Friday, June 22, 2007

Twelfth Night

This was it. Another epic Town Meeting was coming to an end. But not until we got through four more articles.

Before that however, an announcement: Members from precincts 5 and 8 wouldn’t quite be done with TM tonight, because they will hold elections to fill vacancies at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, June 25th in the Large Activity Room at Bangs Center.

Article 33 – Energy conservation and the dark night sky. The gist of this is that it seeks to create a general bylaw regulating external lighting at businesses and apartment complexes. It involves phased-in deadlines, requirements for shielding lights so that they point downward, and penalties for non-compliance. Vince O’Connor was the petitioner of this article.

After a comically prolonged period of trying to clarify, explain and read the amended motion, Mr. O’Connor spoke to its merits – conserving energy and having the dark sky. He said that by making it a general bylaw rather than a zoning bylaw it made for a level playing field for everyone, rather than having it apply only to new businesses and apartments while grandfathering all that exist before the bylaw’s creation. He said he didn’t think enforcement would be an issue because “peer pressure” and cost savings would encourage compliance. He said it didn’t address the University and colleges – the primary local dark sky wreckers, particularly UMass, reportedly referred to as “the city” and “space” by children of colleagues in my row, for how the campus doth glow.

The concept of the article was good, but …

Town Counsel said it wasn’t workable. The Town Commercial Relations Committee hated it. The Energy Task Force apparently didn’t like it. Even the Select Board didn’t support it.

The Select Board moved to refer it to the Town Manager, which I had thought was a good compromise, particularly when Alisa Brewer raised the point during the SB meeting that it is not of high enough priority to have him deal with it by the fall, and got them to defer it to a soft spring deadline. But a wise and eloquent TMer pointed out that Town staff have plenty of work to do already, urging defeat rather than referral.

Oddly, that was a reality check for me. At that moment I realized that I was becoming so inured to bad policies and proposals that this one had seemed OK by comparison. Since I started recapping Select Board meetings, I have been exposed to such a barrage of inappropriate, impractical and plain-old lousy ideas and justifications that I think I’ve been building up a tolerance to them. I was failing to think critically about this. Dark sky is good, energy conservation is good, other places do it, and referral would fix the proposal’s many flaws. The good outcome of the proposal and its relative overall benignity had put me into “Fine. Whatever.”-mode.

I’ve often described Amherst as “government by squeaky wheel,” and Mr. O’Connor is among our squeakiest. That he was even getting to me speaks to the effectiveness of that technique. Thanks to Rich Morse for jolting me back to consciousness.

We had a tally vote on this – which included a brief SBer-Moderator incident that I feared might escalate into another YouTube highlight. That Gerry Weiss – what are we gonna do with him?

No, of course it wasn’t Gerry.

Anyway, the tally vote on referral failed, 73 Yes to 83 No, and I voted No. We immediately voted on the main article, which despite the clear defeat via voice vote, we tallied anyway, and sure enough, it failed 52 Yes to 102 No. Again, I voted No.

Article 32 was to abolish the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, another O’Connor petition. This has been discussed in some detail at the April 23rd, May 10th, and June 18th Select Board meetings.

The Select Board moved to dismiss the article. The Finance Committee supported dismissal. An ARA member spoke to the legitimacy of recent write-in candidates winning ARA seats.

The vote to dismiss was overwhelmingly in favor with just a few Nos, and I voted Yes.

Article 27 was to purchase an Agricultural Preservation Restriction on 45 acres of farm land on 116. Conservation Commission member Nicki Robb spoke about the value of this parcel for farming; that it is part of a block of APR land in that area in both Amherst and Hadley; that it has been actively farmed for 9 generations; that there are 2 chunks of the parcel excluded from the APR and maintaining their Light Industrial zoning designation for potential development use; and that the full appraised value APR – which equals the development value of the land – is $450,000, but Amherst’s portion is $90,000 and the State kicks in the rest.

In response to questions, David Ziomek, Director of Conservation and Planning, said that there are about 1,900 acres of APR land in Amherst currently, with perhaps 500 acres of prime-soil land still to be protected. He explained the complicated zoning of the parcel and its Flood Prone Conservancy and Farmland Conservation overlays, and how that limits development potential and value, as represented by the appraisal. He said that the two excluded pieces include the site that was formerly an auction barn that has good taxable development potential, and a smaller piece that could become a scenic highway pull-off, among other uses. He emphasized the land owners – the WD Cowls business and family – maintain ownership and the developable rights in the excluded parcels.

A member spoke about the need to balance open space with economic priorities for the future, and suggested that the exclusions for developable land could have been larger, hence supporting more potential business activity. He said he has long supported APRs but would probably oppose this one.

An Agricultural Commission member spoke about the high quality of the farmland and its importance for being contiguous to other protected parcels. She spoke of values of farming in terms of producing crops to feed animals and people, and in being a traditional and taxable form of local industry.

A member asked if there were considerations being made regarding a goal for how much protected land Amherst is seeking – as much as possible, or achieving a specific amount? He talked about the changes in agriculture and the implications for the future, and what that economic sector would look like in Amherst without government intervention.

Mr. Ziomek said that the Town’s Open Space and Recreation Plan is being updated, as required by the State, and that he intends to have a draft done this summer, and that it will dovetail with the Master Plan process. He said that Master Plan working groups were also looking into issues of prioritized land protection. He said this particular parcel has been identified as a priority for at least 12 to 15 years. He said the excluded part with the auction barn is the size it is because it is easier to redevelop developed land and that land is considered to be already developed.

A member spoke about past APRs on the East Street corridor and Pine Street, and why those were important and necessary, but that he opposed this one, primarily because of its location, which he suggested was better suited for development.

There were more comments about the quality of the soil and land – this is row crop farm land, not dairy farm land, because it is large and flat and has good soil – and the value of farming to the local economy.

A member said he would like to see more data related to proposals like this with details including the long-term economic impact. He said that preservation needs to be considered in the context of potential revenues, and how much land is left to be developed and preserved.

Rob Kusner of the Select Board said that the only parts of this parcel that were developable are the two parts that have been excluded from the APR, and that that is reflected in the appraisal.

The voice vote on appropriating $90,000 from CPAC money for Amherst’s share of the APR on this land was overwhelmingly in favor. This was another one of those times when discussion of the article would make you think the body was more evenly split, but the vote ends up being lopsided. I voted Yes. I too have wondered if Amherst is going to try to preserve every piece of land possible and eventually start turning developed land back into open space, until the town is one giant lovely view and wildlife habitat. It would be like Quabbin, without the water. But I was persuaded by the fact that this has long been prioritized for preservation – quite unlike the “we’ll go to any lengths to thwart development” situation with the Strawberry Fields land on South East Street, or the Haskins View land on East Leverett Road, neither of which has apparently ever been part of the Town’s Open Space Plan. I also thought the fact that the land is zoned such that it can’t be developed was quite compelling. I completely agree with all the comments about balancing financial needs with preservation needs, and considering the long-term economic impact of preserving specific parcels, but I was persuaded that those were not significant factors with this parcel. Though thinking about that now, it does make me wonder why we need to take steps and spend money to keep land from being developed that supposedly can’t be developed anyway. Hmmmm. I wish I had thought to ask that.

There were two other parts to Article 27 which amounted to technicalities – the ability to borrow the amount equal to the State’s share of the APR in anticipation of the grant money being received, if the process needs to take place sooner than we have that money in hand; and granting authority to the Select Board to acquire and hold the interest in the land, and to do so in partnership with the State. Both passed easily with just a smattering of Nos, and I voted Yes to both.

Article 28 was another APR, this one in South Amherst. All the details aren’t complete yet though, so it was referred back to CPAC and will come back at fall Town Meeting.

And speaking of thwarting development, the Town Manager gave Town Meeting an update on the Andrews-LaVerdiere Meadow Street land lawsuit, and how Town Meeting’s decision in that is now part of case law, and honestly, if I were to go any further on that subject, my brain would explode.

And then we were done.

I will be offering some reflections on this Town Meeting in a few days, on the inAmherst site.

Thanks to all who commented and e-mailed. Some excellent points were raised and good discussions were had – and continue – and I appreciate that very much. We muddle through this process of trying to do what each of us thinks is best for the Town. We surely don’t all agree, but we are all well-intentioned.

Enjoy the summer.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Penultimate, perhaps

The school year is over. The Middle School is sparkling clean. The music room, where the Select Board meetings are held before Town Meeting, has had all its posters and student work removed, and the chalk boards look brand new.

But we’re still here.

Week 7, session 11, hour 30-something.

If there were key announcements at the beginning, I missed them – sorry. The SB meeting ran late, and I was a bit discombobulated, switching mental gears and juggling my notebooks and materials as I checked in and sat down.

By the time I was “ready,” Marilyn Blaustein was already presenting the JCPC’s recommendation on Article 22 – $154,000 for repairs to buildings and facilities, $50,000 of which is grant money. The list (page 68 in the FinCom Report) is non-controversial enough – there were a couple of questions about what certain items were, and naturally, a dig at Cherry Hill from You Know Who. One member proposed that there be an item-by-item explanation, but we had really already had that in Ms. Blaustein’s intro and the body apparently didn’t feel the need to discuss each one in that much detail. The voice vote on the $154,000 was decisively in favor, and I voted Yes.

Article 23 was the $755,000 borrowing authorization, with $675,000 being for Town Hall brick and mortar repairs, and $80,000 being for required accessibility upgrades to the East Street School. This time, we got a pictorial tour of Town Hall masonry problems from Facilities Director Ron Bohonowicz. We’ll try not to worry too much about the threat of falling capstones before the repairs get made, but if you see Town staff wearing helmets as they enter and exit, you’ll know why.

Much discussion about this article was about using CPAC historical preservation funds to pay for these repairs, and indeed a motion was made to refer the recommendation to CPAC for that purpose. Select Board Chair Gerry Weiss is particularly interested in this topic, and spoke of how discussions would be held with all the relevant parties this summer to pursue the possibility of using those funds for the debt service on this project. At first glance, this seems like a no-brainer, but the issue and trade-offs are more complex. The common argument against this is that repairing Town Hall should be a capital expense, just like repairing any other Town property, and that using historical preservation funds for that purpose means NOT being able to use those funds for the Historical Commission’s preservation priorities. You can always borrow to pay for capital needs, but the CPAC money is the only source for headstone restoration and other historical preservation projects. It is an interesting discussion, and we’re sure to be hearing a lot more about it.

We also got one of those wacky TM procedural moves where a motion can be divided on the request of one member, thus separating the Town Hall stuff from the East Street School stuff. This makes a little sense if you support referring the Town Hall part to CPAC, but as Kay Moran of the FinCom/JCPC pointed out, the article is a borrowing authorization, and if the big money for the Town Hall repairs are separated out, the cost of the East Street School repairs aren’t large enough on their own to be worth the borrowing expenses.

Many made the point that referring the Town Hall part to CPAC would delay repairs further, resulting in more damage and higher repair costs, as well as the possibility of higher interest rates on borrowing next year if CPAC declines to fund this. One member spoke of the importance of Town Hall as the primary historic building in town, and his desire to fund it with the CPAC money. Mr. Weiss agreed with the sentiment, but said that referring the article for that purpose was not necessary as that funding was already being pursued in parallel with this borrowing action, and I think that was the key point.

After a multi-step voting process dealing with the divided motion and the related referrals, we ultimately rejected referring anything to CPAC and we approved the borrowing of $755K to cover both projects, and that is how I voted as well.

Despite all this CPAC talk, it wasn’t until Article 24 that we actually were dealing with a CPAC article. This was the Affordable Housing one, seeking appropriation of $155,000 in CPAC funds for three $50,000 loans to be used for down payments by qualified applicants to buy homes in Amherst. It would also establish a revolving fund for such payments, which would be paid back with interest when the homes are sold, and it sought $5,000 to pay an agency to set up and administer the program.

Nancy Gregg, Chair of the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee, explained that the loans would be available to those making up to 80% of the Area Median Income, an eligibility amount she said would currently be about $57,000 or less. She said preference would be given to those who live or work in Amherst. She said that it was important to have housing options for a wide variety of people.

Ms. Blaustein explained how CPAC funds work: that Amherst’s money comes from a property tax surcharge that we recently voted to increase to 1.5%; that the State currently matches the local money 100% with money collected from real estate deed transfer fees; that the 100% match might be reduced if those transfer fees are insufficient or if more communities adopt the Community Preservation Act, thus more widely spreading those matching funds.

Mr. Weiss said the SB vote to support was unanimous and that they thought it was a good use of CPAC money.

A member said he appreciated the sentiments of the article, but he vehemently opposed it for a variety of reasons: that it duplicated the efforts of other programs; that repayment of the loan once the house is sold ties up the money for a long time making the revolving fund concept unworkable; that it wasn’t contributing to the permanent stock of affordable housing and didn’t follow the standard practices of buying land and building affordable homes.

Ms. Gregg said the Housing Partnership Committee had considered many options including deed restrictions, but that they thought this was the best option. She said the committee also pursues the standard practices, and is working on a building project now that will still be three years before anyone will live there.

Vince O’Connor, of CPAC, made a substitute motion to essentially provide the $155K for affordable housing, but with its use unspecified. He said that the original proposal wouldn’t lead to affordable units that are countable under Chapter 40B (more about this later) and said that Community Development Block Grant Funds had already been sought for the same purpose, and that it made better sense to make those loans with those CDBG funds that have many strings attached, rather than CPAC money which can be used with greater discretion.

CPAC Chair Peter Jessop urged defeat of Mr. O’Connor’s motion and said that “affordability” depends on each person’s wallet. He said there are already affordable units under development, that this addresses a different need, and that the down payment loans are modeled after similar effective programs in the State.

Eventually, it was moved that the original article be referred back to CPAC to try again, for the concerns already stated. Someone said that the article needed more detail, someone else said that that complaint could always be made about any article and that the committees and staff should be trusted to make this work. Another member said that this was just one piece of the affordable housing pie and that it was good to be pursuing many different approaches.

After another complicated series of votes (I don’t actually have a record in my notes about voting for the O’Connor motion. Is that because the vote on the main motion trumped it? Did I just not write it down? Who knows…) the motion to refer back to CPAC was defeated and I voted No, and the original motion passed and I voted Yes.

This one was more interesting live than it was in my recap, which is probably true of everything. I found some of the points opposing the article compelling and thought-provoking. But the bottom line for me was (well, there were two bottom lines, one of which is my standard: if you can’t trust the Housing Partnership Committee to weigh all the options and come up with the best recommendation, then what is the point of the committee?) that this is another way of addressing affordability, and that many options are needed. There is a tendency, a kind one, to be sure, to think about the poorest of the poor for issues like this. But the range of housing needs and range of what constitutes affordability is quite broad. I thought the article and those speaking in favor of it addressed that point well.

More CPAC. Article 25 – Historic Preservation. Edith MacMullen, Historical Commission Chair, spoke of the committee pursuing its recommendations via the five-year plan it had created three years ago, and how they try to do their projects in a logical, cohesive and timely manner. She said they have four categories they try to fund annually: capital projects, interpretation and outreach, research and planning, and an annual set-aside of funds. She said the report given to Town Meeting details their status on projects to date, and she explained that much of their work requires consultants and RFPs and cooperation with other Town entities, and that it takes significant time to complete each project and spend the money appropriated toward it. The article sought $141,000 for historic preservation projects.

There was the slightest discussion about a couple of items on the list – expensive signs, an archaeological survey of the Bay Road/116 intersection – but really, this was all about two issues: a proposed fence at South Cemetery, and to a lesser degree, past unspent funds.

The unspent funds issue is a funny one. I would think my very simplified sentence above would be enough of an explanation to satisfy most people on that topic, and Ms. MacMullen’s more detailed explanation, at this and other meetings, would surely satisfy nearly everyone else. But Mr. O’Connor and the Select Board both remain unsatisfied, which suggests to me that the concern originated with one and was then adopted by the other. It has not gained much traction outside of that circle, however.

So then there’s the fence. There has been loud opposition to this fence. At this and other meetings, people have spoken about it being unnecessary, and worse, being decidedly negative for a host of aesthetic and practical reasons. Because people are generally averse to change, I’ve taken these objections with a grain of salt, though they are certainly compelling. And as we know, it is my instinct to defer to the expert wisdom of a committee. So I’ve been waiting to hear the other side of this issue.

I must say, I was really surprised to find that there wasn’t one. Guarding against potential vandalism was the only example given, and it was even conceded that the fence wouldn’t provide much protection against that anyway. With all the known opposition to this fence, I would have expected a well-planned and persuasive response, but there was none.

This perplexed me. My brain was still trying to reconcile this when it was time to vote on the Select Board’s amendment to reduce the funding recommendation by the $40,000 cost of the fence. I didn’t know what to do. So I abstained. Like the song says: If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. The amendment was resoundingly approved, with just a couple of Nos.

With a little more discussion about other elements of the funding list, we voted nearly unanimously to appropriate $101,100 of CPAC money for historic preservation.

Article 26 is the most straight-forward of all the CPAC articles – appropriating $15,000 for the Conservation Department to do surveys and appraisals as due diligence on properties being considered for acquisition or protection. That’s all there is to know. It was unanimous, except for one No. Who objects to this and why??

Articles 27 and 28 were moved to the end of the warrant, so we’re up to Article 29. This is the latest salvo in the long running assault on the Survival Center. As I am tired of thinking, writing and raising my blood pressure about this, I will skip this summary. (If you are a glutton for punishment, you may wish to read this and this. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Suffice it to say that the motion to refer it to the Community Development Committee passed decisively with only a handful of Nos, and I voted Yes.

Article 30 is to appropriate to the stabilization fund those monies collected but not spent for FY08, in the wake of the successful tax override vote. You may have noticed that we didn’t have a successful tax override vote. Hence, no money to stabilize us. Dismissed.

That’s a nice description, actually. The town has been destabilized by the failure of the override. Quite true.

Moving on.

Time for the postponed reconsideration of the budget and assessment for the Regional Schools. This was to fix the fact that we (not me, but the body) had voted to appropriate a 2% assessment for the region, even though we knew we would in all likelihood be compelled to pay the 3%. We need an appropriation to match an expenditure, so this needs to be taken care of. Some blah blah, then we voted, officially approving the $27,567,000 budget and Amherst’s assessment of $12,385,188.

And then to finish off that saga: Article 31 – Free Cash. This is to appropriate from Free Cash (that’s reserves for all those just joining us) the amount necessary to balance the budget, and that means paying that extra 2% of the regional assessment. For reasons I’m not sure of, we are appropriating $237,893, not the full $238K we’ve been discussing, but what’s $107 dollars after we’ve just dealt with more than $60 million?

Before voting, we got a reprise of the lament about balancing the budget on the backs of our neediest citizens, as well as a plea to move the elections sooner so Town Meeting can start sooner (and with an additional appeal to make mighty Amherst the first to vote on the Regional School budget and not be at the mercy of our pipsqueak neighbors. Are we done yet?) I fear that Town Meeting expands to fill the time you give it, so adding extra time on the front end doesn’t seem too appealing to me.

The vote to appropriate those funds from Free Cash to balance the budget was nearly unanimous, with, of course, a couple of Nos.

So it’s after 10:00, and everyone expects to adjourn, but Mr. Weiss moved to consider Article 11, because it requires the attendance of the Planning Board, who can’t be here Wednesday, necessitating either taking this up without them, or coming back next Monday. No one wants to come back next Monday, so the motion, which is required for taking up an article after 10:00, passed. Half a dozen or so people left immediately, but most of us hung in there for Mr. O’Connor’s proposal to change the zoning bylaw to require that the affordable housing units required under the inclusionary zoning section (15.10) be mandated for low income, as opposed to the low or moderate income option currently allowed. His stated concern is that moderate income units don’t count toward the requirement that a minimum of 10% of the housing inventory be affordable, under Chapter 40B of Mass. General Laws, and that if Amherst were to drop below that threshold, it would be vulnerable to the kind of large-scale housing project that can result from a developer seeking a Comprehensive Permit, or 40B application. He said Amherst is vulnerable to falling below 10%. His other stated concern is that the decision about whether the affordable units are the moderate- or low-income types is left to the permitting authority, being the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals, and he thinks that is too much power to rest with those bodies.

I see a number of ironies here. One is that the kind of predatory, “unfriendly” project that could be fast-tracked if Amherst fell below 10% would be larger scale affordable housing projects. If your goal is more affordable housing, a 40B application would surely accomplish it more quickly and with a larger number of units than the inclusionary zoning section of the bylaw. I don’t know squat about zoning, but in my cursory read of this, for example, it seems to me that the main thing a 40B application trumps is local NIMBYism. Is that so bad? Another irony is Mr. O’Connor’s concern about the power of the Planning Board and ZBA with regard to making such decisions. I can understand his concern if his other philosophy about those Boards – that they should be made up only of non-professionals – were to triumph (and regrettably, that seems to be the case.) A group devoid of important professional knowledge probably is less likely to make the best decision for the Town, but isn’t he playing both ends against the middle here?

These, of course, were not the objections raised by the estimable and newly-former Planning Board member Rod Francis. (What does it say when smart people get so fed up with how onerous it is to try and serve Amherst that they not only quit their Boards, but they move away? This is either an outrageous shame or a brilliant insight that should be strategically applied. Hmmmm. No, no, no – it’s just an outrageous shame. Don’t anybody be getting any ideas now.) Anyway, Mr. Francis made the points that the Planning Board is deeply concerned about affordable housing in Amherst, and that the amendment would take away the ability to negotiate for the moderate income units, which is the level often described as workforce housing, something Amherst also wants and needs. He said that in the two years that the inclusionary zoning section has been part of the bylaw, developers considered about three projects that would qualify (according to the Planning Board report on this article: “apartments/townhouses, Open Space Community Developments, and Planned Unit Residential Developments (PURDs)” of ten or more units) and didn’t pursue any of them. He said that this change would make the rule more restrictive, hence less attractive, for a developer. He said that affordability requirements will lapse on some local complexes in the next few years, and that that is of greater concern for the affordable housing inventory, and that there is time to deal with Amherst potentially falling below 10%, because that determination wouldn’t be calculated until the next census. He said we have until 2011 to have a plan and make serious decisions about dealing with low income housing, and that we shouldn’t thwart a possibility for moderate units.

Ms. Greeney spoke of the Select Board’s 4-1 recommendation to support referring the article to the Planning Board and the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee, to return with an update or a better plan next spring. A member spoke against referral and in favor of the article, citing the perils of falling below 10%. Another member, one from the HP/FH committee, said he preferred that the article be defeated rather than referred back, and said that many partial truths and partial bits of information were being cited in support of the article. He said that the Town needs units in both the low- and moderate-income categories, and that this would reduce that flexibility.

Time to vote. Another tough one. I’d definitely prefer that it be defeated, but referring it was better than passing it. I voted to refer back, which seemed like the safer bet at the time, but I now regret that. It would have required a 2/3 majority to approve the article, and that was probably not achievable. But let’s see, having voted with the majority (referral passed on a standing vote of 64 Yes to 57 No) I could now move to reconsider it for the purpose of defeating it.

Evil laugh: Bwaa-haa-haa-haa-haa!

But I won’t.

Wow, this really is going on too long, and my brain is turning to mush.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Better late than never?

OK, here’s the tardy and abbreviated version.

Intro: The Moderator said to be prepared for the possibility of meeting next Thursday. Uggh! We then approved moving Articles 27 and 28 to the end of the warrant. These are CPAC open space articles and their details are still being worked out.

Article 17 – Library Services: This was all about $19,000 in overdue fines, and who gets that money – the Libraries or the Town. The libraries have been collecting the fees with the hope and/or expectation of keeping that money this year, but the problem is, that money has always gone to the Town’s General Fund, and as such, has been “spent” elsewhere, as part of the budget process. If the libraries got to keep that money, it would amount to a 2.3% increase for FY08, rather than 1%. In a bit of a compromise, the Finance Committee was recommending a budget $2,097,199 that includes the $19,000 increase, but an appropriation from taxation of $1,461,162 that does not. This will allow the library to spend that money if they can come up with it from other sources. The Select Board approved the FinCom recommendation. A Town Meeting member made a motion for the higher appropriation amount, to assist the library trustee who had meant to do so, but didn’t do it at the right time and was then unable to – such are the rigidities of parliamentary procedure. Most everyone thinks the library should keep that money, but differ on whether they can have it this year or whether they have to wait for this issue to be worked out more thoroughly for next year. The creation of a revolving fund for that purpose can only be done at an Annual Town Meeting, and since it wasn’t on the original warrant for this Annual, it would have to wait until next spring. It was noted that the Library Trustees did not support the override, which would have helped to address the Town’s structural deficit. Ultimately the vote on the higher amount with the $19K was defeated in a tally vote of 62 Yes and 81 No. I voted No. The Finance Committee’s amount then passed nearly unanimously.

Pool Announcement: The Town Manager updated Town Meeting on the pool situation. He said it would take four to six weeks to open War Memorial pool, with the earliest opening date being July 11th. The wading pool there will probably open two weeks earlier than the large pool. He said the Groff Park wading pool would not open this year, so that resources could be concentrated on getting War Memorial open, and because the construction of a bathroom at Groff Park would make that area dangerous for children. I’m not sure who was more chagrined by the pool news – those who opposed the funding, and were now having it driven home that we just spent about $60,000 we didn’t have for the pool to be open a maximum of about six weeks; or those who supported the funding but apparently weren’t paying attention when the LSSE Director told us that it would be difficult to get that pool open this year, but she would try.

School Announcement: The Town Manager also reported that the Elementary Schools had found unspent funds while closing out their FY07 accounts, and would be expecting to return $120,000 to the Town. He said the Superintendent also expected to use more of that unspent money to cover additional expenses for next year. This information was of course received suspiciously by the body. Though we would later be told by a FinCom member that a $100,000 return of unspent funds had been projected, it wasn’t clear if that had meant it had been expected to come from the schools. So this either takes care of half of the Regional Assessment problem, or it doesn’t. To me, this money doesn’t seem fishy at all. Unlike the Regional Schools, the Elementary Schools have no reserves. They were being careful with their spending because of the bad fiscal situation anyway, and they can’t very well be spending to the bitter limits of their appropriation in case costs put them over. It makes sense to me that as they are closing out their books on this year, they would find that among their various line items, they had extra funds. It is only once you put all those little extras from each line together that you get a sizable chunk, and that is something that you can only know and lump together at the end of the fiscal year. That is how I view it anyway. Alas, Finance Director John Musante was not available to set us straight on this. Also part of the school announcement: Pelham Town Meeting voted the 3% budget and appropriation at their much-anticipated meeting that night. What a surprise.

Water Fund: What’s there to say? As an enterprise fund, it is completely self-supporting through the user fees it collects. It has the same fixed-cost increases that affect every part of the budget. A member asked how long until the fund has its own structural deficit, with the largest user – UMass – paying less and using less water. The short answer was that basically means more rate increases for other users. In response to another question, we were told that we have plenty of capacity, and continued reductions is usage from UMass are expected, so Veridian Village and plans for expanding UMass enrollment are not a concern. The vote to approve the $3,907,453 appropriation for the Water Fund budget was unanimous.

Sewer Fund: Same deal. Self-supporting fund, increased fixed costs. There were a couple of odd questions about why various elements of this fund – the total, the percentage increase – are different from those of the Water Fund. Um, because they’re completely different systems. Why would the numbers be the same? The vote to approve $3,656,878 for the Sewer Fund was unanimous.

Solid Waste Fund: Same deal. This time we also got money-saving trash disposal tips from a Select Board member. The vote to approve $523,251 for the Solid Waste Fund was unanimous.

Transportation Fund: This money comes from parking fees and fines and it funds such expenses as the parking officers, rental of the parking lot behind the Unitarian Church, the PVTA assessment, subsidies for the senior citizen shuttles, and outreach bus routes. We heard from two members of the Public Transportation Committee about improvements that have been made to the bus service, chief among them, the new route that runs from Puffer’s Pond to Atkins, and the soon-to-be-launched re-routing of the Belchertown Center route through Echo Hill, to replace the Gatehouse Road route. The new route is expected to provide better service and do so at a much lower cost. Stan Gawle moved to increase the amount of the appropriation by $1 and suggested transferring $104,000 of the money to cover bus transportation for the Elementary Schools instead of funding the outreach routes. It was determined to be impossible to use Transportation Fund money for that purpose. The vote on the amount with the additional dollar failed, and the vote on the original appropriation of $907,453 passed with just a couple of Nos. I voted Yes.

Retirement Assessment: Article 18! Finally! This was our obligatory annual appropriation to the Hampshire County Retirement System to fund the retirements of current and future municipal, library, and non-teaching elementary school retirees. There were questions about rolling local retirement systems into the State system (the Town is evaluating it potential advantages and disadvantages,) and whether or not the money is held in trust (it is, but by the County, not the Town,) and new accounting procedures that will be required in FY09 (Zzzzzz…) The vote to appropriate the $2,920,979 was unanimous.

Article 19 – Reserve Fund: No, not the regular reserves – that’s Free Cash and Stabilization. This is the FinCom’s reserve fund for taking care of unforeseen expenses during the year. It’s always a $100,000 appropriation, but last year, in Town Meeting’s infinite wisdom, that money was reduced to $50,000, hence needing an additional appropriation with the FY07 budget amendment article at the Special Town Meeting last week (or last month, or whenever that was… This has gone on so long that all sense of time is lost.) After a couple of random questions, the vote to approve the $100,000 appropriation was unanimous.

Article 20 – Capital Spending – Chapter 90 Funds: This article kicks off the capital articles. We are told again that the goal for capital spending is 10% of the tax levy, but that we never manage to allocate that amount, and this year are down to 7%, and we are falling further behind on maintaining our infrastructure. This article addressed Chapter 90 funds, which come from the State and are collected through the gas tax and can only be used for road work and related equipment. We have a $20 million backlog of roadwork, so at $500,000 a year, we are falling behind here as well. The vote to approve the $500,000 appropriation was unanimous.

Article 21 – Capital Spending – Equipment: Again, we’re falling behind on this stuff. There’s a long list of stuff we’ll get, but a much longer list of stuff we need but can’t afford. (See the JCPC’s report in the FinCom Report for all the details.) The Finance Committee’s recommendation was for $1,095,378. Stan Gawle moved to reduce the number by $191,000, citing the LSSE van as something that could come out of that department’s budget and complaining about spending on computer and web site upgrades, saying “How much more sophisticated do we have to get?” He said that we still needed to come up with the $238,000 for the Regional Assessment and we were running out of line items we could reduce before it would all have to come from reserves. Vince O’Connor moved to increase the FinCom amount by $86,500 to add refurbishing of the aerial ladder truck and purchase of another defibrillator. He cited the $120,000 of unspent school money, and money he expects to come from the colleges and the State, and said we should spend this money for useful purposes. This is when Brian Morton told us that $100,000 of turn-back money had already been anticipated as funds to help increase the reserves this year. A member noted that any additional amount that can go to reserves is a good thing, and that if the new funds Mr. O’Connor anticipates actually come through, we can always spend them later. Elaine Brighty of the JCPC talked about how the computer spending is primarily for infrastructure items like servers and routers and software, and that new computer purchases have been mostly deferred. The first vote was on Mr. O’Connor’s, as it was the largest amount. It was defeated soundly and I voted No. The Finance Committee’s figure of $1,095,378 passed with only a couple of Nos, so we didn’t vote on Mr. Gawle’s amount. I voted Yes to the FinCom amount.

And that was Wednesday. Pretty good progress. It was about as straight-forward a Town Meeting session as you could ask for in Amherst. Now if only we could get everyone who has spoken three or more times so far to not speak again, we might actually finish this thing.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Brain fry

No, I haven’t fled to Shutesbury in pursuit of a one-day Town Meeting. It’s tempting, but then I couldn’t walk to Bueno.

I just haven’t written up Wednesday’s meeting yet, nor the SB meeting for that matter. I go through a bit of recap burn-out every so often, when I can’t even make myself do it. I’ll try for Sunday. Sorry!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Robbing Peter to pay pool

If it weren’t for the debt service vote at the end, we might actually have made negative progress on the warrant. Otherwise, we spent the whole night on Cherry Hill and pools, two subjects that just haven’t had quite enough discussion yet.

I could just cut and paste from previous recaps, as this was the same people saying the same things about the same subjects. But that’s no fun. However, I can’t quite bring myself to do a blow-by-blow rehash of all this tired stuff again. So this will be a little different.

Intro: The Moderator noted that this was our 9th session and we need to move along so people can get on with their lives. Apparently, this message was lost on the body. He also emphasized when the “highly-privileged” point of order is in order—Yes: to correct the Moderator, to get clarification on which motion is being voted, to note that the speaker can’t be heard, or other points pertaining to the running of the meeting; No: to note that a speaker is incorrect or misleading or not providing sufficient info.

Cherry Hill redux: This time, it was through its Community Services line item. Larry Kelley moved to reduce its funding. He seems to think that the course won’t meet its projections. His proposal would fund it through the end of December. A member noted how the budget calendar and the golf season calendar line up badly. The Town Manager said: give the new management a chance. Other people said: give the new management a chance. Some people thought this reduction could be used to instead fund the pools. The problem is, Cherry Hill operating revenues come from Cherry Hill fees. The Town doesn’t write Cherry Hill a check for its operating money – the Town appropriates, or “authorizes the spending of,” $231,862 (in FY08, including employee benefits) by and for Cherry Hill. But Cherry Hill brings in all of that money – or almost all of it. It is when they bring in less or spend more than the appropriation that the Town has to bail it out. So the Town does not spend $200K+ per year on the course – the Town only spends the shortfall amount – about $35K for FY07, I think – which, as Larry is happy to tell you, isn’t pocket change and really adds up over time. We had all the same questions, pros and cons from the discussion at last week’s Special TM. We finally voted on the Finance Committee’s number, because it was larger than the amended amount, and it passed soundly in a voice vote. I voted Yes. To me, an RFP would be a new plan and an actual protection against loss, whereas simply docking the budget would be meaningless and counterproductive. And can we finally put to rest this erroneous notion that all the budgets were held to 1% increases? That only applied to the overall Town, School and Library budgets – individual departments went up and down, as is made quite obvious in the “% Change” column of the FinCom Report. And nothing inspires sympathetic votes like a motion that is doomed to fail on the ninth night of Town Meeting, when no end is in sight.

Orphan areas: Public Health, the Senior Center, Veterans’ Services and Town Commemorations lack the kind of passionate advocates and opponents of the human service funding, LSSE, the pools and the golf course, so they went quickly and unchallenged.

Belly flop: Just before we voted the bottom line on Community Services, someone who had to leave the meeting prior to the pool voting last time moved to reconsider. I hate reconsiderations like this. I hated it last spring when it could have led to an outcome I preferred, and I hate it now, when it was all but certain to lead to one I oppose. Reconsiderations of this kind are a failure to accept that in a democracy, you don’t always get your way. I understand the process allows for this, but I think it is an abuse of the spirit of the rules. The fact is that the pool funding was voted down fair and square last time. To game the system by working to have more of “your” voters present for a re-vote is not so far from tampering. What next? We start preventing those with whom we disagree from attending Town Meeting? Let the air out of their tires? Sabotage their tally vote cards? This kind of “all is fair in love, war and politics” sentiment really offends me. But victory via jerkiness is a time-honored American tradition. Thanks, but I’d rather lose. And I did. The vote to reconsider was 95 Yes and 82 No.

Eureka: But thank goodness reconsideration won! Otherwise, I and others might not have realized that War Memorial pool is really important to people. A lot of people enjoy it. Especially in the summer. Some have even learned to swim there. Who knew?

Pasta pitch: Arguments in favor of the pool were another instance of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. Mill River is too far away. It will be extra pollution to drive and bus people there. Closing the pool will lead to increased juvenile delinquency. Puffer’s Pond will be too crowded. People who don’t know how to swim might drown at Puffer’s. War Memorial pool is an integrated melting pot. People with disabilities use it. Swimming is good exercise. Heck, I was ready to propose we increase the budget further and build another pool in South Amherst. Must be fair to all, must meet every need, cost be damned.

Eat the rich: How many times over both nights were we subject to the argument that not all families have their own pool or go away for summer vacations? This whole class shaming thing is getting really old. And where are all these private Amherst pools anyway? The way people talk about that, you’d think this was Florida.

Just like home: Select Board Chair Gerry Weiss did something I thought was very smart – he divided the numbers by 100 to make them more manageable, and compared them to a household budget. He said if you had intended to put $13,000 into savings this year, (the Town’s $1.3M reserve increase) and had an unexpected $2,380 expense for a roof repair (the $238,000 from the Regional School assessment) would you really want to deny your children the $700 dollars ($70,000 pool cost) that it would cost to have the backyard pool? He said it wasn’t a matter of not putting money into savings, just a matter of putting in less. So that was a good concept, but I would take it a step further. Is it really better that the kids should have the pool if it means continuing to inadequately fund the family savings, leaving them in dire straights if Mom’s car dies or Dad loses his job?

Perception and precipitation: A common issue with Cherry Hill is how weather-dependent its success is. I don’t know what money doesn’t get expended at the pools when weather is bad, but now that this issue has become such a big deal, it will be hard not to think of the lost money if it is a rainy summer.

Reservations on reserves: Bryan Harvey did an excellent walk-through of Brian Morton’s reserves graph. But it was no use. Some people are convinced that putting money in reserves is either mean or crooked. And the continuing refrain about the school money being separate and how the pool money wouldn’t come from reserves, but from the general government cut, is perplexing. That’s like saying that you don’t have enough money in your checking account to pay your bills, and the money in your wallet and under your mattress doesn’t count. It’s all the same money folks. Before the pools, we have about $58,000 that can be appropriated before we’re in the red. But because we know we have to come up with $238,000 for the Regional Schools, we’re actually already in the red by $180,000. Put that $58K to the pools, and we’re in the red for the whole $238K. “In the red” means using reserves. Or seeking an override which would be amusing for a couple of reasons: a) as one member pointed out, that would cost another $14,000; and b) if it failed, guess where the money would have to come from? Reserves! It’s not an optional expenditure – not like the last override, whose failure meant we wouldn’t be paying for those firefighters … or the pool… or… Hmmmm.

Follow through: Actually, to me that last point is the biggest negative of funding the pool. What is a person supposed to believe? How will we ever get people to trust that Town government will do what it says it will do with a multi-year plan, if even a straightforward set of override-dependent expenditures turns out to be a crock? Furthermore, if there are no tangible consequences to not passing an override, then how do we persuade people that it is necessary? Most people don’t see or recognize the reductions to text books and supplies at the schools, the creeping class sizes, the gradual trimming away of special programs. They don’t see the staff being spread too thin at Town Hall, or the proportional decrease in police protection. That these are not widely perceived would be considered by some to mean that reductions led to new efficiency; I would say it means that Amherst is subjecting itself to death by a thousand cuts. Closing the pool would be stark evidence that the Town is in tough financial shape. It’s hard to blame a person for believing things can’t be that bad if Amherst still has not one but two public pools open this summer.

Splash: Sure enough, the vote to fund the pool was successful, but that was almost a foregone conclusion. One of the operatives of reconsideration told me he and others had been working the phones since last week, getting attendance and voting commitments from some critical mass. He said that if the headcount was right, they would move to reconsider. Welcome to Tammany Hall. The first vote was on the Select Board’s amount, and it failed in a tally of 88 Yes, 94 No. By strange coincidence, the Oldham motion, for $12,000 less, passed with the reverse totals: 94 Yes and 88 No. That led to approval of the bottom line appropriation for Community Services at $1,743,604.

What if: So perhaps the pools and the human services funding are indeed sacred cows of the Amherst budget. If they had both been fully funded (whatever fully-funding human services would mean,) does that mean we would have sailed through this budget? Or does it mean that those determined to exercise their advocacy and passions would simply have chosen different targets?

Debt: No, not the debt we are imposing on the future by failing to prioritize today’s reserve funds. This is debt service, or “General Fund Indebtedness,” a separate budget section. Blessedly, we have moved on from General Government. This is the cost of principal and interest payments on the Town’s big-ticket borrowing. I was too depressed to take good notes here though – sorry. The vote to appropriate the $1,491,359 as recommended by the Finance Committee was unanimous.

Cancel those elitist yuppie vacation plans: So how can we make this take even longer? What else can we reconsider? Can we find another way to address Cherry Hill? Are there more procedural motions we might exploit? Have we exhausted all possibilities for screwing up the Regional Assessment? Does anyone have a pet cause that needs indulging? Ahh, Town government in action.

Or rather: Town government inaction.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

If only the override had passed

Wednesday’s motion sheet had included one for reconsideration of the Regional Schools’ budget, and I thought to myself, “Here we go…” I was not expecting it to be the Finance Committee seeking reconsideration.

Sure enough, it turns out that the symbolic 2% vote from Monday isn’t quite good enough. FinCom Chair Alice Carlozzi told us that she had been mistaken in saying that if 3% prevails with the region that we don’t need to take another vote. In fact, there does need to be an appropriation vote to match a corresponding expenditure.

This was just an announcement to begin the meeting – we needed to have a Special TM first, then we would return to the reconsideration question.

Article 1 of the Special is a housekeeping article that had previously been Article 15 of the Annual. It is a two-parter. Part A allows the transfer of money between different functional areas to let excesses in one make up for deficiencies in another. As we all know, and should know even better after this meeting, the Town Manager can move money around as necessary within a functional area, but TM’s approval is needed to move money between functional areas because it was our appropriation that “gave” each area its money during last year’s budget votes. Under the motion made by Brian Morton of the FinCom, we were to approve increasing the FY07 appropriation to General Government by $72,800 and decreasing the appropriations to Planning, Conservation and Inspections by $34,800 and Debt Service by $38,000 accordingly.

There were some questions about this – the specifics of the departmental overages and underages, particularly as pertained to Cherry Hill. A member pointed out that we were increasing the FY07 General Government appropriation by $72,800 after having recently cut the FinCom’s recommended FY08 General Government appropriation by $100,000 and asked whether this might suggest we would be making a similar transfer next year. FinCom said – “Yup.” After a couple other questions and comments, we voted. The voice vote was nearly unanimous, except for those two or three pathological No votes that we almost always have. Honestly – what is up with that? What possible opposition could one have to what is essentially technicality – a vote to clean up our FY07 books? Is there a legitimate dissenting opinion here? Are these couple of people really opposed to government in general or the FinCom in particular? Does that feel like a protest vote? It does make the idea of tally votes for everything rather attractive (as if TM doesn’t last long enough…) Would they still vote No on the record? Or is it a symptom of that TM plague – enjoying the sound of one’s own voice?

Part B was to increase the appropriation to the Finance Committee’s reserve fund by $50,000 through a transfer from Free Cash to cover the FY07 shortfall. Again, last year’s Town Meeting voted to decrease the Finance Committee’s recommended appropriation of $100,000 by half. And now we need to use reserves to cover that same amount that we had cut. Are any doubters starting to recognize that the Finance Committee isn’t making up their budget recommendations? These numbers are not arbitrary, they are not wild guesses, and they aren’t value judgments. They reflect the realities of how much the business of government costs based on how much it has cost in the past, and based on educated and careful projections of revenues and expenses. Mr. Morton reminded us of the specifics of the cuts, redistributions and additional appropriations that TM made last year and how without them, this article may have been unnecessary.

The vote on this was again nearly unanimous, with one or two of the (same? different?) renegade Nos.

Article 2 of the Special sought to advise the Select Board to advise the Town Manager to re-RFP Cherry Hill – under more reasonable conditions and with an expectation of accepting an appropriate bid. Petitioner Larry Kelley, apparently under the auspices of Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change, brought forth his usual litany of figures to illustrate the golf course’s drain on Town money. (Production values weren’t quite up to their usual standards however. Last year we got a documentary short feature, this year we got numbers scribbled on the back of an envelope. I was expecting 3-D, or maybe a laser light show.)

The Finance Committee supported the recommendation, the Select Board didn’t. The Town Manager listed all the reasons he didn’t accept the Niblick bid (didn’t want to lose control of valuable asset, didn’t want to lease Town equipment for its upkeep, ambiguous deal, opposes privatization of Town stuff) why he is optimistic about the course’s future under new Town management (big improvements, better marketing, new programs, improved results so far.) People asked questions about his threshold for giving up on this (poor results next year would make him reconsider an RFP, but he wants to try first) and about organic turf management (they’re doing more of that with help from UMass’ Stockbridge School,) and others spoke to the beauty and potential of the course. The vote on the article was defeated pretty soundly, and I voted Yes.

I really don’t give a whoop about Cherry Hill. I have no real problem with it not making money – thinking about it like the other recreation programs of LSSE is fine with me. I don’t find the argument about subsidizing out-of-towners compelling, whether or not it is true. Considering some of the stories I’ve heard about past course management or lack thereof, I think the finances almost can’t help but improve. And yet, I just don’t see a downside to outside management. The whole “people enjoy the course for non-golf activities” thing doesn’t seem to me to be precluded by a lease deal. Continuing LSSE’s low-fee golf programs and protecting the land from being wrecked both seem like simple details taken care of by a good contract. No one expects the place to be a goldmine under the best circumstances, so it isn’t like they want to keep Amherst from missing out on that windfall. Is it possible that by annoying citizens and Town officials alike on this issue for 20 years, Larry has simply entrenched his opposition? I can’t believe that’s really the case, but it could be as good an explanation as any.

Done with the Special. Back to the Annual.

Oh, yes, that reconsideration thing. Ms. Carlozzi reiterated her earlier points and said that we need to re-vote this, just to clean things up and enable us to finish TM with a completed and balanced budget.

Select Board Chair Gerry Weiss moved to postpone reconsideration until just before Article 31 is dealt with – the one where we seek money from reserves to cover unfunded appropriations. He said that on Monday people wanted to give the Regional School committee the opportunity to consider the E&D proposal and to have Pelham TM’s final decision on June 13th. The Regional SC had met but several members weren’t there and they didn’t vote about the alternative proposal, and with Pelham’s final vote still a week away, he said there was no rush to do this now.

The Moderator reminded us that having brought forth the motion to reconsider, this was our only shot.

Andy Churchill of the Regional SC said they had discussed the issue in depth the night before, and that Pelham and Shutesbury Select Board members and a Pelham Finance Committee member were present. He said that there was no interest in using the E&D money for this, and while they did not vote, he did not expect there would be sufficient support from the full committee for the 2/3 majority that E&D use would require.

People spoke for and against postponing reconsideration. Those speaking for it emphasized that we will have more complete info if we wait; that there seems to be no harm in waiting; and that if the vote for 3% failed to pass tonight, that would be procedurally problematic. Those speaking against it said that it would make the $238,000 shortfall more real to us and might keep us more disciplined in the rest of our budget actions; that we might as well do it now; and that the small risk of the 3% failing could be easily taken care of with a Special TM if necessary.

The question was called, and we voted on the motion to postpone. The voice vote was too close to call, so we had a standing vote.

This was another one of these brain-twisting TM moments. The arguments on both sides sounded perfectly reasonable to me – it was six of one, half-dozen of the other. So I really had no idea how to vote, and in the voice vote, I abstained. The standing vote is supposed to confirm the voice vote, so was I even allowed to participate in the standing vote? I decided yes, but that still didn’t solve my dilemma of how to vote. So I decided that members all have their own angles on this, wise and otherwise. But the School Committee had a vested interest in the outcome. So when I saw that Andy Churchill was standing to vote in support of postponement, that was good enough for me, and I stood as well. The motion to postpone passed, 104 Yes and 69 No.

Back to Community Services, which we had last dealt with a week ago, having only determined the amount for the human services funding line. This time, it’s LSSE.

The FinCom’s recommendation was for $637,704. The Select Board’s recommendation was for $625,704. Mr. Weiss spoke to the Select Board’s figure, saying they had originally voted 3-2 to cut $24,000 from there, to complete their redistribution of money to restore funds for the War Memorial pool and wading pools. But he said they had taken the $12,000 that TM had rejected from the SB’s recommendation to restore Puffer’s Pond seasonal staff and trail maintenance and put it into LSSE. He said that $1,000 was intended to provide childcare for Town Meeting members who need it in order to attend TM. He said childcare money was something that had been decided on in the past, but wasn’t being funded, and that we need to deliver on this promise.

Andy Steinberg of the FinCom spoke of how the cut to LSSE would jeopardize programs and that there had already been staff reductions and fee increases, and that with summer LSSE programs already underway, it was too late to increase those fees anyway. He spoke about the importance of subsidies for low-income participants, and how even a small fee increase has a large cumulative effect.

An LSSE commission member talked about the large numbers of people served by LSSE programs and their positive effect on the community, and how LSSE’s percentage of tax support is at its lowest level in 10 years.

There was some discussion of the pools as their funding relates to the SB’s LSSE cut, and whether the Town Manager would be obligated to use such money for the pools if these votes were to pass. The Town Manager talked about how the Town Government Act gives the Manager the authority to move money around within categories to use as he sees necessary, but he said that having that authority and utilizing it were two different issues. He said he would be very conscious of the vote of TM and the recommendation by the Select Board, and said that only under extreme circumstances would he go against those.

A member – OK, it was me – mentioned that the intent of the SB adding back $12,000 of their original LSSE cut was to provide $1,000 for childcare and $11,000 for the Puffer’s Pond maintenance that TM had rejected last week, and asked if that might be elaborated on a bit.

Mr. Shaffer said that Puffer’s Pond has to be maintained, even if the funding isn’t there, so the Select Board added the Conservation money to LSSE to fund that maintenance.


So we are voting whether or not to fund things that may or may not be funded regardless of our vote.

I certainly understand that the Town Manager needs the ability move money around as necessary. But why would a required item have been left off the core 1% budget and treated as a restoration, when there is apparently no intent or possibility of it not happening? Doesn’t that seem less like moving money around as necessary and more like a bait and switch? And isn’t that kind of like what happened with the firefighters? And the line painting? And doesn’t that make something of a mockery of this whole Town Meeting budget process?

And the Select Board, whose chain is similarly being yanked, wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the info that they had earmarked that money for Puffer’s Pond. Mr. Weiss had said in the course of their discussions about this on Monday that the motion to put this money into LSSE to do something that had already been rejected by Town Meeting seemed like an “end-around” move, and Ms Awad had said that it was honest because it was what the Select Board wanted. Yet they opted to talk about the $1,000 for childcare, and conveniently didn’t mention the Puffer’s Pond part.

Is Town Meeting being toyed with from without and within?

I don’t really know what to make of this. I have championed the Town Manager’s budget all along, on my abiding belief that he is the one who knows best what the priorities are of Town government as a whole, and that the budget he recommended was created through a careful and informed process. I worked hard – not hard enough, apparently – in support of the override based on that same belief. Now I’m not sure what to think.

Maybe I’ll go take a dip in the War Memorial pool to clear my mind. Yes, we would later (spoiler alert!) vote down funding for that, but such things don’t appear to be linked here in Amherst through the looking-glass.

After a nice presentation of LSSE numbers and the relationship between tax support and fees, and a few more comments about this wacky process, how LSSE doesn’t do karate, ballet or gymnastics, and the value of LSSE to low-income families, we voted. The vote was on the Finance Committee’s amount – without the SB’s reduction. Too close to call, it went to a standing vote. 89 Yes and 81 No. I voted Yes.

Now people – we must learn to work the clock on these things a wee-bit better. If the vote finishes before 10:00 p.m. – even one minute before – then we have to start the next line or article. Couldn’t we have delayed our standing and sitting down just a tad? Couldn’t we have maybe had a brief commotion? Don’t tell the Moderator, but let’s try to never finish a vote just before 10:00, OK?

No such luck this night. At 9:59, we started the pools.

The Select Board’s recommendation was to add $70,812 to the pools line, to restore funding to War Memorial pool and the wading pools. Mr. Weiss said that the SB had voted unanimously for this and said so many people benefit from the pools, that closing War Memorial would make the Mill River pool and Puffer’s Pond more crowded. He said that the last vote meant that the SB’s plan was $12,000 over budget, but so be it. He said he would hate to have the pools not open and find at the end of the summer that we could have afforded them.

Jim Oldham offered an amendment for $12,000 less, to open the pools but not go over the 1% budget. He said that LSSE could determine how to make due without that $12K, and that the motion, if passed, would convey the sense of Town Meeting that it wants the pools open.

Mr. Steinberg, speaking for the FinCom, said how difficult it was for him to recommend against funding the pools, but that these were the kinds of things that had been contingent on the override passing, and it didn’t pass. He spoke about the need to not take money from reserves, and said that it is not uncommon for the schools to have a higher increase than other parts of the budget. He mentioned the hiring schedule for staffing the pool and said that all swimming lessons were able to be accommodated at the Mill River pool.

The LSSE Commission Chair spoke to the history and importance of the War Memorial pool. Another member asked about the ability to hire lifeguards at this point.

LSSE Director Linda Chalfant wins the Guilford Mooring “Truth in Government” award for this session, saying that aquatic staff is among the hardest positions to fill, and that the pool would still require prep work by the DPW in order to open, and that if this funding were approved, she would do everything in her power to get War Memorial open this summer, but that it would be hard to do.

A member spoke to how approval of the Select Board’s $100,000 cut to general government implied the desire to re-allocate that money according to the SB’s plan, and said he was sorry the Finance Committee had treated that money as floating funds. He said it was an anomaly of how the budget is presented that those funds couldn’t be immediately moved to a different functioning area, as had been done with the Special TM budget amendment article earlier in the evening.

Another member reiterated the points about the override having failed and the alternative having been a 1% budget. He said parents and other hadn’t been advocating for particular extras and that fiscal restraint had been accepted for this year. He said that the pools would be available for 60 days or fewer, and that there was still one municipal pool in town as well as those at apartment complexes, and said that there are still hoses and sprinklers. He said that unlike the pools, the Regional School Assessment was not an optional expenditure.

The question was called, and everyone already had their tally vote cards ready. First up was the vote on the Select Board’s higher amount. It was defeated 62 Yes and 101 No. Next up was Mr. Oldham’s amount, it too was defeated and because the results were so close, it was recounted and the results stood: 78 Yes and 84 No. I voted No on both.

We adjourned around 10:30-ish. I didn’t write it down.

Quite a night.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

School daze

Appropriate to the theme of the evening, we began with a gentle reminder: Boys and girls – behave yourselves! No taunting, hitting, biting or spitballs, especially during tally votes. Apparently, there had been an incident…

After a procedural motion to postpone Community Services, we took up the school budgets, as had been scheduled by a previous procedural motion.

Superintendent Jere Hochman began with a presentation (an abbreviated version of this) about the schools, as a way of grounding the discussion.

Finance Committee Chair Alice Carlozzi made the Finance Committee’s recommendation of $19,456,715, a 1% budget. Details of her recommendation are available in the FinCom Report.) She called it an “austerity budget,” and said it was not a “disaster.” She said that the majority of the School Committee recommended it for the same reason that the FinCom does – it offers an opportunity for the Town to create a multi-year financial plan to begin next year, and to not jeopardize that opportunity with a small override this year.

School Committee Chair Andy Churchill said the School Committee had voted to support the 1% budget 4-1, even though they weren’t happy about it. He said that the failure of the override, desire to not use reserves and general limited available funds made them conclude that this was the best option. He said that all the SC members are also members of the Regional School Committee, and that the regional budget situation is more desperate, and the overage of its 3% will probably have to come from reserves. He said that adding more to the elementary school budget would be too much to ask for from reserves, and said they didn’t want to doom next year’s override prospects. He said that he was surprised to have a lot of parents urging the School Committee to hold the line at 1% this year. He said that they can scrape by at these levels this year but that the excellence of both the regional and elementary schools are at risk, and talked about the significant cuts that have been made over the last few years. He also highlighted some special successes in student achievement and mentoring programs. He spoke of challenges posed by the uneven distribution of low-income families among the elementary schools, and the challenges inherent in the physical space of the aging building.

Alisa Brewer reported the Select Board’s unanimous support for the recommendation.

Members asked about the particulars of delaying the musical instrument programs by a year (starting strings in 4th grade instead of 3rd, and winds and percussion in 5th grade instead of 4th;) and asked the usual questions about the ratios of staff and dollars to students.

Dick Mudgett proposed an amendment for a 3% budget ($19,842,043,) calling a 1% elementary school budget “highly discriminatory” as the regional schools are expected to get 3%. He talked about how crucial learning is at the elementary level and about the good experiences his children had had in the system, and the expense and necessity of quality special ed services.

Chrystel Romero, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the School Committee’s recommendation, proposed an amendment for a 2% budget ($19,649,715.) She said the biggest priority is more teachers in order to reduce class sizes. She said that Town Meeting votes a bottom-line number for the schools and that the school committee then directs the Superintendent how to spend it, and said that was different from the Town situation. She said that the school budget was created before she became a school committee member and it doesn’t represent her priorities. She said that if you want different priorities you need to change the School Committee membership. (Ouch! And kind of a funny thing for the only non-elected SC member to say.) She said the schools shouldn’t have to scrape by and that the future was too unpredictable to sacrifice this year for a better expected outcome next year.

Vince O’Connor proposed a budget that gives Medicaid and MassHealth reimbursements back to the elementary schools ($19,581,715.) He said that the schools do all the work for this money, but it gets deposited in Town accounts, unlike at the regional level, where he said they keep those funds. He said the School Committee had been trying to resolve this with the Finance Committee for three years, and he cited a bunch of arguments against doing this that he called “red herrings:” that the money is already allocated elsewhere; that other departments would then want the revenues they generate; something I didn’t understand about the reserve situation being different than it was last year; and that doing this isn’t required by law. He explained why he found those arguments uncompelling. He said his proposal would provide funding for two additional teachers.

Ms. Carlozzi said the FinCom didn’t favor any of the proposals, because any increase would compound the shortfalls projected for FY09, and she repeated cautions against using reserves or having a small override. She said the reimbursement issue has been under discussion but that they ran out of time for this budget, and said that there are details that need to be worked out.

I find the reimbursement issue an interesting one – it is the same one the library is concerned with regarding their overdue fines. Certainly it seems fair and reasonable that the entity that took in the money should keep the money – leaving aside the whole can of worms about whether the Clerk’s office should keep passport fees and whether the I.T. department might as well start selling something too – but it also seems irrelevant. Going back to the budget-as-pie analogy, if the slice we are going to cut for the elementary schools is yay big, then where the funds come from that make up that slice hardly matters. We aren’t going to give them their full slice PLUS the reimbursement money – that money is already figured in to their slice. Without the reimbursement money, the slice would be the same size; the funds would just come from other sources. Despite having sat through numerous meetings where the term “revolving fund” is tossed around in relation to this issue, I don’t actually know what that means. If it means that it is separate from the rest of the pie, I don’t think that changes my point. If you would be expecting them to get $X from the revolving fund, then you would reduce the size of their pie slice accordingly. At least that’s how I would expect it to work. I may not agree with Mr. O’Connor too often – an understatement – but he is certainly intelligent and well-informed, so I would want to know his take on this. But not at the 11th hour.

Mr. Churchill said that it was odd to be a School Committee member and be in the position of recommending the lowest budget amount. He said it is not a matter of strange priorities but a practical question of where additional money would come from. He said that class size is the main concern and that there are a few places where that is problematic, but he read the averages for classes in each grade in each school which were in the teens and low twenties, and said that these were not the classes of 25-27 students that they had been afraid they might have. He said the override didn’t pass and that left no viable source for additional funds.

Mr. Kusner said that the Select Board had no official position on the amendments but that he would urge support for a higher number, saying that elementary education is one of the most crucial things we do as a society.

A member asked how the different proposals would impact the schools. The Superintendent said that for budgeting purposes, they use an average of $50,000 per teacher, so the different proposals would provide for a couple of new teachers. He said that based on analysis of the numbers Mr. Churchill had cited, the priority for placing teachers would be determined. But he said that it wasn’t as easy as looking at the simple class size number. He said it is rare that a class has all its students all day long because children with different needs and abilities work with specialists for some lessons.

One member talked about MCAS issues at Crocker Farm and how cuts at the elementary level mean more needs aren’t being met, and that the problems for those students will get worse as they advance to higher grades. Another spoke about the need to focus personnel on those working directly with students, how Amherst’s SPED money could support a paraprofessional for each student, and how the State and Federal mandates and their required paperwork need to be addressed because they negatively impact the system. Elaine Brighty of the School Committee, agreed about the mandate and paperwork problems, and said that the priority is the adults working with children, and that one paraprofessional per special ed student wouldn’t address all needs – some kids need multiple specialists.

There were questions about whether more money would be spent on staffing if it were voted (probably,) whether those making amendments have to identify the source of funds (no, but it’s helpful,) about the status of projected town and school reserves (around $4.2M for the town and more detail to follow on the schools,) and what class size goals are (the targets are 22 for K-2nd, 23 for 3rd and 4th, and 24 for 5th and 6th grades.)

Brian Morton of the FinCom presented another great graph of historical and projected reserves, reserve usage, State aid and bonding level recommendations. This is always interesting and he explains it very well.

A member suggested that an override or reserves were not the only options for finding new revenues: cuts could be made from other parts of the budget, such as the capital plan. Ms. Carlozzi said that capital spending has been diminished and diverted for several years and that it is important to maintain a balance between the services we provide and the equipment and facilities we need to support them.

The question was called and then we came to a vote, starting with the highest amount first. The 3% Mudgett amendment failed decisively; the 2% Romero amendment failed decisively; the reimbursement-based O’Connor amendment failed somewhat less decisively, but a tally vote was called for, confirming the defeat: 55 Yes to 141 No. I voted No.

The subsequent voice vote for the 1% Finance Committee recommendation – $19,456,715 – was nearly unanimous with the typical smattering of Nos.

On to the Regional School budget.

This one boils down to the 3% recommendation from the Regional School Committee –which all legal sources agree that Amherst is going to have to pay regardless of how we vote, because it has already been agreed to by the three other towns in the region – versus the Finance Committee’s 2% recommendation, which is both a last-gasp hope for a reprieve and intended to make a statement to the other towns that Amherst is in tough financial shape. Ms. Carlozzi said that she doesn’t think anything is likely to change with the other towns and that it is expected that we will have to pay the 3%.

I just can’t bear to summarize again details related to the whole three-out-of-four towns thing or the iterations of the interpreting the revised statute. Feel free to consult a couple of previous blog entries and multiple SB recaps if you want or need more info on that.

Other than that stuff…

Ms. Brighty said the regional budget is very different than the elementary budget, which is mostly made up of people. She said the region has capital, facility and transportation costs, as well as the costs of paying tuition of students from Amherst who attend other schools (the elementary budget has that too, but less.) She said that the cost of paying tuition for students attending charter schools is expected to be more than $500,000 in FY08.

Mr. Weiss said that the Select Board had supported the 3% recommendation 3-2, and that he had proposed a compromise to the Regional SC that morning, whereby Amherst would pay 2% and that the additional 1% would come from the Region’s E&D funds, but that there had been no agreement on the proposal.

Ms. Brighty explained that E&D stands for excess and deficiency, and that those funds are not supposed to be less than 3.5% of the budget and would be preferred to be at 5%. She said that the region doesn’t have a town’s reserve fund to tap for a new boiler or to fix a roof leak or to cover higher-than-anticipated bills – these types of expenses are covered by E&D money. She said that what that total would be at the end of this fiscal year is uncertain because the revenues and expenses need to be reconciled. In response to other questions, she said that the amount of E&D would affect bonding for borrowing, and that that fund has been drained in recent years to pay bills.

Dr. Hochman said that the Regional SC members had been reluctant to consent to using E&D money as a last resort to eliminate the second study hall, so while he couldn’t speak for them, he wasn’t optimistic that they would accept its use for Mr. Weiss’ proposal. In response to a member’s question, he explained the Pelham Town Meeting situation which some seem to believe suggests that they might stray from the 3%. He said that in early May, Pelham TM had overwhelmingly approved both the per-pupil assessment method and the 3% budget. He said there were a couple of issues about their elementary school budget, but that that had also ultimately passed overwhelmingly. He said they will reconvene on June 13th to complete their work and vote on the entire budget again.

A member wanted clarification on what the E&D amount is currently, having recently heard $1.3M and $1.5M, and the suggestion that they might be 3.5% of the school budget, which he said would equal $977,000. Ms. Brighty said that it is a moving target, but that best estimates are $1.3M to $1.5M.

Ms. Brighty talked about how much fixed costs had increased since FY05, particularly health insurance and utilities, and the significant cuts that had been made.

Ms. Carlozzi said that the region is a separate legal entity and can’t be told what to do, but that Town Meeting can advise. She said that if the 3% is pursued, we will pay it because we have to, and that the FinCom is reluctantly willing to take that money from reserves, but is not willing to use reserves for any other overages.

Mr. Weiss reiterated the Select Board’s mixed vote to support the 3% recommendation, and said that the region’s E&D money was well above the 3.5% that is required.

A member asked what would happen if Amherst rejected the 3% – would it require a new Town Meeting vote? Ms. Carlozzi said that no further action would be needed – Amherst would have to pay and would pay.

So it was time to vote, and the larger Regional SC amount was first. A tally vote was called for, and that amount was rejected, 76 Yes and 114 No. I voted Yes.

This was a little tough. I obviously favor the Finance Committee recommendations, and I am firm in my “no override this year/no use of reserves” stance. But the regional agreement trumps that which is in Amherst’s individual financial interest. What good is an agreement if you are only going to go along with it when it works to your advantage? If Amherst, as the much larger town, is going to lord its weight over the smaller towns, then we’ve abandoned fairness for might. Not only is that yucky on the face of it, but it could really derail the important cooperative relationship that enables the region to function effectively.

And support of the 2% FinCom recommendation is largely symbolic.

So I voted for the Regional School Committee’s 3% amount, and once that failed, I voted for the Finance Committee’s 2% amount. And with that, and with none of the histrionics I had expected from this discussion, the school budgets are now blessedly done. I hope.

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Inching forward, ever so slowly

The previous post was a mere snippet of the meeting, evocative though it was. This one is the whole enchilada.

First up, Jim Chumbley moved to reconsider Article 16 – approval of the regional school assessment formula. He said that the new information regarding the Department of Education’s interpretation of the revised statute necessitated reconsideration. He said that the original vote had taken place with the understanding that Town Meeting would get to express its opinions on the regional school budget directly, and didn’t need to use Article 16 as leverage. He said the reasons to reconsider were to reassure that all voices were heard on the matter, to confirm that the action has its intended consequences – which he would do by moving to resume discussion and vote again at the end of the budget, and to communicate with the other towns in the region to make them understand the seriousness of Amherst’s structural deficit.

The Moderator talked about the technicalities of reconsideration – only someone absent or voting with the majority could move to reconsider; reconsideration puts the body back to the point in time and discussion right before the original vote was taken; and a vote can only be reconsidered once, so it was then or never.

Elaine Brighty, Chair of the Regional School Committee said that one might choose to reconsider for two reasons: on the merits of the article or based on new information. She said the merits of the article didn’t lend themselves to reconsideration because the per pupil assessment method is the most fair option and took much work to achieve. She said the new information amounts to the law being unchanged – approval of the budget by three out of the four towns is binding. She said the Regional School Committee has never voted anything other than a 3% budget, but had considered options for eliminating the second study hall requirement when a 1% budget seemed likely. She said she hoped any new discussion would be on the merits of the article and not on the possibility of using lack of approval as a way to pressure the other towns.

Alice Carlozzi, Chair of the Finance Committee, said that body had no position on reconsideration, but maintained its original position in support of the article. She said that this had been confusing, and that some people may feel frustrated. She said that no one was to blame for the situation and emphasized that other towns in the region had been in the same situation of being bound by a budget they did not want but that the other towns had approved. She said that the fact that it is now Amherst’s turn to be in that position isn’t really so shocking, and that it would be a bad thing to mess with the assessment, considering the history of cooperation among the towns.

Gerry Weiss, Chair of the Select Board, said that he had spoken in support of the previous vote being a pro forma one, and had recommended that people support Article 16 in good conscience, knowing that they could address the budget later. He said that while the circumstances are now different, he still recommended that the article be supported.

A member asked a question about the implications to other towns if we were to reconsider and reject Article 16. Ms. Brighty said their school committees would take it up again, and they would probably have to reconvene their Town Meetings. She said that with teacher contracts in place, and the possibility of creating a different assessment formula that would require towns to fund contracts they couldn’t afford, chaos would result.

In one of the most clear and persuasive opinions I have yet witnessed at Town Meeting, Jim Pistrang spoke against reconsideration, and compared the situation with his experience coaching the self-officiated sport of ultimate Frisbee. He said that if you step out of bounds, you need to call that, even if no one else saw you do it, and said that was easy when you have a big lead, but much harder in a tie game when the stakes are high. He said that the main issue with Article 16 was fairness, and that financial implications were secondary. He said that had been an easy call to make when we thought we could affect the budget later, but that now that we can’t, and now that we have to deal with the financial implications, it is as though our game is tied, and we still need to make the call based on fairness.

There was a question about Town Counsel’s opinion. Town Manager Larry Shaffer said that he agreed that all four towns had to approve the assessment formula and three out of four had to approve the budget. He said that although Pelham had voted on the budget already, they would be considering a Special Town Meeting warrant article about the situation shortly.

A member pointed out that last year two of the towns had contributed money to help pay Amherst’s share of the assessment to ease the transition to the new formula, and that the amount they contributed was pretty close to the amount a 2% assessment would cost us this year. He said that discussion of the budget would be a sham without the assessment formula agreed to, and said that the difficulties of the situation would be compounded if we don’t stick with the previous vote.

Another member said that he supported Jim Pistrang’s position, but also supported reconsideration. He said that there was enough uncertainty to warrant reconsideration, but said that instead of deferring the new vote, we should address it immediately and not use it as a pressure tactic. He said we should confirm our original vote on the fair option – approving the per-pupil assessment formula.

So then it was time to vote. And I voted in favor of reconsideration.

I am absolutely unequivocally in support of the current assessment formula and I am deeply offended by the idea of using it to blackmail the other towns to lower their budget. I know that sentiment is out there, and I know that if the article were to be reconsidered, that would be a risk. But I also think that Town Meeting can only function, such as it does, if everyone feels that the process is fair. If some critical mass of members was feeling that they were tricked or forced into the original Article 16 vote, then that could have a poisonous effect going forward. So I was voting for the integrity of the process, and hoping to reaffirm and strengthen the original vote.

A couple of months ago, when the Select Board was considering its options regarding putting an override question or questions on the ballot, a similar thing happened. After having first voted against two override amounts on the ballot, they then voted for two amounts, following a confusing and convoluted discussion about the smaller amount and whether it was simply a number or a half-baked plan. It was immediately clear that not everyone completely understood or supported what four of them had just voted for. Anne Awad was SB Chair at the time, and had favored two amounts. She knew that reconsidering that vote was all but certain to reverse that outcome. But she did it anyway. I was really impressed by that.

Anyway, I voted for reconsideration, but I was in the minority. The motion to reconsider failed.

Next up: Planning, Conservation and Inspections. The main issue here was that the Select Board was recommending an additional $12,000 for seasonal staff for Puffer’s Pond and its trail maintenance.

The Finance Committee said they had voted at one point to support that extra $12,000, but the new reality of needing to fund the looming regional assessment obligation had them supporting the lower amount instead.

David Ziomek, Conservation Director, said that the Conservation Department has one full-time land manager and one part-time assistant land manager to cover all the Town’s conservation lands and trails. He said seasonal staff addresses the needs of the Puffer’s Pond area at peak summer crowd time.

There were a couple of questions regarding the specifics of the budget numbers and the Town’s liability at Puffer’s.

A member asked about cutting an inspection position and the wisdom of doing that in light of complaints about inspections and permitting from the business community. Mr. Shaffer said that this position had been hard to fill anyway because of the salary attached to it, and said that many improvements are being made to the inspection process. He said the issue is not one of how many inspectors the Town has, but how they provide that service.

Someone asked if the Town could charge fees for inspections to take some of the burden off tax payers. Good idea – such a good idea, in fact, that we already do, and those fees surpass that department’s expenditures.

Once the Select Board formally offered their amendment for the extra $12K, some earlier points were reiterated. One TM member said that the $100,000 general government cut that is being redistributed, including for this proposal, shouldn’t be used for the schools because it is part of the original budget and should be used for regular budget items. He said that the regional assessment money should come from reserves.

Another member stressed fiscal restraint and said that there were enough bad cuts in a 1% budget to provide stuff for everyone to hate. He suggested that the $100K was being treated like found money and he didn’t think that was reason to stray from the 1% budget. He said he questioned the priorities after last week’s line painting recommendation. He said that we should stick with the 1% recommendations or risk dipping into reserves for much bigger sums.

Mr. Weiss said the Select Board did not stray from a 1% budget. He said that it is the policy making body and that the recommendations represent the Select Board’s best guess on policy based on feedback from the community.

A member said he had originally agreed that the amendments were a question of different ways of dividing up the same money, but said that the regional assessment issue changes that because now more money is needed. He said that any of these additions increase the amount that will ultimately need to be taken from the reserves.

Alisa Brewer said she had originally supported the Select Board’s recommendation for this $12K but due to the regional assessment situation, she no longer supports it.

Mr. Weiss said that the key issue with using the $100K for the regional assessment is that it means taking money from the Town budget to give it to the schools.

A member asked if the $12K were approved, would the money necessarily fund the Puffer’s Pond position, or might the Town Manager use the money elsewhere. Mr. Shaffer said that he would be mindful of the Town Meeting vote, but would have to assess the priorities when the entire appropriation process is complete and all the figures are known. He said he would retain the power to move money around as needed.

Someone asked about the implications for this year and future years of not having that staffing. Mr. Ziomek said that the trails at Puffer’s Pond are being “loved to death” and that the area was not designed to accommodate the volume it has now. He said that the cliffs are a particular problem and that when people are doing stuff there that they aren’t supposed to, he calls the police to take care of it.

A member spoke to it being inefficient to use expensive highly-trained police officers to deal with issues that seasonal staff – typically college students – could do very cheaply instead. Regarding Mr. Weiss’ point, he said that shifting money between the Town and the schools would undermine future budgets and make people not trust the budget process.

The vote on this extra $12K went to a tally: 78 Yes, 113 No. I voted No. The subsequent vote on the lower FinCom amount was nearly unanimous.

Community Services. To help with the nomenclature issues of the Community Services budget versus the Community Services line item, we temporarily renamed the line item “human services funding,” which is still a little confusing because it includes not just the money for human service agencies but also a portion of the salary for the Community Services Director. And because all of the Community Service items are individual mini-dramas, (human services funding, LSSE, the pools) we will deal with each separately.

Andy Steinberg spoke to the Finance Committee’s recommendation, the details of which are available in the FinCom Report. He said that it is not a budget that would be recommended if more money were available. Regarding funds for human service agencies, he said it was a practice that started when the Town had more money; that other towns don’t do this; and that the practice is not akin to the State contracting for services it needs to provide to its citizens, but is more like a foundation providing grants. He said that the amount spent here affects the amount that will be available for the upcoming consideration of schools and libraries. He said that just like individuals can’t respond to every envelope or phone call seeking charitable donations, the Town can’t either, and that under the current financial situation, the proposed $25,000 for that purpose is generous and responsible.

Mr. Weiss said that number represents an 82% cut to last year’s funding amount and isn’t fair. He said it impacts the most vulnerable residents and that this funding should be considered one of the main things Amherst does, not an extra. He talked about how the Federal and State government cuts have already hurt these vulnerable populations. He said the extra $41,000 that the Select Board was recommending was also a pitiful funding amount, but that it was the best that they could do.

Isaac BenEzra then offered his recommendation for an extra $117,387, which represents full funding at last year’s level plus 1%. With seven extra minutes granted, he then used his time to let the chair of the Community Development Committee and reps from the affected agencies speak.

With all due respect, I think this kind of thing is a complete waste of time. Everyone spoke about what important work they are doing and how important the Town’s money is to them.

Well, duh!

The work being done by these agencies – and so many other agencies not included in the Town’s human service funding – is crucial to society, locally and on a much larger scale. What they accomplish with the resources they have available warms your heart and blows your mind. To me, that is a given. And entirely beside the point.

So what to make of the intent and effect of this parade of virtue? Was it really meant to persuade people that these agencies are doing good work? Had there been any doubt of that? Worse, were there some Town Meeting members who actually experienced eureka moments and decided to support more money for the agencies because they were now convinced of their worthiness? As in, “I didn’t know the Survival Center was really helping people! Now I’ll support more money for them!” Or “Wow, now I realize the importance of the English language program at Center for New Americans – let’s give them more money!

That almost certainly happened, and was almost certainly the goal. That is depressing for so many reasons. It means that some Town Meeting members don’t realize or appreciate what these agencies are doing. It means that some Town Meeting members don’t recognize the need to which the agencies are responding. And it means that people elected to make informed and careful decisions are instead voting based on a last-minute whim.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not talking about people who fervently believe that this is an area where the Town should be spending money regardless of our budget situation. That is a wholly defensible position, one with which I respectfully disagree. We can assume that those folks needed no persuading by the agency presentations. We can also assume that the people like me who fervently believe that this is not an area in which the Town can afford to be more generous this year were similarly unaffected by the presentations.

So who is left? Undecideds who either: a) made their decision based on the “new information” that these agencies really are doing important work; and b) worse, made their decision based on finding the presentations “unworthy” of support. If there are a lot of such undecideds, Town Meeting is in big trouble. If there are a few, then that is why I find such presentations to be a waste of time.

It is exactly the same as the grandstanding that happens with other budget areas like public safety, public transportation or the schools. If Town Meeting members need to be convinced of the value of such expenditures with heartwarming or heart-wrenching tales, then we are doomed. Soon our budget will be determined not by economic prudence or fiscal necessity but by which budget area has the best drama coach.

That long aside sums up how the rest of the discussion went. The Community Development Committee also presented its recommendation, which was about half way between that of the Select Board and Mr. BenEzra, adding $88,973 to the Finance Committee’s recommendation. More people chimed in, sometimes eloquently, about why we should or shouldn’t support the different amounts. And eventually we voted. The Select Board’s recommendation prevailed, and I voted against all the amendments and for the Finance Committee’s recommendation.

In my previous post I elaborated on my wacky tally vote encounter. Thanks to all who commented or e-mailed about that. I keep wondering what that might have meant. Was it an attempt to strong-arm my vote? Was it meant to insult or challenge me personally? Was it simply a spontaneous inappropriate remark? We’ll never know. I wonder if she realized that she was targeting someone who transcribes and blogs about the proceedings.

Town Meeting is now crawling along at a glacial pace. We finished Thursday just before 11:00, and we reconvene Monday, June 4th. With the schools. Good grief.

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