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.


Larry Orloff said...

The so-called "Amherst Plan" was based on the premise that if FinCom, SB, School Board & Library all agree to a budget that doesn't dip into reserves, TM will abide with it. As we've witnessed, though, the demand for pet projects trumps fiscal prudence.

So, rather than create an irresistible three-year slush fund, let's stick with one-year budgets, with override elections scheduled after TM adjourns, to fund any budget excess voted, plus a $14,000 "penalty" to fund the override election. May the imminent prospect of an increase in tax rate help keep the lid on.

Richard Morse said...

Let me be one of the first to declare that Stephanie O'Keefe, the process wonk, has convinced me that the motion to reconsider is almost always a bad idea. I voted for one last year. I do not intend to do it again. Obviously I need to develop some principles.

But didn't certain principled SB members scold us about this maneuver last year and then turn around and vote "yes" last night? We'll have to check the tally.

As for Mr. Orloff above, I believe that he has identified THE problem with Town Meeting: it is a steady parade of eye-catching spending temptations, like Sirens calling for your vote. When one of these supermodels comes back down the runway a second time after we thought she'd disappeared behind the curtain for good, and then asks us to ignore the bottom line and choose her "for the children", it's almost irresistible.

We're either relieving our liberal guilt (Weiss) or pinching pennies (Greeney)in Town Meeting these days, but there's no vision of hope (nobody)that extends beyond next year. That's what makes going in there night after night seem like a chore.

Chris Hoffmann said...

"As we've witnessed, though, the demand for pet projects trumps fiscal prudence."

Actually, things aren't quite as simple as that. In fact, all the pet projects that would have busted the orignal budget were soundly defeated. All that has happened is that $100,000 that would have been directed toward general government has instead been split between human services and the pool. As of today, the budget is just as balanced as it would have been if the FinCom budget had been followed to the letter.

Of course, many of us are unhappy that the "unexpected" $238,000 needed for the regional schools is completely paid for out of reserves rather than applying at least some of that $100,000 reduction to it.

But the fact remains that even with this extra expense, Town Meeting is still on target to put $1,000,000 into reserves rather than take money out of them yet again.

LarryK4 said...

Simple irrefutable fact: last year Cherry Hill cost taxpayers $59,649 and the War Memorial Pool cost $50,000.

Last year everybody EXPECTED the pool to lose $50,000. Last year, as late as June 19'th town officials were insisting Cherry Hill would NOT lose that amount.

This coming year the War Memorial Pool will cost $50,000. Despite what the very same town officials are saying, Cherry Hill will cost at least that.

And if Ms. Bilz were not spending one-quarter of her time (Gee, there’s a commitment to the ‘surge’) way out there in the hinterlands of North Amherst minding the golf business, maybe she could come up with programming to bring in more money at War Memorial.

Eva Schiffer said...

Had the override passed, it would have covered a 3% Regional assessment and we would not have the $238,000 problem.

I thought the $100,000 cut from General Government (supposedly unspecified, but actually intended by the Select Board to reduce the amount available for contract negotiations, which is not a legally prudent point to make in public, even though it was so made) was a bad idea. But once made, it offered the opportunity to reduce the $238,000 problem that had arisen through the failure of the override.

Instead, we have proved that it makes very little difference whether an override passes or fails. Except to the Police and Finance departments, which not a lot of people apparently care about.

I'm as depressed as Stephanie.
Eva Schiffer

Anonymous said...

One question re: "I thought the $100,000 cut from General Government (supposedly unspecified, but actually intended by the Select Board to reduce the amount available for contract negotiations, which is not a legally prudent point to make in public, even though it was so made):"

When did the SB make this statemnet in public? What we said is that we believed in the final analysis, that General Gov't wouldn't need the $100 K , for a variety of reasons, and we didn't want extra money to be sitting in that account while Human Services and the Pools were being closed down. The Town Manager agreed with our analysis. Town Meeting agreed, very narrowly and then the fighting over the $100 K ensued. The SB stands behind its analysis and at this point, more pools will open and more money will go toward Human Services with no increase in the town budget. Isn't that the kind of thinking you want from your SB?

Gerry Weiss

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

At the May 14th Select Board meeting, when members were discussing the changes they would make to the Shaffer budget and how they would fund them, Ms. Greeney, Mr. Kusner and Ms. Awad all said they would reduce or eliminate the placeholder figure for collective bargaining, among their other cuts. At the same meeting, Mr. Kusner later characterized his cut as being a general cut to General Government, but he had already specified eliminating the $200,000 for the CBA placeholder, and then replacing $100,000 of General Government funds with a $380,000 cut to the capital budget. All of this took place prior to the joint meeting. Upon returning to the continuation of the Select Board meeting, you then summarized the proposed cuts, saying that General Government reductions of $100,000 and $200,000 had been suggested. Both were voted on, and the $100,000 reduction prevailed. It was no longer referred to as a cut to the CBA placeholder, but that had been the identified source from all three members who suggested it.

robert said...

With all due respect, Ms. O'Keefe's recent post is a caricature of the deliberations over this issue which took place at the 14 May SB meeting.

That meeting was an attempt to reach consensus on difficult budget matters where very diverse and contentious opinions abound (even today). Here is how the start of that process was recorded by her at InAmherst.com:

"Mr. Weiss asked if the members were prepared to recommend the Shaffer budget, and none were. Mr. Kusner said it was a starting point. Ms. Greeney suggested that they each describe their proposed budgets and goals, and then determine the Select Board's recommendation, and the others agreed."

The deliberations then began in earnest - and in the open - and, as Otto von Bismarck is famous for remarking, the process was about as pleasant to watch as sausage-making!

Eventually the SB agreed to cut the bottom line for general government by $100,000. One can get
a flavor of the process reading the InAmherst.com 14 May SB Meeting news report:


But what Ms. O'Keefe just posted about my thinking (and about my "math" in particular) is
not completly correct, and it's not even consistent with what she recorded there at InAmherst.com!

I hope that was just an innocent mistake on her part....

Rob Kusner

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Part of my summation above was clumsy. I should have just quoted from the recap:

“Mr. Kusner said he would get the additional $380,000 by taking $100,000 from the capital budget and adding it to the general government budget. He said some capital needs could be deferred another year. He said he would cut the full $200,000 placeholder figure, and would cut $80,000 from LSSE.”

In responding to Ms. Schiffer, Mr. Weiss’ was asking in essence, “When did we say that? Why would you think that?” I cited several examples that I thought answered his question. There are others. If that’s “a caricature,” then I could provide direct quotes, but I think I’ve made my point.

robert said...

The point of my initial proposal on 5/14 was this: Suppose we on the SB want to fund our full $380,000 restoration list (which included about $100,000 in *additional* money for the general government bottom line, as well as more for police, etc.); from where would we reallocate the funds...?

A broader point is that this whole discussion was taking place in the context of many successive approximations that eventually would home-in on
the various bottom line amounts which all of us on the SB recognized would be somewhat flexible - or "fungible", as the Town Manager is fond of saying - and at his discretion....

To repeat what (I believe) was expressed pretty clearly at the meeting: I wasn't personally wedded to that proposal, but was looking for a place to start the discussion. Even if one disagrees with the conclusion, how could the process have been done differently?

And yet another point (raised by many people at earlier SB meetings and in open forums, well as in letters to the SB prior to this 5/14 meeting) is whether - in a year of 1% budgets - it would be wise for the SB budget to include a much larger percentage in that general government bottom line? In general terms: where does one draw the (proverbial) line?!

Ultimately, it seems, Town Meeting agreed with
the SB and the Town Manager: It was reasonable and responsible to reduce this amount. Is further discussion of the details of that process at all helpful now...?

Finallly, there is a more subtle, even broader point here, which has come up in many other contexts: With regard to this matter, or any other on which
the SB takes a position, it isn't the position that the individual SB members articulated during the discussion, but rather the vote taken by the SB as a whole, which constitutes "the SB position" - that is what matters...!

And so I seem to agree with Mr. Weiss on this: When *did* the SB take such a position, *_qua_ SB*?!

Rob Kusner

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kusner would do what if he (against his hope) he somehow became convinced that Stephanie was not 'innocently mistaken'?

Anonymous said...

RK asks: "Is further discussion of the details of that process at all helpful now...?" and he states: "it isn't the position that the individual SB members articulated during the discussion, but rather the vote taken by the SB as a whole, which constitutes "the SB position" - that is what matters...!"
Actually in an election year, voters make judgments on individual candidates, even when they're incumbents (or maybe especially when they are incumbents) based on an individual's votes, the individual's statements and the individual's efforts to progress or thwart particular agendas. That's what constitutes an individual's public record. And that becomes the subject of endorsement or rejection by the electorate at the ballot box.

Gerry Weiss said...

I've reread Stephanie's Inamherst May 14 summary and it does indeed indicate that folks were using the term "placeholder". I trust Stephanie's recordings and trust that those words were used by some.

The tricky part about placeholders is that they are arbitrary. The placeholder could have been $50K or $100K, or etc. My feeling was that the SB could choose an arbitrary number of our own and we did.

There were other considerations such as reduced legal fees due to a new contract for town counsel, and strong indications of increased fire safety payments from the 3 colleges that would end up in free cash.

The bottom line is that the SB, based on what information we had, determined that the $100K was going to be better spent to restore some cuts, rather than unused in General Gov't. I believe our determination will prove correct.


Abbie Jensen said...

War Memorial pool… what can be said about a town that spends considerably more time discussing and debating whether to fund a second pool than it did considering the elementary school budget? Misguided? Confused? Selfish? By the way, just to remind those who should know better, or are willfully ignorant, the elementary budget this year was CUT of over $700,000 (see page 41 in Finance Committee Report). And yet, TM actually voted to INCREASE the pool budget with the help and guidance of the Select Board. Here how this insanity played out for those lucky enough not to have witnessed it first hand. On Monday, June 13th a vote to reconsider funding War Memorial pool passed by a slim margin after a vote had previously passed NOT to fund the additional pool. And surprise, surprise, the vote was reversed (by less than 10 votes) and the pool is funded at even MORE than is now needed. How you might ask? $58,000 was the magic number that passed BUT the pool will open about 3-4 weeks late, meaning the War Memorial pool may be open for a whooping 5 weeks this summer, instead of our usual 9 weeks. Yahew! You might think that the original amount requested (~$70K) might to be prorated? (Even a person with half a brain might think this). Are you joking? If we did prorate, it would cost ~$39,000 to run the pool for 5 weeks. Ya think LSSE is going to give back that ~$20,000 so we can add it to our reserves to offset our massive debt that we incurred this year? I doubt it. So this summer instead of having our usual 10 lifeguards/hour perhaps this summer we will be treated to 18. Sure is nice to run a jobs program for lifeguards, isn’t it?

Am I the only one who thinks I’m in the Twilight Zone? I have had it with the Select Board’s duplicity in repeatedly claiming that they aren’t dipping into reserves to fund charitable human services and the pool. They know as well as everyone else that we have to pay for the 3% regional school budget, meaning we need to come up with about $250,000 more than was budgeted. I voted for the $100,000 cut to general government because who am I to tell the Town Manager that he is wrong and can’t run general government for $100,000 less. I did not vote to cut that so that the SB could get in their political goodies. That $100,00 in “savings” should have been put toward the Regional School budget and we would have been only about $150,000 in the hole this year’s budget.

All the stories about how devastating closing the War Memorial pool was going to be to low-income kids and those with special needs were a smoke screen, as was the “energy conservation” argument. Convince me that 5 weeks without a pool is more burdensome than 24 kids/class in 1-4th grades, which affects thousands of people. I’d like Gerry Weiss to tell me where all those low-income kids live that they can walk to War Memorial anyway? The debate about the pool shouldn’t be distracted by the false arguments put forth, that it’s all about “caring” for needs of low-income kids. Admit it- they just wanted their damn (second) pool! If they really cared about low-income kids, diversity, special needs kids then the elementary budget wouldn’t be where it is. Our public schools serve those groups more than ALL the other special line items (charitable human services and pools) by orders of magnitude. Don’t get me wrong, I love War Memorial pool and savor weekends and my 15 minutes of “leisure” at the end of a work day there, but my morals couldn’t allow me to place funding a second pool (for my enjoyment) over funding the elementary schools. Welcome to the TWILIGHT ZONE…