Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Meanwhile, back at the middle school

This meeting started rather differently than most. After the usual announcements, the first person recognized by the moderator was a longtime local activist from Northampton who talked about the dangers of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and implored us to “be good neighbors” and contact our representatives in Boston and Washington about the issue. Because she was not an Amherst resident, TM had to vote whether or not she could address us, and I was glad that we voted yes. It was the polite thing to do, and who knew what she was going to say? Of course, this sort of thing could easily become a nuisance, but that is not the case currently, and granting her three minutes seemed very reasonable to me.

Then the moderator uttered the sweetest of words: “Article 27.”

Why was that so sweet? Because it wasn’t Article 26. We have spent five meetings on Article 26. We began Article 26 on May 22nd – three weeks ago. Now we were moving on. Hallelujah!

Article 27 is about appropriating a certain amount of money for the reserve fund. This is not the same as “reserves,” but rather is money made available to deal with unexpected issues and overruns that occur during the year such that another Town Meeting doesn’t have to be called in order to pay those extra bills. Typically that amount is $100,000, and that is what this article originally specified, but the Finance Committee moved instead to appropriate just $50,000, because our Article 26 deliberations have put us over budget by $50,000 and that money needs to come from somewhere in order to pass a balanced budget. The Select Board supported the FC recommendation 4-1. People had various concerns about how that would work – if we typically need $100K, shouldn’t we keep it at that? Others weighed in on the “balanced budget” concept: the budget isn’t really balanced anyway because we are already taking $1 million from reserves to fill the gap and just because it is a round number doesn’t mean it is a magic number that can’t go up or down if needed. An SB member had spoken with the incoming Town Manager and he expected to have been able to deal with the $50K shortfall issue by Fall without any problem, but would be fine with this option also. Ultimately, we vote in favor of the recommendation, with perhaps only one person voting no. I voted in favor.

Article 28 concerns appropriating to ACTV money the town receives from the cable company. The Select Board moved to dismiss the article, because our current cable contract expires at the end of this fiscal year, and terms for a new contract are currently being worked out, making this article moot. Once there is a new contract, a similar article will be brought back at the Fall TM. One TM member had questions about where the money goes and wanted to make a new motion, but because she had spoken briefly about that, she was no longer eligible to make a new motion. This is one of those procedural technicalities I really don’t understand, but there you go. The vote to dismiss was unanimous.

Article 29 is the first of three capital spending articles put forth by the Joint Capital Planning Committee, which comprises two members each from the FC, SB, School Committee and Library Board of Trustees. Their goal is to spend 10% of the tax levy on capital needs, but this year’s situation allows for only 8.2%. Article 29 seeks to authorize the expenditure of $600,000 of Chapter 90 funds, which are largely raised through the gasoline tax and are specified for road work. The bulk of that – $500,000 – is for road repairs and $100,000 is for a new dump truck. An additional $15,000 of the truck’s cost for sanding and plowing equipment is not eligible for the Ch. 90 funds, and will be raised through taxation as part of Article 30. There was little discussion specific to this article, and the recommendation passed with one or two people voting against. I voted in support.

Article 30 is about capital spending on new equipment. It seeks to spend $1,119,943, with TM appropriating $801,943 to be raised from taxation and $230,000 from ambulance receipts. The additional $262,700 will be from grants, which are not appropriated by TM. The expenditures in this article and the others can all be found in the FC Report part 2, with additional detail of the JCPC’s 5-year plan in the appendices at the back. Many of the items on the long list elicited no discussion, but others did.

The electronic voting machines raised several questions and issues in light of the debacle of the 2000 presidential election. The Town Clerk explained that the Federal Government will give money to State Government to purchase the machines, and the State will allocate the machines to the towns. The Secretary of State has sole discretion on which machines are purchased, and like many voters, he is concerned that the machines create a paper trail to verify the vote. It is expected that the chosen machines, of which there will be one at each polling place (but not at the UMass locations,) will print out the completed ballot which will then be counted at the tabulating machine – not at the voting terminal itself. These machines will be available to all voters but intended for those with disabilities that prevent voting independently with the standard paper ballot system.

There were questions about the expense and necessity of a new $30,000 postage machine. It was explained that Post Office regulations require a new postage format that is harder to counterfeit. If we don’t meet the new regulations, we would lose valuable postal discounts that complicance allows.

There were various questions about the new police cruisers. Typically four are replaced each year, this year only three. The Police Chief talked about how many cruisers are in the fleet (12 marked, 6 unmarked) and how they are used (typically 4 during the day, 14 in the evening.) They need to be reliable and able to achieve 100,000 miles, they need to be spacious enough to hold “prisoners” in the rear and all of the officer’s equipment up front. He said the current models get 16-23 miles per gallon, and that changing models requires extensive redesign of equipment and mounts.

After some discussion about how the schools recycle their computers and the various successes and challenges associated with such efforts, we were ready to vote. Once again, the vote on this recommendation was nearly unanimous, with only 2 or 3 opposing votes. I again voted in support.

Article 31 is about capital spending on buildings and facilities. It has been divided into two parts, with part A being nearly everything, and part B being just the money to be appropriated for the Town’s Master Plan.

So 31-A seeks to appropriate $350,000 for repair and maintenance of various town buildings. As with the capital equipment needs, the repair and maintenance needs were prioritized for energy efficiency, with several expected to recoup their initial cost via energy savings in 3 to 5 years. The discussions on this were brief and straightforward. The suggestion to fund Town Hall maintenance with CPAC money was opposed by a Historic Commission representative. The plan to invest $30,000 each year in sidewalk maintenance couldn’t be accommodated this year. There’s mold in the police station vents and their HVAC system is costly and inefficient. A school feasibility study has been needed for a long time to help plan and budget for the school system’s future needs, and that can be done most efficiently by an outside consultant. Marks Meadow needs air conditioning for its computer room because it’s an extra hot room in an extra hot school. Let’s vote. It’s unanimous.

31-B is the $135,000 to fund the town’s comprehensive master plan. This process was initiated in 1999, and this appropriation to pay the consulting firm’s fee is the final appropriation for this project. The FC is unanimous in its recommendation, and the SB supported it 4 in favor, 1 abstaining. The abstaining member (I assume) then moved to refer the proposal back to the Comprehensive Planning Committee, because of various concerns. Though she says she is supportive of the plan, she wanted three issues addressed: 1) receiving a fee breakdown of the consultant’s contract so that we can hold them accountable for their time; 2) a full-cost accounting of not just the consultant’s fee but collateral costs to the town including printing and publicity costs for the finished plan, etc.; and 3) expectations of what would be required from town staff to accomplish the plan, and how that might impact their regular daily work. She had spoken with other towns across the country that had used this consulting firm, and those discussions lead her to these concerns. The chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee recommended against referring back to the committee saying that it would result in no change. The Town Manager can request tracking of time, just as he can do with all contracts. Collateral costs and staff time have long been considered and approved by the town departments most affected, and those will be supplemented by enormous amounts of volunteer time and effort. She cautioned that delaying now could set the project back by a full school year, since the plans are timed to the academic calendar. Another Comprehensive Planning Committee member said that he spoke to the same people in the other towns that have used this consultant, and had no concerns at all. Those towns recognized that every cost could not be predicted up front, and had no issues of town business going undone because of interruptions by the planning process. He stressed that the master plan is necessary to enable all the voices and ideas about Amherst’s future to be heard.

After two more speakers made similar points, the question was called. A standing vote was requested on the motion to call the question, which resulted in 123 yes votes and 34 no votes. I voted no, because I wasn’t sure enough discussion had occurred yet – I didn’t know if the mood of the body was for or against the money. But of course, this was just an amendment, so it was not the end of discussion opportunity. So the motion to call the question passes and we come to an immediate vote on the amendment to refer. It fails strongly (and I voted against referral) but some people wanted a tally vote. 15 members need to request a tally vote, and there were only 12. So the tally vote request failed. Back to the main motion.

Another amendment – this time to appropriate $85,000 instead of $135,000. The person proposing this amendment had various concerns about why an earlier proposal expected $85K now plus more money later, and so suggested we stick with that figure. The committee chair explained that the $135K is the $85K plus more money later, all rolled into one, because it was agreed that it was simpler this way. Another member supported the smaller amount and suggested that an existing draft plan from the early 1970s would help move us forward without “reinventing the wheel.” Really. I’m not kidding. A plan from 1973 was being touted as the path to Amherst’s future. I think my wide-eyed amazement actually strained muscles in my face.

Fortunately, this didn’t have much support. Someone very familiar with the '70s plan pronounced it “totally inadequate,” and spoke to the necessities of fully funding this process today. When the question was called and we voted on the larger number – the FC recommendation – despite its lopsided support, we had another tally vote, with 113 voting in support, and 41 opposed. As there was no further discussion, we had the appropriation vote, which was even more lopsided in its support. Both times, I was among the supporters.

Five more articles done, and we adjourned to Wednesday, June 14.

Random Bits

The folks at home missed out last night because ACTV had technical difficulties and was unable to broadcast. It is surprising that they were also unable to put up any sort of notice to that effect on Channel 17.

The question of how much UMass and the other colleges contribute to town services keeps coming up, this time both in direct questions to that effect, as well as through a proposal for future consideration for turning fire services into something akin to an enterprise fund, thus allowing us to bill the schools. I am skeptical, but I will be very interested to follow these discussions.

My question about the police cruisers didn’t lend itself to the TM discussion, but here goes: why do they have so many different paint, logo and type styles? You could see three Amherst cruisers and think they are from three different towns. One style is particularly cheesy looking, in my opinion. I like the one with the town seal.

I had thought I might speak for the first time last night, in support of the master plan. Turned out I didn’t need to. Plenty of people made excellent points and the body was clearly in support.

Ten articles to go. One night seems unlikely. Two? Maybe. Much beyond that is really approaching the realm of the ridiculous.


Jim Pistrang said...

Hi Stephanie,

Actually, 12 articles to go. Article 19 will be considered at the end after Article 41, and Article 1 of the May 24 Special Town Meeting will be considered after Article 34. We will need to go at a pace of nearly 1 article every 10 minutes in order to finish! Not to mention Article 32 has 3 motions....

Still, I'd be willing to stay late on Wednesday if we're close.....


Anonymous said...

I think I will add a special town meeting to handle the vermont yankee issue. So, expect an additional night to cover this important issue.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Jim -- Ugh. Thanks for the reminder.

Anon -- I sure hope you're kidding . . .

Anonymous said...

I wish you had asked about the cruisers; you and I are unlikely to be the only people to have noticed and wondered. Questions like that are quite appropriate while we're discussing equipment to be purchased.

I called the Chief a while back to ask. Turns out there is a national trend to have police cruisers more uniformly painted (black and white, rather than blue) and lettered. So as cruisers get replaced, the change to the new style will be made. Pity. As I told him, I much prefer our traditional blue-and-white with the attractive lettering (and Town seal).

Your puzzlement about that technicality is understandable. The rule is that you make your motion first, then speak to it (i.e. explain your reasons), not the other way around. Of course, sometimes, someone else will pick up the cue from the disqualified speaker and make the motion he/she had in mind.


Anonymous said...

Kidding? Maybe. But, waht if I wanted to extend town meeting indefinitely? How many signatures do you need for a special town meeting - 100? Someone that does not liketown meeting could introduce warrant article after article that would have to dismissed on the floor of town meeting. But, how could you tell that the articles were not serious. Didn't town meeting spend an entire evening discussin GM resolutions. So, lets see - a couple or articles on vt yankee and broader energy policy. A couple of foreign policy articles. A article or 2 to rezoning land that is about to be developed. I think we could be here a while.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Eva -- Thanks! If I just ask you all my questions, I'll have nothing left to blog about.

Anon -- You raise an excellent point. The system does seem vulnerable to abuse. But then, what system isn't? If you plug up one loophole, you invariably leave open, or create, another. It is an interesting question, with no good answer. And while you cite this as a possibility among those who don't like TM, I'd be more worried about those who DO like it. It offers a powerful spotlight for some, and one can understand their temptation to prolong that. (Like bloggers for example . . . No, no - I would much prefer a quicker and more efficient process.) You have provided good food for thought. Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Of course, ypu could also reconsider articles. With 3 tally votes to really make things interesting.

Anonymous said...

You mean like the planning board cabal tried with
Article 23? That was in very poor taste. I hope
it is not tried again. It was pathetic!

Anonymous said...

Cabal? Its a secret conspiracy that is supported by 65% of town meeting. It also puts on record the people who support a diversified tax base.