Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Budget dispatch


If I had to summarize in one word our first night of budget article consideration, that word would be cranky.

Things started ordinarily enough. I chose a seat in the back row of the center section, a couple to the right of the ACTV command table. The meeting got under way with the usual announcements: upcoming meeting dates; the order for the night’s articles – 24, 25, 5, 26; next week’s TM Coordinating Committee election; the introduction of new Town Manager Larry Shaffer, who was sitting in on the meeting last night before he officially comes on board July 1st; the swearing in of a couple new members, and so forth.

But in all that was an innocent throw-away line that only later proved to be a foreshadowing of things to come: Moderator Harrison Gregg said by way of welcome to Mr. Shaffer – “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Indeed.

So we began with Article 24, essentially a housekeeping article distributing FY06 salary adjustments from the General Government catch-all human resources account to the relevant areas of Public Safety, Public Works, Planning, Conservation and Inspections, and Community Services. Except for a little bit of picky grammar discussion, this article passed unanimously and without issue.

Article 25 was another “simple” one – approving the amended Amherst-Pelham Regional School District Agreement, which alters the assessment formula for determining each town’s contribution. After various iterations through the years, the District has determined that a “per pupil” method is the most practical at this point, and to ease the fiscal burden of Amherst’s transition to the new formula, Leverett and Shutesbury have both kicked in one-time contributions of $62,000. After blessedly little discussion, this article passed unanimously. We’re rolling right along.

Now Article 5 – another easy one – it simply appropriates money to pay our annual obligation to the Hamsphire County Retirement System, funding the retirements of past, current and future town, library, and non-teaching school employees. Straightforward enough, but you knew there was a reason this article was removed from the consent calendar back at the first TM session. One member wants to analyze whether or not being a part of the County system is a good deal for Amherst. He wants the article referred back to the Finance Committee for full study and consideration. Various speakers refute the wisdom and practicality of this suggestion. The motion to refer is defeated and the article receives unanimous support.

Now Article 26 commences the real nitty-gritty of the budget. We have two recommendations before us for the Town’s operating budget, both of which evolved from the original Town Manager’s budget recommendation put forth early this year: one from the Finance Committee and one from the Select Board. Both are balanced budgets, but with some variation in the details. The Select Board’s budget differs from the Finance Committee’s primarily in the areas of Public Safety and Community Service. Where the Finance Committee recommends cutting $70,000 dollars from the town’s donations to local human service agencies, the Select Board recommends cutting $5000. Where the Finance Committee recommends adding two dispatchers to Public Safety (about $40,000 each, including benefits) – one funded by ambulance receipts, the other by taxation, the Select Board recommends adding one dispatcher – the one funded by ambulance receipts – and not filling a police officer vacancy (saving about $40,000.) The Select Board also recommends eliminating a part-time clerical worker in the Public Health Department (saving about $15,000,) and adding $20,500 to sidewalk repair and maintenance for Public Works.

So in effect, where the Finance Committee is spending roughly $135,000 on two dispatchers, a police officer and a part-time public health secretary, the Select Board is spending that sum on contributions to human service agencies ($65,000 on top of about $71,000 which both groups agree on,) one dispatcher, and sidewalk repair and maintenance, with about $8000 left over for categories outside of the Town’s operating budget (to be dealt with in other articles.)

We start with "opening statements" from the Finance Committee, the acting Town Manager, and the Select Board. We are to consider and vote on the five functional areas of the operating budget separately (general government, public safety, public works, planning, conservation and inspections and community services,) and then vote on the total bottom line number for operating budget. As this is the heart of where the Finance Committee and Select Board recommendations diverge, the Select Board moves to consider public safety before general government. So the FC makes its public safety recommendation and then the SB moves to amend the FC motion by reducing the appropriation figure with its recommendation. And hence begins the battle of the dispatchers.

The factor to keep in mind here is that TM appropriates money per functional area, but can’t actually dictate how it gets spent within that area. So while we might frame our discussion in terms of how many dispatchers we believe we should support, the fact is that we aren’t really funding dispatchers – we’re funding public safety, and the Town Manager will spend the public safety money however he sees fit. But the TM discussion does serve to advise the Town Manager (and others, depending on the budget area) how we desire the money to be spent, so the discussion is important.

So the moderator, ever conscious of TM’s desire to thoroughly and specifically express its advice on these topics, sought to structure the discussion in a way that allowed full comment on the two key elements of the proposed public safety budgets by separating the motion into two: first how many dispatchers, and then whether or not to eliminate a police officer.

The intentions of this were good, but it may have proved to be the undoing of the evening. It set us on a path of line-item consideration that will be tough to get away from, and it further clouds the notion that we aren’t really specifying how the money gets spent.

But this was our structure, and we embraced it with gusto.

Discussion in favor of two dispatchers centered around (and around and around): How vital are the dispatchers? Very. How awful are their working conditions? Very. How understaffed and overstressed is the department? Very. How much do they need two new dispatchers instead of one? Very.

Discussions favoring adding only one dispatcher focused on: People are expensive. Spending here means cuts in other areas. Adding one instead of two when other areas have had no additions and only cuts seems fair. UMass should help us more with this.

But it was the crankiness that really stood out. Crankiness about the structure of the discussion. Crankiness about not being recognized. Crankiness in response to a member’s – ummm – spirited (and in my opinion, very excellent) presentation in support of the dispatchers. Big-time crankiness between the Chief of Police and the Select Board. And much crankiness from the moderator in trying to explain the voting procedure to a cranky TM assembly.

Ultimately we had a tally vote on the Select Board’s motion to decrease the Finance Committee’s recommended public safety spending regarding the dispatchers. The motion to decrease failed in a vote of 61 in favor, 111 opposed. I voted to oppose.

And so we adjourned until Wednesday, when with luck, we will all return in better humor.

Random Tidbits:

Handicraft update: I have my first confirmed sighting of a woman knitting!

Kudos to Elaine Brighty, School Committee chair, for stating firmly and unequivocally that she will not set school funding up in opposition to public safety funding.

How about all these “ride-alongs” that various official folks apparently are (and are not) doing with the police? How cool is that?

In the "where have you been?" department – I noted several people who were there for their very first session of the year last night. (That’s not counting the folks who were newly sworn in.) So glad you could finally join us!

Couldn’t we arrange to not meet at least when the Red Sox play the Yankees? Red Sox won again last night, 9-5. Great game – or so I heard. Missing it made me cranky.


Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention how Mr. Moderator violated the rules of TM whereby the higher number is always voted first. In this case, it should have been the FC number that included two dispatchers thus requiring a "yes" vote rather than voting the lower SB number that required (us smart folks) to vote "NO!".

Very good sign that us smart folks triumphed by almost a two-thirds majority.

Mr. Moderator was also wicked cranky about the Tally Vote, and almost violated another rule of TM by ignoring the fact that clearly 15 folks were requesting the Tally Vote.

Baer Tierkel said...

The big question about last night was what the heck happenned to Keith Foulke in the 9th inning?

I saw new TM member Rob Spence in the middle of the center section knitting!

Jim P said...

Yes, Harrison and Foulke both had off nights, but they're pros, they'll come back.

Jonathan said...

Harrison might need to look out - Papelbon is having a pretty good year!

Lifted from NESN:

"We’ve got a whole new lineup. Who isn’t excited about this team? They have so many options: O'Keeffe, Dunn, Tierkel. Gregg, he is so intense at the podium. Kusner and Weiss on the same board? Come on. Throw Hubley in there and they’re unstoppable. Did you see that pitch Jackson made? Oh, Bobrowski and Tucker, great double play combination. And you've just got O'Connor being O'Connor. Amherst Nation has a whole new team. Only on ACTV."

Katrin said...

Stephanie, fabulous commentary - funny and insightful.

And right you were, cranky it was indeed, so much so I had to switch the ACTV channel occasionally; and get on the phone with the wife of an an erstwhile TM member without cable (what is she missing?) to give her the blow-by-blow on the woes of the dispatchers' working life.

And yes, I am sure it's not easy to deal with being a dispatcher some nights, but as an almost faithful reader of the police report I am a little confused: It seems to me that there are, on average, maybe a few calls an hours, maybe a some more during peak time (i.e. a beautiful Friday night in Spring) so yes, while dispatchers work a lot of hours, the volume of work does not seem that onerous? What am I missing? Amherst is not exactly high crime territory.

And since I peaked my own curiosity, I looked it up: 14,747 calls in 2005 (per http://www.amherstpd.org/PDFs/Town%20Report%20PDFs/police_2005.pdf), divide that by 365 days = 40 calls/day, divided by 24 hours = 1.68 calls per hour. Ok, calls do not distribute evenly, but again, I am not sure HOW stressful a dispatchers job is. For one thing, one get a lot of reading done in that job, seems to me.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Katrin --

I don't agree with your assertion that the dispatchers aren't very busy. I need no convincing about how vital they are, and the harshness of their working conditions was vividly attested to at that meeting.

No doubt it is a tough job, as they all are in the public safety sector. I'm glad we were ultimately able to appropriate the Finance Committee's recommended funding for them.

Thanks for your kind words though, and thanks to all for commenting.