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.


Larry Kelley said...

Okay since “You know who” was the lone NO on Article 26 I will tell you why:

Half of Amherst is off the tax rolls. With Amherst College and Umass number 1 and 2 and our Conservation Department number 3 for tax-exempt land hogs.

So we have this Community Preservation tax of 1.5% that is really nothing more than an annual Prop 2.5 Override and with it we are now going to tell the Conservation Department to go out and take more property off the tax rolls. Yeah, that will lead to economic development.

And remember, that Special Town Meeting (where my privatize Cherry Hill article got walloped) originally there was going to be TWO articles for heading down the road to land stealing: Barry Roberts Haskins View property in North Amherst and Scott Nielson’s property on South East Street.

Socialism is alive and well in the People’s Republic.