Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The End

Could we possibly finish? There was still a lot to do. I was betting on Wednesday myself. More pessimistic types thought next week. The optimists said it had to be done last night.

So the twelfth session of Town Meeting actually began with the second session of the May 24th Special Town Meeting, which had been called and immediately adjourned until after Article 34 of the Annual TM.

This one-article warrant sought to appropriate $16,000 of Community Preservation funds for the purpose of paying for appraisals and surveys of land that the town is considering acquiring or protecting. Such studies typically cost $4000 - $6500 each, and are often funded with assistance from groups like the Kestrel Trust, or from the land owner. There were a few general questions about conservation land – about the ability to see a map showing parcels intended for protection (yes, just go to the Planning and Conservation Office,) the amount of land the town currently owns for conservation or protects with Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (about 2000 acres of each) and whether after paying for land studies the Town ever declines a parcel (occasionally.) The vote to approve is nearly unanimous, and I was among those voting in support.

Special TM dissolved. Back to the Annual TM.

Article 35 sought to appropriate $20,000 of Community Preservation funds to study and plan coordinated signage for the town’s parks, recreation fields and adjoining conservation lands. The current signage identifying such spaces and providing useful information ranges from inadequate to nonexistent. This article was brought by the Community Preservation Act Committee which is responsible for collecting requests for CPA funds and determining their eligibility and priority within the four areas of allowed spending (open space, historic preservation, affordable housing and recreation.) The Finance Committee supported the article, but the Select Board opposed it. Among the SB concerns was their usual committee meddling type stuff – seems like too much money, want more info on how many signs, what would they look like, what would they cost, what would they be made of, etc. (You know, the kinds of questions one might be able to answer after having done a sign study . . .) They also objected to including the Design Review Board in the process, believing this to be outside their purview, though they were quickly assured that this is just the sort of thing the DRB does and must do. Amidst all this was also one strong and defensible argument – that this is the sort of thing that should be done by the Public Works department, and should fall under regular town funding, not CPA funding. A reasonable position, though I would still defer to the committee, whose purpose is the diligent distribution of these funds. Members weighed in on both sides. One suggested a sign competition among volunteer carpenters as an alternative. Another felt the money could be better spent on a map or booklet with all local park and rec info. Another felt signs were good advertising and would increase awareness and usage of the areas. The voice vote was too close to call, so we had a standing vote, resulting in 78 supporting the motion, 72 opposed. I voted in support.

Article 36 was the final action for balancing the FY07 budget – the transfer of $1 million from the stabilization fund. Our previous budget votes were predicated on this use of reserves. The Finance Committee reiterated that this was the final year of a multi-year plan for using reserve funds this way, and that TM has consistently supported this plan. The Select Board supported this 4-1, and talked about their long discussions regarding whether or not only $500,000 of reserves should instead be used, before ultimately agreeing with the FC. A member suggested that there is actually an additional million dollars in reserves that the FC isn’t telling us about, and pointed out that we would soon be credited with more than $600,000 that had previously been debited us by the state, because of a past situation with our health claims trust fund. The FC said the assertion about an extra million was false. Another member questioned how our future reserves could be growing at the rates the FC projects. It was explained that increased revenues from new growth are expected, the aforementioned credit from the health claims trust fund is included, and the turnback of funds that had been budgeted but not used, all contribute to the gradual rebuilding of the reserves as projected. Another member made an interesting point about the impracticality of our current process for dealing with the budget, where we finalize each appropriation as we go along rather than treating each appropriation as preliminary and finalizing the entire figure at the end. There were various concerns about inadequate reserves, the cost of debt service, worsening conditions for the next budget, and the familiar refrain of “get more money from UMass and the colleges!” The vote to appropriate money from the stabilization fund requires a 2/3 majority, and it passed easily. Yes, I supported it.

Article 37 was about appropriating money from Free Cash to the General Fund, but as this was unnecessary, the article was dismissed.

After disposing with Article 37 so quickly, the FC chair used the extra time to thank different people who assist so vitally in the budget and TM process, and we thanked them with our applause. I apologize that I did not catch all their names, because I would have liked to include them here. (UPDATE: Joyce Karpinsky, Libby Lass and Gail Weston are those good folks we were applauding. Many thanks to them!) Thanks and appreciation were then showered on John Musante, who has been filling the role of interim Town Manager while also performing his Finance Director duties. He received much praise from the FC and SB, and a standing ovation from TM.

We were moving through all this pretty well. We might really finish this up!

Article 38 was brought by the Select Board and sought to put on the November ballot a proposal to increase the CPA property tax surcharge by half a percent. State law allows a CPA surcharge of up to 3%, and ours is 1%, so this would raise us up to 1.5%. Their reasoning was that next year this would bring in around $113,000 from taxation which would be matched 100% from state funds, for a total of $226,000 in increased revenues which we could then use for capital projects like restoration work on Town Hall and the Jones Library, freeing up operating budget funds. Paying for repair and maintenance of town property with CPA funds – clever. But wait – didn’t the SB just oppose the CPAC’s recommendation for using CPA funds for a signage plan, saying that money should come from the operating budget? Some might say that isn’t logically consistent, but what do I know? Perhaps the difference is that the SB wants to decide what is and isn’t eligible for CPA funds. The SB’s micromanagement of committees does, I’m afraid, have a certain consistency to it.

Kiss my chances for a town committee appointment good-bye, huh?

Beyond that nonsense, this is a tough issue. On the one hand, it really is a tiny increase, it benefits from being matched with state funds, and the benefits of CPA spending in the community are terrific in every category. On the other hand, there is a real sense of an increasingly oppressive property tax burden in the community, and a very strong likelihood of needing to ask voters for another override soon in order to pay for basic town services. Sure, voters can oppose the CPA increase if they want to, but whether it passes or fails, to follow it with an override request will inevitably have the effect of “here we go again.” If we only seek an override by dire necessity, wouldn’t we want to give it the best possible shot at passing? Does it make sense to precede a need with a want? That negative outweighs the various positives of this proposal for me.

The Finance Committee opposed the motion, saying that it should be considered in a larger context addressing all the financial problems and plans.

The CPAC supported it, but what body ever opposed giving itself more money?

People made the predictable and the previously mentioned arguments for and against. Ultimately, it passed in a tally vote of 89 supporting, 61 opposing, and I voted to oppose.

Article 39 sought to “strongly urge” the Select Board to seek an “RFP for the lease and/or management of the Cherry Hill Golf Course by private entities.” The petitioner of this article is a TM member who wants the Cherry Hill budget to never be a TM issue again. He asserted that privatizing management would still enable golf to be affordable to the whole community. Neither the SB nor FC took a position on the article. A shy and quiet fellow shared with us some up-to-the-minute Cherry Hill financial figures he just happened to have in his pocket. In keeping with the established pattern, those numbers were then re-framed and re-interpreted for us by Mr. Musante. Another member spoke of his desire to maintain town ownership and not “exploit” this “resource.” We had a standing vote which passed with 72 supporting, 62 opposing. I voted in support.

Article 40 sought to have the Town Manager compile and keep updated a fact book of key town data and information, providing easy access and a “common foundation for decision making by Town Meeting members and other town officials.” Everyone supported the concept, though the FC downgraded their initial stance from “recommend” to “no recommendation,” feeling the budget situation made this an inopportune time for it. The SB wanted to refer it to the TM Coordinating Committee, but some argued that it was outside the committee’s purview, and the motion to refer was defeated. The vote to support the main motion passed resoundingly, and I was among those supporting it.

The end was in sight. But it was 10:00, so if we were to forge ahead, any new article required a motion to that effect. We got one, it had full support, and we moved on to Article 41.

This article sought to request from the Select Board a five-year financial projection for level town services “with rationale for each” and the proposal of “sustainable strategies” to support those projections, all to be shared with Town Meeting. Again, most everyone supported this concept, and discussion focused on specific language of the article’s terms, which was ultimately edited to satisfaction. After the vote, those words again: “The ayes have it, the motion passes.” I voted in support.

Article 41 was the last article on the warrant, but long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, we had voted to defer article 19 until after article 41, so we weren’t quite done yet.

Article 19 sought a zoning bylaw change, to regulate where drive-through facilities can and cannot be located. Apparently this was previously unregulated, and that is why the resulting drive-through chaos ensued. Or whatever. At this point in the evening and the meeting, a zoning change allowing Wal-Mart on the town common might well have passed. After brief explanation and briefer discussion, this motion which required a 2/3 majority passed unanimously.

And thus ended Amherst’s 247th Annual Town Meeting.


Random Bits

More pictures tonight – this time of all the sad park and rec signs, or lack thereof. Not quite the sewage treatment plant, but hey.

Rumors that our earlier bad behavior had driven the moderator out of town never to return, proved to be false. Rumors that he came home to find the interim moderator waiting on his front step, desperate to return the gavel, are unconfirmed.

Quite a crowd gathered at ABC for refreshment after the meeting. Luckily, the giant orchestra that was playing when we arrived soon finished their set, allowing for actual conversation. It was great to chat, put faces to names, and commiserate over this long crazy process.

So now what? What becomes of the blog? Good questions. There will be some wrap-up stuff in the next few days, so do check back. After that, it’s kind of hard to say. We definitely don’t want this to devolve into “Stephanie’s random thoughts on everything.” Issues relevant to TM will continue to come up occasionally, and I will probably weigh in on those, and then presumably pick up more or less like this with the fall TM. Just sorta see how it goes, I guess.

Let me say now that this has been a real kick. I had no idea how this was going to go, and it has blown me away. I’ve learned so much from so many, and connected with incredibly nice and interesting people, all because of the blog. Thank you very much for reading, for commenting, for e-mailing and for all your kind words.

And with that, I think my 15 minutes are just about up.


Anonymous said...

On April 26 I acquired a YTD (Year-to-Date) expenditure report showing Cherry Hill consumed 88% of its budget (as of March 29) for essentially half the Fiscal Year. I honestly couldn’t believe the number and went to see interim Town Manager John Musante.

“You’re not really going to look me in the eye and tell me Engstrom can run Cherry Hill for three full months on only $27,000” I said incredulously. “Yep” replied Musante.

Last night, however, Musante admitted (after I read the most recent the YTD report for May) Cherry Hill busted its budget and will require a “$10,000 to $15,000 Reserve Fund transfer” (definitely the latter). He was wrong about Cherry Hill expenditures (with lots of data at his disposal), and he’s just as wrong about revenues.

Plus, notice Ms. Awad never apologized to Town Meeting for misleading them with an incorrect revenue report (“$176,000 as of May 22”) at the May 30’th Cherry Hill budget discussion.

With Cherry Hill accumulating only $167, 896 thru June 1’st, AND with May’s revenues down 20% from last year (in spite of a rate increase) AND with the rains thus far in June, it’s safe to say CH will be down 30% from last June’s $34,020 (or about $24,000) thus bringing the FY06 total to around $192,000 or $15,000 under goal.

Tap that Reserve Fund again!

AND, the FY07 budget was formulated assuming FY06’s revenues/expenditures were accurate. Thus, we are doomed to see this FY06 $32,000 imbalance repeated in FY07.

Hey, $30,000 here and $30,000 there…pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Anonymous said...

1.I loved your reference to that shy character commenting on Art. 39. But since you voted in support of that article, let me ask you why, i.e. what is it you thought it was designed to do in the immediate future? Answer: to try for the third RFP in less than 5 years. Not a single taker in either of those first two tries. The petitioner claims he knows why and has a plan for success this time. Did you hear him explain it?

I voted against it (having explained my reasons to the petitioner long ago): I don't mind trying again, but not this year: a. Cherry Hill has just been moved into the General Fund; I want to see how that works out. b. I suspect the new town manager will have more urgent things to deal with in the coming months.

2. The FC's concerns regarding Art. 40 (fact book) had to do with the staff time required, especially when $20,000 had been cut from the Gen. Govt. budget.
I share that concern and ended up voting in support of the article only once the amendment had been added that provides adequate flexibility for when this (very useful document) is to be produced.

3. Here are the names of the excellent (friendly, helpful, smart, supremely competent) trio who staff the Town Manager/Select Board office. Go meet them!

Joyce Karpinski, Libby Lass, and Gail Weston.

4. I will really miss this blog. I agree that it should not be allowed to deteriorate. As you say, see how it goes.
Anyway, thanks so much for doing it!

Mary Carey said...

I really enjoyed your blog, too, Stephanie.
--Mary Carey, Daily Hampshire Gazette

Carol said...


Thanks for taking the time to recap this for all of us who were to exhausted to do so! It's been great to read your take on things, and the comments folks make.

One thought I had on Article 40 - the fact book. I think this would be the perfect exercise for an unpaid intern from either UMass or Amherst College to undertake. Some gov't. student looking for some experience during the year could put this together and learn all about the town and it's different issues/committees/boards etc. at the same time. And it would cost very little in staff time.

Thanks again, Stephanie! See you in the fall!

Richard Morse said...

Since Mary Carey looks in, I was wondering what the readership of this blog thought of the Gazette's USA Today-style "coverage-in-a-box" of Town Meeting this spring.

I hope that the format was imposed on Ms. Carey by some editorial dunce from above, because I hated it. It seemed to trivialize our proceedings. Now I know that there are some in our august body who mistakenly assume that the whole world is watching us. The Gazette seemed to believe that the Valley was watching, but only for laughs and entertainment.

This is a town whose political health desperately depends on some critical mass of citizens actually understanding crucial policy choices. AND it's a town where individual commentators can assert with an air of authority almost anything in print or on the floor of Town Meeting without the accompanying assurance of careful fact-checking. Therefore, I find the Gazette's and the Bulletin's reporting moving steadily away from assisting readers in fulfilling their civic responsibilities, and more toward "the funniest thing that happened last night."

It's unfortunate. If we can't read serious, thought-provoking, mind-expanding print journalism about local matters in the Valley, then I submit that it's doomed just about everywhere.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Eva – I supported the Cherry Hill RFP because it seems like a very sensible option to me. I am obviously late to this issue and don’t know all its historical details, but I am a firm believer capitalism, with all it inherent rationality and incentives. If a reasonable RFP fails to get any interest again, that speaks loudly to the viability of the course. We can’t affect the past and can only hope to make the best decisions going forward. If this option is pursued and a management company can run the course successfully, that looks like the best of all outcomes to me. If that doesn’t work, then we’re right back where we are now. If there’s a downside, I’m not aware of it, but I would welcome the information.

Thank you for those names – I will add them to the text now.

Anonymous said...

Good for you Stephanie (you’ve been right more often than wrong and on this one you made a hole-in-one)

Eva is losing her ‘institutional memory’. A long, long time ago Cherry Hill WAS part of the LSSE Community Service Budget and it lost money hand over fist (FY87 thru FY90).

And I love the old (already getting tired) excuse: “the new Town Manager will have more urgent things to deal with” routine. But if Cherry Hill doesn’t go out to bid, then he’s going to have to deal with that somewhat incendiary “shy and quiet fellow.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a thoughtful look at town meeting. I've learned a lot from this blog. How would you feel about attending some School Committee and other meetings and sharing your insights? (just kidding - I know this could become a full-time job!). Seriously, though, I agree with Richard Morse - the Gazette and Bulletin could do a much better job of informing Amherst residents of what's going on at Town Meeting and other meetings.

Eva Schiffer said...

Technical stuff:

When I first tried to post a comment, I had trouble registering. Then Stephanie explained that you don't have to register: you can click on "Anonymous" and still include your name if you want. That's what I proceeded to do. I'm not sure that all those who choose "Anonymous" are aware that it's possible to include a name in the text of the message. Of course, maybe they are and just don't want to.

Then, just the other day, Jonathan O'Keeffe explained that if you choose "Other" and type in your name, it appears at the top (and you still don't have to register). That's my favorite.

Altogether, Stephanie, this is a wonderfully user-friendly setup.