Tuesday, October 31, 2006

October gave a party, TMers by hundreds came

Fall Town Meeting began last night, getting underway at about 7:45.

Lots of announcements and introductions from the Moderator to start things off. Introduction of new town clerk Sandra Burgess, who read the “oh hear ye, hear ye” call of the warrant. Introduction of Doug Slaughter as a new Finance Committee member, and announcement of a FinCom vacancy – those who might be interested should contact the Moderator. Warning of “no electioneering” during Town Meeting – no buttons or t-shirts or whatever extolling pro-this or anti-that.

The Moderator then outlined his expectations for the meeting – he anticipates it running three nights – last night, Wednesday, November 1st and Wednesday November 8th. November 1st is the “Special Special” where the citizens of Amherst will finally restore peace and order to the universe – what took us so long? – though some curmudgeons scoff at such efforts. The Moderator reminded us that there are parliamentary means of opposing articles one considers inappropriate for the body, and that boycotting the meeting is not the best option.

Anne Awad of the Select Board explained that it is traditional at Fall TM to recognize those who have served the town through two or more terms on a board or committee. She read the names of 16 such people, and presented certificates and town pins to those of whom were in attendance: Mark Power, Farm Committee; Robert Grose, Comprehensive Planning Committee; Barbara Mitchell, Conservation Commission; David Henion, Design Review Board; Michael Mascis, Finance Committee; Mary Jane Laus, Human Services Funding Committee; Florence Boynton, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee; Nancy Pagano, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee; Mary Santiago, La Paz Centro Sister City Committee; Kathleen Ford, Leisure Services and Supplemental Education Commission; Adrian Fabos, Planning Board; Carol Lee, Public Art Commission; Van Kaynor, Public Transportation Committee; Jim Ellis, Public Shade Tree Committee; Doris Holden, Registrar of Voters; Zina Tillona, Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Moderator introduced Town Manager Larry Shaffer, on board for his first official TM since starting the job. He talked about how glad he is to be here, praised the town’s employees, and gave special recognition to two groups: the fire and police departments who handled the big fire at Echo Hill with great heroism, and Nancy Pagano and the Senior Center staff who mobilized an emergency stop-gap effort to assist the transportation needs of seniors during a rough transition to a new service provider.

The business of the warrant then got underway.

Article 6 – the continuing saga of saving the historic Kimball House on North East Street – was postponed until Wednesday, November 8th, because its details are still being hammered out.

Article 13 – about removing the flawed Wetlands District designation from the zoning bylaw – was postponed until Wednesday, November 1st, to follow the “Special Special,” because the Planning Board and the Select Board are still working on it.

Article 1—to hear the reports of two committees. We approve it, and hear status updates from the Amherst Energy Conservation Task Force and the Outreach Bus Routes subcommittee of the Public Transportation Committee. The town’s Energy Conservation Task force is – surprise! – trying to get the town to conserve energy. It has done inventories of green house gas emissions, set goals for reduction targets, published a climate action plan, and worked with the town and the colleges to implement many and varied conservation measures. They are looking for ways to engage more citizens in such efforts, and their Renewable Energy Fair on the Common was one such attempt. Among the ways that citizens can make a difference: sign up to purchase renewable energy credits for which the town will receive money if the sign-up goal is met; walk, bus or bike instead of driving; use compact fluorescent light bulbs; and if you insist on having a car, at least keep it well-maintained and don’t idle. And speaking of buses: the Outreach Bus Routes subcommittee reported that a new bus route #32 is planned for debut in December, linking the hot spots of Amherst from Puffer's Pond to Atkins, thanks to the combined efforts of the Select Board, the Town Manager, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, PVTA and UMass Transit. Also, PVTA will fund the Gatehouse Road route for the rest of the year, and there’s a new plan for that neighborhood to be served by a re-routing of a Belchertown Road bus in the future. And all buses are now using ultra low sulfur fuel, so they are less polluting and less stinky.

Article 2 seeks to pay unpaid bills from previous years, but as we have none, it was dismissed.

Article 3 has three parts, all tying up loose ends from FY06. Part A seeks to make up for a deficit in the Health Claims Trust Fund with a transfer of $166,087 from the general fund’s free cash account. That amount will be reimbursed through an extension of an existing temporary surcharge on health insurance premiums. Much discussion about the inexact science of budget prediction, and what a small correction this is in relation to total claims which were more than $9 million for the year. Concerns were voiced about improving budget planning in the face of ever-increasing health care costs, and for how the surcharge and future increases affect the individual employees. Assurance from all that these are key issues being analyzed and addressed going forward. The vote to approve is unanimous.

Part B seeks to make up for a revenue deficit of $85,853 from the sewer fund with a transfer of that amount from the sewer fund surplus. The surplus fund currently has almost $750,000 in it and meeting a shortfall like this is partly what it’s for. Revenues were short primarily because UMass’ water conservation success has decreased their corresponding sewer usage fees more than had been expected. Much of this was a rehash of the original discussion on this budget area from the spring, with concern being expressed about why a higher pricing tier for UMass was eliminated, when that is one of the few ways of getting money from the school. The new information (new to me, anyway) in response is that the third tier was not eliminated rashly – it had been promised many years back that if UMass met certain conservation goals, that tier would be eliminated, and hence, this was following through on the town’s promise. In response to concerns about shortfalls for this year, Finance Director John Musante explained that either water or sewer rates are adjusted each year, and that this year’s anticipated sewer adjustment might occur in January instead of July. The vote to approve the transfer of funds was unanimous.

Part C was about the Golf Course. Same old story. Revenue shortfall. Needs transfer from surplus. “You know who” makes a big stink about it. Same old story. This time though, his latest video hectoring efforts annoyed too many too much, and was cut short. The vote to use money from the surplus to eliminate the deficit was nearly unanimous.

Article 4 – Golf Course, part II. This seeks to transfer the assets of the golf course enterprise fund to the general fund, essentially cleaning up the final details of having removed the course’s budget from enterprise fund status last spring, when it was put under the town’s community services budget. There were concerns about whether this gives the town and TM less insight into its financial situation. The answers to that were a) no, and b) changing is budget status is a done deal – that isn’t what this article is about. Questions about the status of the RFP for privatizing the course’s operations were addressed: it’s in progress, should be issued late this year with response early next year, other improvements are also being made including better marketing; and the RFP would ensure that people can still use the course for hiking, cross country skiing, etc. This vote again was nearly unanimous, with just a couple of scattered nos.

Article 5 was an easy one: rescinding previous unused borrowing authorizations in order to clear them from the books. These are leftover from three projects – a 1984 borrowing authorization for constructing the parking lot behind CVS, which left $298K unborrowed; a 2001 authorization for repairs to the Crocker Farm School which left $3,603 unborrowed; and a 2003 authorization for the Mechanic Street sewer project, for which $400K was not borrowed. No money was to be gained or lost by this action; it was merely a bookkeeping issue. It passed unanimously.

Article 7 was to enter into an Intermunicipal Mutual Aid Agreement for sharing resources with other communities during emergency situations and providing or receiving reimbursement for those resources. It was explained as formalizing a process already in place. Some concerns were voiced about details such as who is authorized to declare an emergency (answer: the town manager) and whether this agreement addresses the fact that the most vulnerable citizens are disproportionately affected by disasters (answer: no, but…) and it was explained these are the kinds of topics covered by the town’s emergency management plan, which is an entirely different document. The vote to approve was unanimous.

Article 8 was a petition article about the Gatehouse Road bus route. It was brought by someone who uses that bus and represents others who do or might use the bus, and was billed as requesting a show of support from the body for continuing that bus service. The petitioner told of collecting lots of signatures and how unhappy people were when the route might have been cut, and they’re happy service is being continued now and new options are being explored. Okie-doke. Lots of people spoke to how great the cooperation has been among all the entities that have kept the service going for this school year, and how important public transportation is, blah blah blah. A representative from the Pedestrian Bicycle Transportation subcommittee of the Public Transportation Committee (I think) spoke about this article being unnecessary at this time because no cuts were made or are expected, and a process is ongoing for prioritizing routes and how to best utilize all the public transit resources. People countered with: Buses are good! Cars are bad! TM must have its say!

To me, the oddest argument in favor of this article is that everyone should ride these buses and encourage others to, because currently they’re empty and it will be easier to support them if they’re full. OK, I get the part about full buses being easier to support – but encouraging people to ride them so that they are full doesn’t make sense to me. Does that mean pretend there is demand where there really isn’t? Does that mean trying harder to justify unjustifiable buses? I think people are stuck on the “Field of Dreams” theory of bus routes – if you build it they will come. But guess what? We built it. They’re not coming. Ridership reflects true demand, and true demand on certain routes is very low. The bottom line is this of course became another referendum on public transportation – are you for it or against it? – and not a discussion of the article, which was actually meaningless. But worse than being meaningless, it will become something to invoke in the future as TM’s past support of this route, next time a case is made for its elimination. I voted no, but I was among a surprisingly small minority. I would have thought that the minority would have been closer in size to the one that opposed continued funding of these routes in the spring, but perhaps because this wasn’t actually about taking any action or spending any money – it was a “show of continued support” – many of my former fellow opposers felt safe in supporting it. Whatever.

Article 9 was about the disposition of parcels on Olympia Drive to be used for affordable housing. This has been a long process, and this technical measure of allowing the Select Board to use its control of the property for this purpose is just the latest step toward this long-identified and long-supported goal. It was explained that a study has shown that 38 units are feasible for the space, and that they will be a mix of affordable and market-rate, and that significant public input will be sought on the project before the development RFP is issued. Concerns were raised about future costs to the town. It was acknowledged that there will be infrastructure costs, just as with any new residential growth, but that the builder and not the town will bear any development expenses. There was discussion about affordable housing’s benefits and necessities to the community, and the “costs of not providing” it. The vote required a 2/3 majority, and only two or three people voted to oppose.

This meeting was adjourned at about 10:15, to be reconvened after the “Special Special” on Wednesday.

And that one is sure to be special indeed.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reviewing the warrant

Wasn’t it just June? Where has the time gone?

Last night was the Warrant Review Meeting in preparation for next week’s Special Town Meeting. Not to be confused with the Special Special Town Meeting. Though Fall Town Meeting is essentially a yearly tradition, by writ, the spring meeting is the “Annual” TM and any other one is “Special.” A Special TM that convenes another Special TM within it – or immediately after—gets dubbed a Special Special. One hopes if we were to daisychain too many of these together, we might seek a new nomenclature.

But one mostly hopes we never face that problem.

And so the Warrant Review. There were only about 20 people there, but it was also shown on ACTV and will be repeated there several times.

The meeting was arranged by the League of Women Voters and the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee, and the chairs of both kicked things off. The moderator and various committee reps then explained each article.

Harrison Gregg began with Article 1, boilerplate that asks us to hear any reports that aren’t in written form. He expects only one “heard” report – from a committee whose name I missed, but it had something to do with energy.

Article 2 is housekeeping about transferring necessary funds to pay unpaid bills from last year, but it will be dismissed, because we paid all our bills.

Andrew Steinberg of the Finance Committee addressed Article 3, which has three parts, all addressing shortfalls from FY06 and the transfer of funds to deal with that. Part A regards the Health Care Trust Fund, and a $166,087 deficit requiring that amount to be transferred from the General Fund’s Free Cash account. Last year this occurred also, but the deficit was larger – more than $700K – and to reimburse the Free Cash account for those funds, a temporary surcharge was added to employee health care premiums from January 2006 to June 2007. For this new reimbursal, the surcharge period will be extended by three months. There were some questions and discussions here about two consecutive years of deficits to the Health Care Trust Fund, which Steinberg said the town is working with an advisory committee and consultant to address going forward. This issue will probably get a fuller hearing at TM.

Part B of Article 3 is about a sewer fund shortfall. Sewer charges are calculated by water usage rates, Steinberg explained, and because UMass has improved its water usage efficiency significantly, they have incurred lower sewer fees than had been anticipated. To meet the $85,853 deficit in the Sewer Fund, that much needs to be transferred from the Sewer Fund Surplus, which currently has a balance of almost $750,000.

Part C is about that perennial TM topic: making up for the Cherry Hill Golf Course deficit. (Cue Larry Kelley’s data-laden “Told ya so.”) The golf course fund came up short $10,742.69 in FY06 and that amount needs to be transferred from the Golf Course Fund Surplus, which has a current balance of more than $13,000.

Article 4 is also about Cherry Hill, and Finance Committee chair Alice Carlozzi explained it. Cherry Hill had been operating for a while as an enterprise fund, but we changed that in the spring and made it part of the regular town budget. This article officially dissolves the enterprise fund and transfers its assets – the remaining Surplus Fund money, and the “fixed assets” such as the course, the equipment, etc. – to the town. This clears up the bookkeeping of eliminating the enterprise fund.

Article 5 is another housekeeping article. It seeks for TM to rescind three previous borrowing authorizations the body has made in the past. These are leftover, not needed, or otherwise non-borrowed authorizations from earlier projects and Carlozzi explained that they simply need to be cleared off the books to give a clearer picture of the town’s debt capacity. No money is gained or lost by this.

Article 6 is going to be a tough one. This is the latest chapter in trying to save the historic Kimball House on North East Street. David Ziomek, director of conservation and planning, explained that the deal the town had made with the State for compensation and mitigation for taking some land out of the Agricultural Protection Restriction status has changed a bit, leaving us $128,000 short. (Recap: the property owners had wanted to tear the house down and build a new one. People went nuts. The owners agreed to leave the house and build a new one near it, but the restrictions on that adjacent land didn’t allow for that. The town has been working hard to get the state to remove the restrictions on that land, which it can only do by putting restrictions on an equal amount of land someplace else, and paying some money. That money was expected to be $83K, which was covered partially by the owners and partially by TM appropriating Community Preservation Act funds, and partially by the value of adjacent land to be added to the APR. But the state wants compensation equal to the appraised value of the land being un-APR’d, which at $211K, leaves us with this $128K deficit.) The proposal is that the town commit to paying that $128K over the next five years. It is expected to come from CPA money, but the CPAC would need to approve that, and the sequencing of these things don’t allow that to happen until after TM deals with this. Will the town keep spending money in order to preserve just the exterior of a house it won’t even take ownership of? Or will we let it be destroyed, for want of a few more bucks, a teensy drop in the bucket when amortized out across the many years it will stand and the many people it will inspire? We’ll see. This is sure to be one of the hot topics of this TM.

Article 7 allows the town to enter into “intermunicipal agreement” with other towns to share resources during an emergency. The moderator handled this one and the next couple. This one seems obvious enough, but I guess there is no such thing.

Article 8 is vague. It seeks “To see if the town will vote to continue, and, if financially and otherwise feasible, improve outreach bus service to Echo Hill and East Amherst.” It doesn’t involve any specific money or commitment at this point. Not sure if this is meant to “get the sense of the body” as Gregg suggested, or to actually tie our hands in some way. It smells funny to me.

Article 9 really is a housekeeping article: transferring two parcels on Olympia Drive from the Select Board to the Select Board, but with a new purpose. What had been in their keeping as general municipal property will now become affordable housing and open space. This is one of those technicalities in the long process of bringing these affordable housing units into being, but I suspect that it will turn into 200 people offering their opinions on the specific development plans – where will the trees be? Where will the parking be? What about those for whom this is unaffordable? Etc. Perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Article 10 seeks to establish an Agricultural Commission, to replace the current Farm Committee. The state looks favorably at such commissions for grants and gravitas. Ziomek described it as essentially morphing the Farm Committee into this new name, with the same directives and advisory roles. The primary difference is that the Select Board created and hence could dissolve the Farm Committee, where this article would give those powers over an Ag Commission to Town Meeting. Pretty straightforward.

Article 11 is an interesting multi-part zoning article, but because the Planning Board feels all the details aren’t yet worked out, they will request that it be referred back to them to probably bring to TM again in the spring. Hence, I’ll skip it

Article 12: Ditto.

Article 13 is a complicated one about removing the wetlands district designation, which the PB now believes is not legal as written because zoning designations must be along specific and unchanging boundaries, and must be made law by a 2/3 vote of TM. PB chair Aaron Hayden described the wetlands designation as “floating,” because it is based instead on the determinations and measurements that define wetlands. The concern is how to remove this designation, which hasn’t been used in many years, without inadvertently exposing wetlands to development. The PB says they need to be protected, but not via a flawed zoning designation. This will no doubt be an interesting discussion.

Article 14 pertains to an easement for the parking garage which was found to encroach on private property. Town Manager Larry Shaffer said that the details of this are still being negotiated with the property owner, and he hopes to bring this article back in the spring.

Article 15 asks TM to receive the report of the Fire Station Study Committee, which details options for improving fire and EMT response times in town, particularly South Amherst. We need not accept the report, but merely receive it. The article also asks the Town Manager to develop a plan to finance either the recommendation for three fire stations, or a revamped two station concept. Either would entail new ongoing expenses for the future, and will surely inspire vigorous debate.

Article 16 seeks to establish an emergency access bylaw, which would require all buildings except single family homes that have supervised fire protection systems (described by Shaffer as systems that trigger an alarm and a phone call to a central dispatch) to have a key vault or “lock box” on site, holding keys or codes needed to access its locked interior spaces. The key to the lock box would be held at the Fire Station. Interesting questions about liability were raised, and many others are likely to come up once this article is discussed at TM.

Article 17 would establish an open burning bylaw that would enable the town to ticket illegal bonfires. Bonfires are currently regulated only at the state level, which allows municipalities one per year. Student bonfires cost the town money to deal with, and by establishing them as ticketable offenses, it will help recoup those costs and formally penalize such acts by creating a $300 fine.

Article 18 is about granting an easement to WMECO and Verizon for installing and accessing underground cables for a cell phone tower that will be built off of Pulpit Hill Road, in an area known as “Ruxton.” Permission for the tower was authorized by TM in the spring of 2005. This article just addresses an overlooked permitting detail.

So that’s the Special. The Special Special was discussed briefly in terms of how it would be handled. The expectation is that it will be convened on November 1st and then immediately adjourned until we complete the business of the Special. I wasn’t certain if the moderator was saying that this is definitely how the Special Special will proceed, or if it is probably the case. Perhaps ongoing discussions make that tentative, or perhaps there is some possibility of the body voting down adjournment and forcing that meeting to be held on November 1st. Or perhaps that is definite, and I just didn’t get it.

I am still formulating my opinions of and intentions for the Special Special, (which comprises four articles on national and international political issues) so I will defer my bloviating on that subject for little while yet.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Branching out

I’ve decided I want to write about more than just the trials and tribulations of Town Meeting (or – egads! – the Survival Center,) so I started a new web site – www.inAmherst.com. It is in the very earliest stages, and I don’t yet have articles for every category, but I hope it will grow and improve. If you check it out, let me know what you think.

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