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.


Chris Hoffmann said...

Wow. I missed Wednesday due to my son's birthday. You guys made a lot of progress. Thanks! :-)