Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Still working our way through the budget

Back again. Same old thing.

Announcements. Clarifications. Complaints.

Good explanation from the Finance Committee about our current fiscal state, followed by their good and informative explanation of their recommendation for the Public Works budget.

The Select Board wants $20,000 more for Public Works to pay for sidewalk repairs, which the public works committee informs us can’t possibly be done this year.

A TM member recommends a third option – increasing the FC recommendation by $7000, and reallocating $30,000 more to fuel costs, funded by that extra $7K and cutting two summer positions.

Another member makes a “general” recommendation, which has nothing to do with Public Works, but involves the choice between getting the legislature to let us create a “meals tax” or revising the cost-of-living adjustments for those retiring from the town.

See? Same old thing. Anyway . . .

Preliminary vote. Larger number first. That’s the Select Board’s figure and it fails strongly. I voted to oppose.

Two recommendations remain – the FC’s and the “More fuel, fewer people” one.

Questions about figures. Explanations about figures.

Vote again. Larger number first. The member’s recommendation fails almost unanimously. I again voted to oppose. Fairly quickly we vote on the appropriation of the FC’s recommended amount of $1,737,044, which passes strongly, and which I supported.

On to Planning, Conservation and Inspections. More good explanations from the Finance Committee. Unanimous support from the Select Board. Yet another option from the member who apparently never met a budget recommendation that didn’t want for a little amending. This time he wants to reduce the amount by $183,000 through various means, including eliminating positions that don’t currently exist. And for good measure, still another member recommends reducing the FC recommendation by $20,000, well, just because.

More questions and clarifications of numbers and how the department works. Then we vote again. Larger amount first – which this time is the FC recommendation. It wins on the preliminary vote and the appropriation vote of $898,047, and I vote to support it both times.

On to the Community Services budget. Still more good explanations by the Finance Committee. Every area of this budget sector is touched on, but most people are focused on just one: the funding to local human service agencies.

Originally the FC recommendation was to cut those funds in half from last year, down to $70,000. When $20,000 became available through our appropriations for General Government last week, they recommended that that $20K go here, reducing the original cut from $70,000 to $50,000, which would provide $90,000 in funding for these agencies.

The Select Board recommended a cut of only $5000 to this area, for $135,000 in funding.

The Human Services Funding Committee recommended no cuts – fund it at the same level as last year, $140,000.

Discussion predictably revolved around how worthy and vital these agencies are, even though that was never in dispute. A few brave folks dared to question the wisdom of funding them when we are in a severely compromised budget situation that cuts core town services, but they were quite overwhelmed by the stories of drama, tragedy and disaster made in support of full-funding.

This is a complicated topic, one I could argue about with myself all day. Why does the town even give money to charities? Well, it’s part of what makes Amherst good. The funding is not part of the town’s core services, which are being cut, so how can we justify it? Yeah, but we’re really talking about a tiny amount of money – can’t we find it somewhere? Shouldn’t people choose their charitable donations on their own, not have them made involuntarily through taxes? Well, taxes fund all the state and federal money such agencies get also. Ok, but does that make local tax funding better or worse? But these places depend on this money – a big cut is too drastic. On and on and on, just trying to persuade myself one way or the other.

Ultimately, when it came time to vote on the larger amount (the Human Services Funding Committee recommendation) and it passed in a tally vote of 87 in support, 76 opposed, I voted to oppose it. First of all, it makes the most sense to me that such funding is a desirable thing to do after Amherst has met all its core town needs first, and that is not the situation we’re in this year. And despite our bad situation, we were looking only to reduce, not eliminate, the funding. Secondly, as the impassioned discussion on this topic showed, Amherst residents care strongly about our local agencies, and I am confident we would not have let them suffer. An article or two in the newspaper about the loss of this money would have resulted in a huge outpouring of generosity from residents to these agencies, which might well have surpassed the funding that would have been cut.

I don’t envy the Finance Committee having to tackle that issue. If they hadn’t recommended any cuts to that area while cutting core services, they would have looked irresponsible. Instead, they did recommend cuts, and to some that is still irresponsible, or at least hard-hearted. Was it the amount? Would it have been possible to recommend a cut that was responsible but not "mean?" I think they were doomed either way. It almost required that people react to their recommendation, whatever it was going to be.

Moving on.

As I mentioned, there are many elements to the Community Services budget – Public Health, the Senior Center, the Community Services subcategory (which includes the human service agency funding,) Veterans’ Services, LSSE, pools, town commemorations and the golf course. The only other one that got real attention was the golf course.

Funding for Cherry Hill golf course is a perpetual town argument and seems to fuel a personal obsession for one TM member. Over the years, the course has lost a lot of money. This year, the Finance Committee projects that its finances will be a wash – it is expected to take in enough money in course-generated revenue to pay for itself, so while the town appropriates the operating money up front, it is expected to get all that money back.

I don’t know the whole long history of the course or all the details of the ongoing argument. To me the compelling details are these: 1) Why not consider golf to be like our other town recreation offerings? We don’t require the various pools, parks, sports programs and LSSE classes to pay for themselves – why must golf? 2) Money lost in the past is water under the bridge. Going forward, the plan seems solid enough, and we can continue to reevaluate.

The Finance Committee recommendation was supported by the Select Board. The member who opposes the course recommended reducing its budget by about $57,000 dollars, which he felt would leave it with enough to operate this season and make it possible to receive proposals for an outside group to lease or manage it on the town’s behalf, which a later article will propose.

This recommendation was accompanied by our first multi-media presentation – a video portraying the expensive history of the golf course and its repeated appearance as a Town Meeting topic. It was followed by the usual disagreements about figures. Eventually we voted and the larger amount – the FC recommendation – won, and I voted in support of it.

We finished off the evening with the official bottom-line appropriation vote for the whole community services budget area of $1,831,363, which I supported, and we then adjourned to next Monday night, June 5th.

Random bits:

The evening’s big drama came from a light bulb exploding in the ceiling, and raining down what looked to be sparks and glass on the audience. Luckily, no one was injured.

I sat in the second row from the back, in the center section, about four seats in from the left. I think I like the back the best, because I can see everything – who is raising a hand to speak, who is leaving, etc.

Much to my surprise and embarrassment, tonight I realized that Jim Scott, whom I voted for in the TMCC election, is not who I thought he was. Interesting. I’m sure he is a fine fellow and will be good on the committee anyway. Somehow, I was just a little confused . . .

While TM spent its longest evening yet in a very hot auditorium, the Blue Jays were pounding the Red Sox. Always tough to win when the other team gets 5 home runs. Guess I’m glad I missed that one.

I can barely sleep after Town Meeting. There’s so much to think about that I just can’t shut my brain off. Does anybody else have that problem?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Stephanie,

I shared your inability to sleep last night. So late getting home, so much to think about. So many arguments that could have been made.... let's not go there!

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. It helps me clarify my own thinking.

Carol S.
Precinct 2

andyc said...

I, too, tend to be pretty wired after TM. Usually grab some ice cream and the remote and try and catch Sports Late Night to see how the Sox did. Hope TM ends pretty soon, or I'm going to be fat and sleep-deprived!
Andy

Anonymous said...

So Stephanie, if the Federal Government gave you a $100,000 grant to subsidize transportation would you A) buy two PVTA buses that seat 40 people each or B) buy two high-end BMW’s that seat two people each?

Or if you had $10,000 to feed the starving would you A) buy rice in 50 pound bags at a discount warehouse store or B) go shopping at the corner 7/11 and buy it in 16 once boxes?

Golf is to recreation what Dom Perignon is to booze. Nationwide average upkeep/overhead for golf courses is about $40,000 per hole. And they only come in two varieties: nine and eighteen hole.

Actually there were no “disagreements about figures” (since all of mine come from the town accountant). Ms. Awad, as usual, only gave TM half the equation by citing where the revenues stood as of 5/26 but forgot to mention that they have spent over 95% of the their $242,000 budget as of May 1’st. Thus cannot possibly stay within budget.

So it doesn’t matter if you are one dollar short of projected intake or one dollar over on projected expenses. All the same: Money in vs. money out.

“Money lost in the past is water under the bridge”. I would call $800,000 more like a tsunami.

And at any point over those six consecutive years the course was draining away $100,000 annually, town officials were “going forward” with a plan that “seems solid enough”.


Larry

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Hi Larry –

I could oppose Cherry Hill, but the case hasn’t been made for me yet. Your video, while certainly amusing, only told me that this has been going on for a long time, and it has cost a lot of money. Heck, that could describe college. Or the holiday season. Unfortunate truths, yes, but not compelling me to any particular action.

I need more facts, more reasons, more whys. While I have long been aware of your opposition to the course, I’m not aware of anyone else who is so negative about it. Why is that? Besides costing money, why is it so bad? Why does the town continue to recommend support? Clearly there’s an upside here – potential or actual or both.

Often the difference between spending money and wasting money is a judgment call. The town spends money in all kinds of ways I personally consider goofy, but I’m not moved to assert my opinions as policy, because I know that clearly they are appealing to somebody, lots of somebodies, no doubt. Why is this different? Or is it?

So long-gone money doesn’t do it for me. Better alternatives? That has potential. What have you got? Your video was about “the usual suspects,” but TM has a lot of new folks who definitely don’t fall into that category. Give us your best shot.

Many thanks for commenting!

Stephanie

Anonymous said...

Unwinding after Town Meeting can take many forms: venting to anyone who will listen, pacing, watching junk on late TV. During this season, for me, it's ice cream and coffee at Bart's, and taking extra insulin to make up for it, as needed...

As for that exploding light bulb: sparks did slightly hit one TM member, who was promptly supplied with water and then ice, by the Chief of Police.
Eva

Anonymous said...

Wait until next year - then the golf course will make money. Why does town meeting keep supporting the golf course? Because town meeting is anti-any development. If the course shuts down, then the town will sell the land to an evil developer. That is how town meeting operates.

Given a limited budget how can the town continue to subsidize golf while raising leisure services fees on other activities?

Chris

Anonymous said...

Geeze Chris, you just blew Stephanie’s theory that I’m the only one who is “so negative about it”.

I did notice on the ACTV replay (wanted to see how my presentation looked to the viewers at home) that about 20% of TM agreed with me on the voice vote (that makes for around 35 or 40 folks. Pretty pitiful I admit).

I’m also real familiar with what a lone voice sounds like on the floor of TM. Ten years ago Hill Boss and I were the only two who voted against the $4 million Town Hall Renovation (154 voted in favor) and a week a later Mr. Boss, publicly changed his mind in a Letter to the Bulletin, thus making me the only person who voted against it on the floor of TM and at the Ballot Box. The Override lost handily---not once, but twice.

So Stephanie, are you going to oppose Mr. Rhodes article #39 simply because he was the "only one" to bring it forward?

Larry

Anonymous said...

The only thing missing from Larry Kelley's DVD presentation on the vast left wing golf conspiracy that has been plaguing our town was some spliced in special effects karate footage of he and former Town Manager, Barry Del Castillo, going at it. In terms of an answer as to why there has not been a swelling of opposition to the golf course, even in these hard fiscal times, I think that Larry ought to examine more video footage of his own presentations before Town Meeting and The Select Board over the years. Speaking for myself, I would be much more inclined to extend consideration, not to mention respect, for his opinion if it weren't delivered in such a caustic and disparaging way. Can't we lose the rancor?
Marcy

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Larry --

Excuse my poor word choice. I shoulld have said that I haven't seen a critical mass of support for your side of the issue, and that surprises me. I recognize that it is not solely you.

I expect to support the Rhodes article, because it seems to be an excellent idea. I need to learn more.

I'm sorry that you opted to ignore my questions, though this is absolutely not the venue for a thorough examination of the issue. The point that I'm afraid you're missing is that I can be persuaded on the Cherry Hill issue. If you read much of my blog, it should be obvious that I want all the info -- not just one side. I want facts, not emotional appeals. I respect diligence and logical process. As I said in a recent post, I believe that the opposer of a recommendation bears the burden of proof. The same would apply to anyone recommending significant change.

If you want to persuade me -- which shouldn't be difficult, because I am all for practicality, efficiency, and fiscal discipline -- then between my blog and my previous response to you, I have nearly given you a how-to lesson.

Do with it what you will.

Stephanie

Anonymous said...

Marcy, Marcy, Marcy

You would make a lousy 911 dispatcher. Consider the facts, and not how they are presented.

I actually now have DVD’s of all my TM Cherry Hill presentations, except for one in 2002 where the video tape was somehow destroyed (probably not due to the vast Left Wing conspiracy). I even have my very first appearance before TM dated 5/14/1987 (although I have not yet dredged up the nerve to watch it).

Surprisingly it had nothing to do with Cherry Hill. I had filed a warrant article (with all of ten signatures) asking TM to restrict LSSE from competing with my karate school, Hampshire Gymnastics and Amherst Ballet Center.

Since I was such a naive rookie I didn’t realize you needed a TM member to “move the article”. So on the floor that night I asked three separate TM members (growing more desperate with each asking) if they would do so, and they all refused. Welcome to the world's best form of democracy.

Eddie Wilkinson, a Select board member at the time, overheard my predicament and volunteered to move the motion.

Naturally it was overwhelmingly defeated. The next day I received a very nice phone call from Vladimir Morales saying he couldn’t believe TM could blow off a native born like that.

Interestingly enough, Cherry Hill was also taken up that night. even though TM had done the original taking two weeks earlier (4/29/1987). The Town Manager, with his consummate business skills, had released a public document saying the course was worth $2.2 million...a tad more than the $1.7 million TM appropriated two weeks earlier.

And strangely enough CH owner Dave Maxon had a habit of reading the newspapers, and held out for guess what? $2.2 million. All for a Golf Course we could have had for free.

Larry (sorry Stephanie for taking up bandwith)