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.

Hmmmm.

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.

2 comments:

Carol S. said...

Stephanie,

An excellent recap! I was reading along, thinking wow - we had exactly the same thoughts on all of this, including not knowing what to do about the postponement of the reconsideration and abstaining, and then I came to this, about the SB meeting earlier in the week, regarding moving money around even though TM had voted it down:

"...and Ms Awad had said that it was honest because it was what the Select Board wanted."

Huh? Um, WHAT??? I'll leave my personal diatribe out of this, other than to say her thinking is just wrong on SO many levels. I am amazed.

Apparently, the Rolling Stones "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is not in her repetoire.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, unfortunately your final assessment of the Cherry Hill debacle is quite correct. After 20 years of what men refer to as a “urination contest” (actually we use that cruder word but hey, I’m an exercise science major), it really has come down to entrenchment on the part of town officials willing to squander a million in tax dollars to satisfy their stubbornness.

Mr. Morse was correct in his opening statement: the taking of Cherry Hill was a monumental error. On 4/29/87 Town Meeting used the Nuclear Option and took it by eminent domain with an initial budget of $1.6 million. Then the Town Manager and Select Board made the mistake of posting a Special Town Meeting for two weeks later 4/29/87 with the $2.2 million figure showing.

Of course, business owner Dave Maxon had a habit of reading the local newspaper. So he held out for guess what? Yeah, we ended up paying $2.2 million for something that the private developer (Cambridge architect Robert Kreger) had a buy/sell agreement for only $1.4 million.

And Kreger was going to donate the golf course to the town or the Stockbridge Turf Management program at Umass for FREE (and I even talked him into providing a cash payment of $100,000 to upgrade/maintain the course). Obviously 134 units of housing have about 30% more value if located around a golf course.

But the NIMBY savings in housing only ended up around 100 since the town sold land ($400,000) to a co-housing group who put up 32 units (and probably impacted the schools more than the original number would have since Kreger was targeting retired folks).

And yes we did get an Open Space Grant (notice it’s not called a “golf course grant”) around 1990 to somewhat offset the peak market sales price.

At the recent 5/31/07 Select board meeting where the Town Manager released figures showing the course will lose $35,000 to $40,000 by June 30’th notice Ms. Awad pointed the finger at both Engstrom and Del Castilho by saying “poor management and poor oversight from town hall.”

Yes, Mr. Del Castilho’s legacy star has dimmed dramatically because of Cherry Hill. Ms. Awad is no longer Select board Czar, and the current Town Manger has dived head first down that slipper slope where angels fear to tread.