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.


Anonymous said...

A perfect report, as usual!
A couple of comments:

1. Art. 3B (sewer fund): The fact that the differential in WATER-use rates was eliminated has nothing to do with the shortfall in the SEWER fund, confusing as this is, since the shortfall is due to the spectacular water conservation at UMass. They're two different funds, each with its own budget.

Also, while both water and sewer rates seem to get adjusted on a regular basis, this has to do with monitoring the fund balance. Because the enterprise funds are expected to cover both operating and major capital expenses, the town has long aimed at a balance of about $1 million in each. So the Sewer Fund balance is slightly low right now; hence rate adjustment soon.

2. Art. 8 (bus route through Echo Hill): I not only completely agree with everything you say. I thought some of the statements were downright misleading. I wish I had tried to get recognized to say that this article advises the SB to give preferential treatment to the Echo Hill area, regardless of budgetary considerations for other bus routes, or anything else. The Finance Committee's statement said something like that, but I somehow overlooked it on the back table and didn't read it until later.I do wish somebody had made that argument, though. I thought this was a surprisingly thoughtless vote.

Richard Morse said...

I think you missed an important impulse behind last night's vote on bus routes: climate change has jumped into the popular consciousness in a big way in 2006, even going from last spring to today. The problem has moved from the back to the front burner for a lot of us. I'm not saying that the vote last night was a perfectly intelligent response, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to vote against bus routes, when I believe that we are already well on our way into a global environmental emergency. It still sounds like Chicken Little stuff to many people, but I'm convinced now that it's not.

Part of the problem with the bus routes is information. If Amherst residents knew that they could take the bus into town for dinner and a movie and then get on a bus to go home, and have the trip take only, say 15 minutes longer, than it would in their auto, perhaps more folks would use public transportation.

Your skeptical perspective may seem more fiscally realistic in the short run. But, in the wake of Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth and some really good books this year on climate change (I read Tim Flannery's "The Weather Makers", but Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker also weighed in on the crisis this year), Amherst Town Meeting members may be having a hard time saying "no" to bus routes, knowing that, in the absence of some non-carbon form of automotive power, we are going to have to rethink established habits. I can no longer scoff at people in town who are thought of as public transportation fanatics.

Yes, the supply is out ahead of the demand, but I'm not jumping to cut bus routes any longer. The climate change problem will be at our doorstep a lot sooner than any future exhaustion of the global oil supply: it's that urgent.

Rich Morse, Precinct 7

Anonymous said...

So, driving empty buses around Town is going to help with global warming? I have tried the bus system and it stinks:

walk to bus stop - 15 minutes
wait for bus - 10 minutes
rid bus through out of town and through orchard valley - 15 minutes
sit at time point (to get bus back on schedule) - 5 minutes
ride bus to S Amherst Common - 5 minuts
walk home - 10 minutes

take car instead - 7 minutes
ride bicyle - 15 minutes