Thursday, May 24, 2007

A matter of priorities

No time for the whole play-by-play, so we’re just hitting the highlights here.

From the Moderator: TMCC election winners: Harry Brooks, Carol Gray, and Judy Simpson. Also: with the close margin for Monday’s tally vote, which had first appeared to be 95 to 98 and later turned out to be 97 to 98, recounts will now be automatic when the count is so close – within 5% or so.

A procedural motion was approved to consider the Elementary and Regional School budgets on June 4th because the Superintendent won’t be available next Thursday. As if we’d get to that part Thursday.

Public Safety. Kay Moran of the Finance Committee moved to appropriate $7,891,970, of which $6,386,180 would come from taxation and $1,505,790 would come from ambulance receipts. She spoke to how tough it was to recommend a budget with so many cuts, particularly the loss of the two police officer positions that were added two years ago, reducing that staff from 50 to 48. She said the new Mutual Aid Agreement with UMass was a good thing, but wouldn’t solve the problem of being understaffed, especially on busy nights when both departments have their hands full at the same time. She said that all five firefighter positions funded with the SAFER grant were expected to be kept, and explained that UMass currently pays about $80,000 for fire services, about $180,000 for ambulance services which are figured on some kind of per student basis, and $160,000 payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) from the State. She said that even before the recently announced administrative changes at UMass, the Finance Committee wasn’t counting on new money there.

The Select Board supported the Finance Committee’s recommendation.

There were also two amendments to the Finance Committee’s recommendation. Stan Gawle recommended $8,042,046, for about an additional $150,000, with that extra money coming from the capital budget. Eva Schiffer recommended $7,991,970, with the extra $100,000 coming from the $100,000 that had been cut from general government on Monday. These amendments came up later, but since I’m trying to streamline this summary, I’m putting them out there now.

The Chief said he had been on the Amherst Police force almost 38 years, and been Chief for the last 8 years. He spoke of his early priorities to have the department accredited, which means that every rule and action is written down so people are held accountable; and to put the department in the forefront of racial profiling awareness, which he also accomplished. He spoke of all the cuts the department has had to bear in the last couple of years, particularly to the valuable community policing programs. He said the loss of two officers would affect the busy 7:00 p.m. – 3:00 a.m. “band-aid” shift that he employs on busy weekends, as well as the day shift, which will likely drop from three to two officers on duty. He said that would leave one officer to respond to nuisance calls and the other dedicated to emergency calls, and said that arrangement could lead to situations where no officer is available to respond to a call. He also addressed the illogical nonsense that keeps being repeated about the force always being a couple members short due to officers being in training or injured, and how that proves they can absorb a staff cut. Um, because if there are fewer officers, that won’t happen anymore? I would love to have this “reasoning” explained. No doubt it would fall into the latter half of the “dazzle them with brilliance or baffle them with _____” option.

In response to questions, the Chief gave special recognition to Rick Fuller, the Police Station’s solo maintenance and custodial person, whose responsibilities had been recommended to be spread among three people, and unsurprisingly requires some overtime; and Carol Hepburn, the Animal Welfare Officer, who has expanded the position dramatically beyond the mandated dog officer duties and refuses to put in for overtime.

The discussion on public safety followed the predictable path. We got the dual perennial complaints about the colleges not paying the Town enough and the Town not utilizing the colleges’ police enough. And this doozy: the threats in Amherst aren’t as bad as they are being portrayed because the main thing the Police do is hassle college and high school students about trivial matters.

On the other side, people spoke to how great and necessary the police are, what tough jobs they have, how quickly they respond and how understaffed the department is.

One member offered suggestions for “thinking outside the box” with how policing happens in the Town and State, and referenced how Maryland uses State Police instead of local police departments, which removes jurisdictional concerns. Another warned of the potential for the Town to be sued – perhaps by him – if something bad happens in the wake of our cutting officers, when YouTube has made us vividly aware of the rampaging student threat.

This is basically a pro forma annual discussion where talk of the importance of the Police Department only needs to happen in order to counter Amherst’s weird hippy-hangover, question authority, oppose anything vaguely military bent. In most towns, Public Safety probably doesn’t need to be justified, and the necessity of police officers probably goes without saying. But this is not most towns.

When we got to the vote, the extra $150K amendment with funds taken from capital was soundly defeated and I voted No. The amendment to add the $100,000 cut from general government, with the reasoning that it was next in line on the Town Manager’s priority list, went to a tally vote, which was defeated, 60 Yes, 133 No. I voted Yes. I didn’t feel strongly about this. Basically, I’m supporting the Finance Committee’s recommendations, but that extra $100K has to go somewhere, and to me, there are only three reasonable options: Public Safety, the regional assessment or reserves. So I would just as soon take it off the table now before people start spending it on their own pet priorities. Alas.

So the Finance Committee’s recommendation of $7,891,970 was the third vote, and it was approved overwhelmingly, and I voted Yes.

Then we got to the highlight of the evening. I don’t think the points I made in the Fussbudget post could have been more vividly illustrated.

Yes, the Public Works budget.

Doug Slaughter of the Finance Committee moved to appropriate $1,690,501. He noted that this was a reduction of 2.7% from FY07 and included five fewer full-time-equivalent staff positions.

Anne Awad of the Select Board said that that body would be recommending that an additional $10,000 be added to that figure to fund line painting.

And that’s really where things got interesting.

There were a few questions about snow and ice and this and that, but then someone asked about the line painting that was clearly being done already.

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring said that all the center lines had been done and that the edge lines were almost done, and that 8-10 crosswalks were getting painted each night. He said little painting was done last year due to a contract snafu with the company that handles the center and edge lines. But now – yep, pretty much taken care of.

Gerry Weiss noted that this was a little embarrassing for the Select Board, and said they were told that there would be no painting without the extra $10,000.

Mr. Mooring, in his exceedingly earnest and honest manner, said that there were probably better places to put that $10,000 than the Public Works budget, and noted that his budget was tight and he could use the money, but that line painting wasn’t his top priority. His top priority was labor.

It wasn’t his top priority. Imagine. The guy who runs the department had a handle on how the line painting thing was going, and had other more pressing needs.

Lesson: If you believe more DPW service is needed, you should look to increase that budget, but not decide how it should be spent. Knowing and prioritizing the departmental needs is what managers are for. If you don’t agree with how they do that, that would be a performance issue, not a budget issue.

This is why I oppose all the Select Board budget recommendations, and similar arbitrary amendments. I think that kind of interference disrespects the process of creating the budget, and the staff whose job it is to know and manage their individual areas of responsibility.

So I object to the Select Board having taken this tack at all, but this particular faux pas wasn’t their fault. At the April 9th Select Board meeting, the members were championing their personal favorite restorations for funding in case the override were to pass. (Only Ms. Greeney had the good sense to not indulge herself that way.) When the subject of line painting was raised, and it was specifically asked if that might be done quickly with unspent snow money, the Town Manager said that he had corresponded by e-mail with Mr. Mooring, and said that between FY07 and FY08 funds, “We have sufficient money to do the line painting.” At the May 14th meeting, where the Board was formulating its 1% budget recommendations and that was inquired about again, Mr. Shaffer said “We need the appropriation to achieve that.” When Mr. Weiss asked for clarification, Mr. Shaffer said “We need the additional funds.”

I don’t really know what to make of that. I do know that Guilford Mooring’s candor cost him ten thousand bucks, and I surely hope that was all it cost him.

Ultimately, the Select Board did not offer its amendment, and the Finance Committee’s recommended appropriation of $1,690,501 passed overwhelmingly.

We adjourned just after 10:00 p.m. I hope somebody bought Guilford a beer.


jp said...

Another Town Meeting night, and another loss for the Red Sox. Hey, here's a question for Jonathan: how does the Sox win-loss record on TM nights compare to their record as a whole? Might there be a relationship? Are TM vibes disturbing Red Sox Nation? If so, it's another weapon for the Charter folks....


Larry Orloff said...

I wouldn't have called the regional assessment a "reasonable option." I understand it's not optional and we have to pony up.

It seems odd that FinCom didn't go along with the SB's $100,000 lower outlay for General Government, given the commandment from the powers that be that we have to accept the 3% increase for the regional schools. Maybe FinCom considered SB's General Gov't article voodoo economics.

Richard Morse said...

It is almost unbearable hypocrisy to be forced to sit and listen to override opponents lecture us about the importance of public safety.

The empty posturing of these folks as the self-appointed Bastions of Common Sense is revealed as just another fanasy when Mr. Gawle stands up and tells us that his additional money for cops would be coming out of capital spending. Then Mr. Brose, who has some experience with the numbers from his years on the Finance Committee, stands up and draws the connection: we don't want police cars that can't respond because they are broken down.

So what we get from the override opponents is posturing and fantasy: they are not willing to do the hard work of the political persuasion involved to garner the necessary votes for their plan.

They have no intention of succeeding in Town Meeting. What they seek to do is set up those of us in there so that we can be condemned by them in the ensuing 10 months. In that respect, they are no different than Mr. O'Connor who has been proposing "dead-on-arrival" warrant articles to Town Meeting for years.

I believe that there is a bloc of voters in Town Meeting that would be interested in pulling the police out of their current sorry state in our budget. It has, however, the traditionally formidable opposition of members who are simply ideologically committed against doing anything for the police. Those individuals will be with us forever.

The support for the police is fractured by the ridiculous "something for nothing" nonsense of override opponents. When these folks get a grip on fiscal reality, people like me who grasp the needs of the police are ready to "walk the walk" to some political success for the police in Town Meeting, and not just rage against the membership.

LarryK4 said...

Yes, Mr. Gawle’s $150,000 amendment to cover not just the 2 officers but also equipment, like bulletproof vests, and overtime (that is happening as I type because a dozen Amherst police officers aided Umass during the graduation today where Andy Card is bequeathed a controversial honorary degree)

I believe Eva Schiffer a PRO-Override member of the “sensible center” proposed the $100,000 addition to the Police budget (that was suddenly made available by our sagacious Select Board from General Government and not Capital.) That was soundly defeated by 70% of Town Meeting, including your rookie wife, Alice.