Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Budgeting our time

Things got underway late, you know, what with the bomb scare and all.

You didn’t hear about that?

Apparently, at the end of the school day, there was some kind of bomb report/rumor at the Middle School, and such things aren’t taken lightly these days. Emergency people were still checking the building when I arrived a little before 6:30 for the Select Board meeting. Things got cleared up in time for that meeting to start at 6:45, without any ACTV as there was no time to set that up. Kudos to Sean Kinlin and his crew and the Town IT folks and whomever else is part of making the Town Meeting broadcast happen, because they had to cram those arrangements into a much-condensed time last night.

So Town Meeting got underway at 7:50. I don't actually know that the residual effects of that incident contributed to the late start, but I couldn't resist it as a juicy blog intro.

The Moderator started with announcements: TMCC voting was taking place at the rear of the auditorium, members should sign up for the TMCC mailing list (send an e-mail to TMCC@amherstma.gov to do so) and then recognized School Superintendent Jere Hochman for an announcement.

This poor guy. Just when you think the other shoe has dropped, the schools sprout another foot.

So sure enough, Dr. Hochman explains that the infamous change to the State law about all towns in a region now needing to approve the regional schools’ budget rather than the 2/3 majority previously required – mmm yeah, not so sure about that any more. The Department of Education says the rule change wasn’t meant to have the new interpretation. Town Counsel is trying to reach the DoE Counsel, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. Stayed tuned for Wednesday, when we find out that Leverett never officially became part of the region, and that Hadley is staging a hostile takeover bid for the High School. Glad I’m not on the School Committee.

It was then time to start the budget. Except that it wasn’t, because the Select Board wanted to meet with the Moderator somewhere behind the curtain, so we took a ten minute break. As a faithful scribe of Select Board meetings, I had a fleeting notion to go back there to see what that was all about, but frankly, you just don’t pay me enough for that. However, if anyone who was part of that pow-wow would like to fill the rest of us in, we’d be most appreciative.

So the Red Sox game was projected on the auditorium screen instead (YAY!!!) where the Yankees were killing Wakefield, and we were down 0-4 (BOO!!!) It was just that kind of a night.

When the meeting resumed, Gerry Weiss, Select Board Chair, talked about the many hours the Select Board had spent considering the budget details and how their recommendations differ from those of the Finance Committee by a small amount, and that those changes total 7/10ths of 1% of the general fund budget. He said that Town Meeting was facing several choices – to accept the Town Manager’s/Finance Committee’s budget, to accept the budget with the Select Board’s small modifications, to increase the budget as Town Meeting sees fit with such increases contingent on an override, or to have a rancorous debate about making further cuts to one area in order to add that money somewhere else. He urged no further cuts.

Alice Carlozzi, Finance Committee Chair, gave a long statement about the need for a multi-year financial plan and how the FY08 budget will be the foundation of that, and how this will be a transition year. She urged adopting a 1% budget with no use of reserves, with the possible exception of the regional school assessment, once that situation gets clarified. She said that some people doubt that a multi-year plan can succeed, but she believes it can because all parties are working for the good of the town. She said the reserves must be safeguarded for emergencies, to protect the bond rating and so that necessary funds are available when the next inevitable economic downturn happens. She stressed the importance of not reducing the capital spending and said that we had strayed far enough already from the goal of dedicating 10% of the levy for that purpose. She said that the Finance Committee disagrees with the Select Board’s cut to General Government funding and the redistribution of that money to Public Works, Conservation, and Community Services, and said the FinCom also doesn’t support the SB’s and Library’s recommendation that the Libraries keep $19,000 in overdue fines that have previously gone into the general fund. She said the FinCom expects Town Meeting to make amendments and respects its right to do so, but urged restraint.

Brian Morton of the Finance Committee gave a presentation about historic growth and depletion of reserves, and capital spending trends. It was tough for me to pay attention to this and take sufficient notes to summarize it. I hope he and Alice might make their presentations available on the Town web site.

Here’s my inadequate summary: our reserves are at their lowest point in 13 years, supplemental lottery aid is not available to help grow them, appropriating money into them isn’t looking too likely, and all that makes the prospect of taking additional money from them even more dire. They had been allowed to grow significantly during good times, they were vital for cushioning the blow during bad times, and now that we’re no longer in bad times and State aid is increasing we can’t keep using them or the next bad time will be a disaster. He said that recessions tend to happen once every ten years and that we are well into that cycle now and unprepared. He said reserves had once totaled 62% of State aid but were now at 18%, and he talked about Moody’s downgrading the Town’s bond rating if reserves fall below 5% of general fund revenue. He talked about capital spending and how 10% of the levy had been the goal, but we’re now budgeted for only 7% for FY08, an amount he called dangerously low. He talked about how costly it was in financial and service terms the last time capital spending was reduced and delayed in the early 90s, and an override was needed to replace a fire truck. He said that delayed capital spending is an override waiting to happen.

The Moderator said that Town Meeting’s desire to comment and ask questions on each budget line and the body’s ability to amend the different amounts tended to get in the way of each other, and that he wanted to preserve both. He created a new procedure for how budget amendments would work, in order to accomplish that. I won’t summarize the procedure, but it’s available here.

Two members spoke to how they felt the new procedure violated the rules of Town Meeting. It felt more like they were reacting to some kind of perceived bias the new procedure might impart, and I can’t even fathom a way that could happen. We do see this kind of paranoia about the Moderator every so often.

After the various objections had been duly noted, the Finance Committee made its recommendation – $5,855,139 for general government. Kay Moran of the Finance Committee talked about the various departments and responsibilities that fall under this budget category, and rather than summarize it all, I refer you to page 21 of the Finance Committee Report. She noted that the FinCom had voted 7-0 to stick with this recommendation rather than adopting the Select Board’s recommendation to reduce funding to this area by $100,000.

Gerry Weiss said that the SB’s $100,000 cut was recommended in order to use that money to fund other things, which he said would be discussed in more depth eventually. (Read more about that in the Select Board’s recommendations.)

A Town Meeting member said everyone had to live within a 1% budget increase except for the funding to the human service agencies, which was cut from $140,000 last year to a proposed $25,000 this year. He said the most vulnerable among us were taking the biggest hit, and that he wanted them to be treated like everyone else.

This sounds like a good argument, but it is actually specious. The 1% increase didn’t apply at the departmental or line-item level, but to each of the Town, School and Library budget totals. Many departments had cuts large and small, though none as large percentage-wise as the human services cut.

Another member wanted employee benefit costs clarified. Another asked why legal services spending always goes over budget. Town Manager Larry Shaffer said that legal services used to be billed at an hourly rate, but that the RFP for a new Town Counsel seeks fixed rate billing for everything except litigation. He said he was confident this would reduce legal services spending and keep it within budget this year.

Someone else asked what the Human Rights department does, and Mr. Shaffer explained that it has previously instituted the policies of the Human Rights Committee and investigated Human Rights complaints. He said it has now been combined with Human Resources, and while the Human Rights Director would continue with her previous responsibilities, her focus would now be on human rights as they apply to hiring and training within the Town.

A member asked if funding for an Economic Development Director was included. Mr. Shaffer said no, without the override he would have had to cut other Town positions to make room for that now, which he wasn’t willing to do. He said he hopes bring back a new proposal to fund that next year. Another member asked if the Town Manager had the authority to reassign money for that if he wanted to, and Mr. Shaffer said yes.

How many people in the Human Rights/Human Resources Department? Three. Will I.T. spending continue at high levels? Yes. Hwei-Ling Greeney noted that productivity from new technology never seems to result in savings from a decreased workforce, and that cuts to things people care about continue. Why the big reduction in the election budget? Only two elections are scheduled for next year, while there were three this year.

Sy Friedman offered an amendment to the General Government budget, seeking to appropriate $5,950,753, with $95,614 of that amount contingent on an override.

Someone questioned the ability of Town Meeting to make contingent appropriations, but was assured by a FinCom member and the Finance Director that that ability is explicit through Proposition 2 ½, and detailed in this publication.

Mr. Friedman said he would be offering many similar amendments but would only speak about it once. He said he had only opposed two overrides since becoming a Town Meeting member in 1984, and that he did so both times because he thinks an override prior to Town Meeting usurps the body’s budget powers. He didn’t like the three-year plan that went along with the May 1st override because there was no way to enforce new members of TM or the Select Board to stick with that plan next year or the year after, and he didn’t like that it sought to collect more in taxes than was needed in year one and bank the rest. He said he is willing to have an override to keep Town and School services at a more reasonable 3% level, but wants the override vote to occur after TM. He said his amendments provide for that 3% funding.

Gerry Weiss then offered the Select Board’s recommendation that had already been discussed: $5,755,139. He said it was doable, and the Town Manager had agreed to it, and asked Mr. Shaffer to speak to that.

The Town Manager said that with expected reductions in legal services spending and collective bargaining progressing as it is, he said he could live within this budget and was happy to recommend it. With that, Gerry removed his heel from Larry’s instep.

Oh relax. It’s a joke.

Kay Moran reiterated her point about the FinCom sticking with its own recommendation and said its members are skeptical about the Town Manager’s ability to deal with a $100,000 cut to that budget.

A couple of people asked about whether Amherst might join the State’s health insurance program. The Town Manager and Finance Director said that every opportunity for flexibility and savings is being considered, and touched on how ongoing collective bargaining negotiations prevent too much from being said on that, and outlined recent cost-saving changes to the Town’s program.

Someone asked that recurring question about three-year overrides and one-year overrides and what that all means, and whether you revert to the original levy afterwards. John Musante gave a good explanation of the how the three-year plan would have been funded by the $2.5 million dollar override, but I think the direct answer may have gotten lost in all that detail.

In case anyone reading this is still confused by the concept, I would be remiss if I didn’t explain this. The kind of override we’ve been talking about is a permanent increase to the tax levy. If we had approved the $2.5 million override, that amount would be added to the levy and never be removed. The terms “one-year” and “three-year” refer to how long that money is intended to sustain us before another override is needed. A one-year override only raises enough money to get us to next year, and then we’ll either have to make more big cuts or have another override (unless, magic money really does start raining down from the sky, as some are predicting…) and the three-year override was intended to fund its accompanying plan for three years, at which point another override might have been needed – but initiatives to make the plan last beyond three years without an override were a key part of the plan.

Back to Town Meeting…

A member made a stirring plea to the body to think in terms of what the Town wants as a whole, and not just what each of us want as individuals. She said she can’t afford a house in Amherst but was willing to live in an apartment forever if the budgets requiring high taxes are for the greater good of the town she loves.

A member said that if an override were to be held in the summer, much of our electorate is gone during those months, and that would skew the vote. I don’t really know what that means. If that is referring to students, that concept just isn’t supported by the voting data – it’s extraordinary how few people under the age of about 40 are voting at all in Amherst. If it refers to the general non-student population going away on vacation, that is a little questionable to me. Even if a huge percentage of the Town does go away in the summer, it’s not like they’re all gone at the same time. Some tiny subset might be gone for the whole summer, but most people probably go away for a week or two, and those weeks would be spread out. And as Mr. Weiss noted during a Select Board discussion on the topic – people can always vote absentee.

A member said the main difference between the Select Board’s and Finance Committee’s recommendations was how the process of budget creation was viewed. He said that a long time is spent trying to estimate as well as possible what amount would be needed for each budget area. He said that making a $100,000 cut to one area on the rationale that its particular budget is big enough to absorb it, in order to redistribute that money to other areas, was a bad practice. And he said of course the Town Manager said he could live within that budget – what else can he say?

Mr. Weiss disagreed with the characterization of how the Select Board made the recommended cut and said that things change over the course of the budget process and that the Select Board had discussed with the Town Manager where the money they wanted to spend elsewhere could be found. That isn’t quite how I recall the process, but what do I know?

So then the question was called. An angry murmur rippled through the crowd. A couple of people raised points of order about how this procedure didn’t allow for discussion about how that cut money would be redistributed in other parts of the budget, and that people would be voting without that important information. The Moderator said that people certainly could talk about how they wanted such money redistributed.

The voice vote on calling the question was considered too close to call, so it went to a standing vote. A two-thirds majority is needed for that motion. The standing vote was 138 Yes and 54 No. I voted No. It seemed to me that some people were clearly upset by the new procedure, and they sure weren’t going to be any happier if they felt that they got railroaded into a vote without adequate discussion. I didn’t share their concerns about the procedure or the adequacy of the discussion, but I was more than willing to have more discussion if that was what they wanted. But the motion passed, so we came to an immediate vote.

Because of that wacky “vote the higher number first” thing, we started with Mr. Friedman’s amendment for $5,950,753, with the $95K being contingent on an override. That was defeated pretty soundly by voice vote.

Next up: the Finance Committee’s $5,855,139 figure. Too close. Tally vote. Whoa. My notes say that the results had been 95 Yes, 98 No, but the results on the Town site say 97 Yes, 98 No. And in those results, there’s a surprise or two. Or one. The Finance Committee’s recommendation apparently wasn’t quite sustainable. I voted Yes.

So almost by default, that means the Select Board’s recommendation of $5,755,139 prevailed, but to make it official, we voted on that too. On the slight chance and fascinating possibility that it didn’t pass and we had to – what? – start all over again? – I voted No, but only a handful of us spleeny types did.

This session adjourned at 10:15. But now the real fun begins. What happens going forward? Does one simply concede and go along with the rest of the Select Board’s recommendation, or at least $100K’s worth? Do we say: OK, you don’t need that money for General Government – let’s put it in reserves? Will this new-found fortune ultimately fund the continuing saga of the regional assessment? Or was this just the first tweaking of a budget that will morph into something completely unrecognizable? Time will tell.

Trivia, courtesy of my data guru husband:

Last night’s attendance (218) was the highest since 4/27/05, which was the opening session of the 2005 TM. There were 219 there that night, which is the highest total since online records are available back in 2002.

The number voting on the budget question (195) was also the second-highest tally-vote total in history, surpassed only by the 201 votes cast on the failed motion on 6/22/05 to rescind the Plum Brook funding.

Do your own voting and attendance analysis with the inAmherst.com Tally Vote Database which contains up-to-date information on attendance figures and tally vote results through the 5/21/07 meeting.


Larry Kelley said...

When the Finance Committee recommendation lost to the Select Board amendment for the $100,000 reduction (and it is not very often I vote the higher number) I thought Lucifer has now been unleashed.

But it is quite, quite possible the $100,000 cut may NOT be appropriated to the Select Board’s pet projects. A few folks (and we know it was a photo finish) may have voted the lower number simply to keep it a lower number.

And I counted 18 abstentions (although one was Harrison Gregg and another Larry Shaffer). I also noticed his Lordship, Mr. Weiss, thought enough of this issue to not abstain like he did on the 9/11 Flag issue.

The behind the curtain session between Mr. Moderator, FinCom and Select Board was interesting; and most certainly should have been played out in open on the floor of Town Meeting.

But hey, that’s just me. Flag police, Open Meeting Police, Golf police; and extraordinarily NOT in favor of cutting the real police.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kudos, Stephanie! It's good to hear positive feedback on our efforts (we mostly hear negative stuff). Getting set up in time wasn't too hard, as we were able to focus only on the auditorium itself - it adds considerable time normally to be putting one camera and extra microphones in the music room, and running a greater cable length, in order to capture Select Board while we continue to set up in the aud.

And I think we have the issue with the moderator's mic fixed - part of the problem with the whole audio setup is that it's a mishmash of ACTV and school equipment, so no one person knows absolutely every piece of equipment well.