Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prometheus bound

We would finish last night. The question was when. We got started at about 7:45.

Article 14 pertained to the Town acquiring an easement for land on Main Street where the parking garage encroaches on private property, but details are still being worked out with the land owner, and so the Select Board asked that this article be dismissed.

Article 15 – was to see if the Town would accept the report of the Fire Station Study Committee, and to ask that the Town Manager create long range plans for financing two of its recommendations – one for two stations, and the other for three. The Chair of the Fire Station Study Committee described the group’s work to date. Last time the committee came before TM was to request money to hire a consultant to study the current system, consider its future needs, and identify possible sites for a new station and the associated costs. TM appropriated $20,000 for that purpose. The committee issued an RFP and received 11 responses. They chose a company and developed a report, and the summary of that was presented last night. (The full 46-page report is available here.) The gist of the report is that there are challenges to providing fire protection and emergency services within adequate response times in a long skinny town. The current two station set-up provides inadequately for the southern part of town and needs to be rectified. The Committee’s report provides several options, and their recommendation that the three station option be pursued.

The Select Board unanimously supported the article. Robie Hubley commended the committee’s work and talked of visiting Vernon, Conn., when interviewing Larry Shaffer, and seeing the new fire station and emergency center built there under his tenure. Hubley said that made him confident that Shaffer knew his way around this kind of financing plan. Alice Carlozzi, Finance Committee chair, said they too were unanimous in their recommendation for support, and appreciated this step as a progress report and chance for TM to express opinions.

A member then moved to divide the motion – any member’s prerogative if the sense of the article lends itself to division. This one divided easily into A and B – receiving the report, and having the Town Manager create financing plans. We quickly vote on the first part, and the vote to receive the report is unanimous. On to the second part.

A member sought to amend the motion, eliminating the part that asks for a plan for a two station concept, leaving only the three station option on the table. He tells a story about a bad fire in his apartment building in South Amherst in 1987, and how it took the fire department more than 7 minutes to arrive because of traffic downtown, how much worse the fire was because of the delay, and how scary it was to imagine a loved one being trapped in the fire.

Several people spoke against the motion to amend, saying that presenting plans for both options would be instructive. After some procedural confusion about which order to vote on the motions (and did this meet the inscrutable requirements of “voting the higher number first?” – it did not,) we vote on the amendment. It fails in a voice vote. I didn’t vote (I was still taking notes at that moment, and somehow spaced on the voting) but I had intended to not support it. I do feel like the three station concept is almost a foregone conclusion – or should be – so I kind of liked cutting to the chase and sparing the Town Manager’s time by not going through the motions of creating a two station financing plan. But I was persuaded by the arguments that the comparison of the two will be instructive. When the contentious issue of funding this comes before TM, one expensive three station plan would be easy to ridicule. Comparing it to a less-expensive but less-optimal two station plan will provide perspective and help frame the argument in terms of X-dollars buying Y-additional coverage, and whether it is more worth saving or spending that difference.

A member then complained about the irresponsibility of any such plan when we’re already looking at another significant budget shortfall, and we have other capital needs. He then invoked that familiar TM refrain – “Make the colleges pay!” Just think of all we could do if they – read: UMass – paid their “fair share.”

A few questions about timing on the project (we’re in year 2 of a multi-year timeline – what happens when depends which option we pursue,) and which maps show which options, and why some options aren’t even being considered (some options were immediate no-gos because they defied national standards and practices or involved locations with traffic impracticalities) and then we voted. The Yes votes were overwhelming, with just a few scattered No votes. I voted Yes.

Article 16 sought to create an emergency access bylaw whereby new and renovated buildings – except single-family dwellings – with supervised alarm systems would be required to install lockboxes with necessary keys or access codes, enabling the Fire Department to gain entry. Currently they either have to wait for a key holder to show up, which wastes a ton of the Fire Department’s time, or they have to break down a door or window, which costs the building owner a lot of money to fix. Both the Select Board and Finance Committee were in unanimous support. There were a couple of questions from the body about whether the Police Department could access the boxes also (no) and whether the Fire Department rather than the building owner should initiate the annual inspections (apparently not – no one opted to respond to this suggestion) and we quickly voted unanimously to support this. So quickly did we vote in fact, that some people were confused and thought the vote was about calling the question, but that hadn’t happened, so it wasn’t.

On to Article 17 – making non-permitted, hence illegal, open burning a ticketable offense. This is intended as a deterrent against and punishment for student bonfires. The SB supports it. The FC supports it. A couple of members support it for its very obviousness. Then other members talk about Native American ceremonies, the role of fire in human history, and the pleasures of playing guitar around fires in the woods back in college, or toasting marshmallows with your kids, and suddenly it appears that in Amherst illegal burning is considered a civil right. So passionate are these bonfire devotees that we actually have a counted standing vote on calling the question, which requires 2/3 majority. It passes 90 Yes, 31 No. We then immediately have a standing vote on the main motion. It too passes 93 Yes, 30 No. I vote Yes to both.

Article 18 – the end is in sight! This is a technicality – granting an easement for wires and cables to connect to the cell phone tower being erected on Pulpit Hill Road. Everything about the cell phone tower and its contract are a done deal. This is just to grant the necessary but overlooked easement. SB and FC support it. Members are concerned that we got shafted in the deal with Verizon, and we ought to be soaking this rich company. "Too late" is the response. Giant ovation (thank goodness!) for DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring, recently back from National Guard duty in Iraq, who explains that we get the money from Verizon, plus 50% of additional antenna rentals on the tower, which together may total up to $60,000 per year if fully-utilized. The Town also gets to use the tower for its own antennas, and gets a storage facility. We vote. It gets nearly unanimous support, with the requisite couple of Nos thrown in for good measure.

And then at about 9:15, the fall Town Meeting was dissolved.


rob kusner said...

As some of you may suspect, Stephanie is a poet (even if we might not always interpret these
poems the same way :).... Some of you may also know that Moderator Harrison Gregg is also a poet, of a different sort: a limericist (is that a word?)!

Having recently attempted to "commit poetry" myself at Stephanie's other website, let me finish
the job by sharing a limerick I composed years ago for Harrison's 60th birthday. It goes like this (you know the tune):

Hexacontal Harrison Gregg,

Surely I'm not pulling your leg:

To prevent a percussion

From ending discussion,

--- more minutes, therefore, I beg.

My idea was to have any speaker seeking
additional time fill in the --- with the requisite
number and recite this limerick before Town Meeting. For some reason this never caught on.

And in case you're not a scholar of classical Greek, "hexacontal" means "60ish" - and quite
conveniently, this can be alliteratively updated to
"heptacontal" (70ish) as time (or whatever else ;) demands.


John Coull said...

Mr. O'Connor got up and huffed about the report of the Fire Station Study Committee being "irresponsible". Surely Mr. O'Connor knows, if he is as knowledgeable as he would have us believe, that the Committee was charged to produce just such a report. The disrespect implied by this kind of bloviating makes one wonder that reasonable citizens choose to serve on Town Committees.

Chris Hoffmann said...

Did Mr O'Connor say the report was irresponsible, or that trying to fund new stations was irresponsible? I thought it was the latter.

Still, given that the article didn't involve spending any money -- other than staff time -- and specifically asked "that the Town Manager develop a long-range plan for financing either the three-station concept or the two-station concept for possible incorporation into municipal and capital budget planning," the objection did seem a bit odd to me.

Presumably "a long-range plan for financing" might end up including a subplan to get more money from the colleges. And "possible incorporation into ... budget planning" implies that the Town Manager may eventually decide there is no responsible way to fund any of the options.

But we won't know unless the Town Manager (or someone) does more investigation, right?

Richard Morse said...

I interpreted Mr. O'Connor's remarks as the usual obstructionist ploy.
The strategy is quite familiar by now: he sets up some very worthwhile prerequisite to pursuing a community goal, which he then claims, in his hyperbolic, almost apocalyptic rhetorical style, is indispensable to the entire effort. Last night it was "irresponsible" to study the financing of two or three fire stations without getting a commitment from the colleges. Since we haven't done that, everything associated with fire stations must therefore come to a screeching halt. And with the discontinuities built into our antiquated system of government,everything would stay halted until next spring if not later.

Give him his due: he's very good at it. Mr. O'Connor can get delay out of our town government like Isaac Stern used to get sweet music out of a violin. I'm one citizen in town who is getting tired of the obstructionism. But I suspect his remarks are a signal of roadblocks to come.

In pursuing one's idealism in Amherst, one must be a realist. If Mr. Kelley's and Mr. O'Connor's remarks last night represent the two poles of opinion on the need for fire stations in town, Mr. O'Connor has the political upper hand, with or without dire financial straits ahead. That is, until the vast majority of Amherst's citizens wake up to the stalling tactics that go on in Town Meeting. If you snooze, you lose.

Our town government serves no one better than those with lots of time on their hands who seek delay.

rob kusner said...

The 2 motions concerning Fire/EMS planning which Town Meeting approved Monday were actually the SB versions and had strong SB support, for the reasons the previous commentators just outlined.
Negotiating the financing with the major institutions in town won't be easy, but that will certainly be part of what the Town Manager's planning task includes!

Members of the FinCom and SB have also been exploring what the optimal mix Fire/EMS might be, both downtown and throughout the town, so this may be another variable to consider in addition to the number of stations (2 or 3) and
their geographic location.

Richard Morse said...

Having criticized Mr. O'Connor, I must note that he was the victim of an annoying tactic that is increasingly being used to cut off speakers: the "point of order" call. Monday night, it was employed by Jim Smith, who completely cut off Mr. O'Connor and then launched into a speech of his own. Even for those of us who don't usually agree with Mr. O'Connor, it was strikingly bad manners. But I notice it happening more and more.