night’s meeting, Janel Jorda of Northampton said the reallocation of 50% of the police budget would eliminate funding for professional development and training “to tackle bad police tactics”.

“You will have fewer police officers, and while you might have a lone social worker answering an emergency call, what if that person needs to call 911 for help and what if? is there no one available? Jorda asked. “The overwhelming majority of police officers are good, honest people who shouldn’t be stereotyped as bad cops.”

Celina della Croce from Leeds said she saw police yelling at a suicidal woman who threatened to jump off an overpass. She said the passers-by were the ones who held the woman back and kept her from jumping. This and other stories of police allegedly mistreating vulnerable people led her to support the idea of ​​halving the police budget and reallocating money.

Henry Morgan of Florence said the budget “sends the message that the police are above the law, the Constitution and morals themselves”. He called the role of the police department in the city a “repressive” and violent “occupation”.

Jose Adastra, whose name displayed was “WMA Abolitionist Collective”, said they were ready to “wreak havoc” and block traffic in Northampton “for the rest of my life” in response to “white supremacist police” “.

“The police as an institution exist to protect property, not people,” said Jessica Brown. “Do not listen to the racist and alarmist police supporters who answer these calls. ”

Shanna Fishel of Leeds, candidate to replace incumbent mayor in the November election, urged the council to “make history” by rejecting Narkewicz’s plan.

“Imagine $ 400,000 in funding for the police department, or $ 400,000 in funding for firefighters. You would say it’s dismal, ”Fishel said. “If you want an armed policeman to come to your house, you should have one. But if you don’t, you should have another choice.

Mary “Mimi” Odgers added that “$ 400,000 is what you ask a few investors, not what you allocate to an entire department.”

Ahead of the vote, Mareatha Wallace said if the budget was passed as is, that wouldn’t be the end of the problem.

“We’ll come back stronger, we’ll come back with more of us, until you see how serious we are about what we need in this community,” Wallace said.

City council president Gina-Louise Sciarra, also a mayoral candidate, said she was “committed to making this a fully operational service”.

Budgetary technicality

In response to questions from Maiore, Ward 7 councilor who voted no, city attorney Alan Seewald said that “the charter does not contemplate a vote against or a rejection of the budget”.

“He says council will pass the budget, including amendments, within 45 days” of the mayor’s submission of his proposal to the city clerk’s office, or it will come into effect as written, Seewald said .

Maiore said the Ministry of Community Care should have received funding from an advisory board, and a 24/7 service that is supposed to be up and running within a year may not be successful without more. money up front.

“Is $ 424,000 a significant investment that ensures sustainability? Otherwise, why are we content with this? Maiore said before voting no on the budget. “What do we communicate if we do it this way? ”

Ward 5 councilor Alex Jarrett said that in order to meet the demands of police abolitionists, council would have to vote against the entire budget, a move he said would be “symbolic” and would result in entry. effective budget anyway.

But he said the current allocation would not allow enough staff to be hired to run the community care department, and he asked Narkewicz “to consider changing allocations for other departments and finding funds. additional as soon as possible “.

“There are so many needs other than emergency peer response,” Jarrett said. “Safe and accessible housing, access to shelter, food and treatment programs. … I’m sure all of these cannot be directly achieved through a municipal program, but I think we need to (broaden) the agenda of the new department and push the boundaries of what can be offered. ”

“These are needs which, if met, will reduce crime and conflict and save resources,” he said. “I agree with the vast majority of this budget, so I will be voting for it. “

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