Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Off to a quick start

Last night was so efficient! I thought I had wandered in to some other town’s Town Meeting. Very impressive.

Started with the usual welcome and procedural stuff. Turns out the meeting wasn’t being broadcast live on ACTV due to some glitch, but it would be re-broadcast. Click here for the channel 17 schedule.

Gerry Weiss acknowledged all the volunteers who had completed two terms of service on a Town board or committee. They were:

Elisa Campbell, Community Preservation Act Committee

Audrey Child, Community Preservation Act Committee

Ludmilla Pavlova-Gillham, Design Review Board

Becky Hurwitz, Disability Access Advisory Committee

Jean Smyser, Disability Access Advisory Committee

Edith Nye MacMullen, Historical Commission

Alex Kent, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee

Cynthia Asebrook, La Paz Centro Sister City Committee

Jerry Jolly, Town Commercial Relations Committee

Larry Shaffer introduced the new Town Counsel, Joel Bard, from the firm of Kopelman and Paige. He also gave updates about the Plum Brook Soccer Fields, praising Guilford Mooring and the DPW (grass is growing, soccer is possible next fall;) and Cherry Hill, praising Linda Chalfant, Barbara Bilz and LSSE (revenues are up, expenses are down, to the tune of about a $30,000 surplus.)

Then it was on to Article 1 – hearing board and committee reports that aren’t available in written form. First we voted to approve this, then we heard the reports.

Barry Roberts, Chair of the 250th Anniversary Celebration Committee, reported on that body’s work to date and its five subcommittees preparing for 2009 (History – chaired by Wendy Kohler; Arts & Literature, chaired by Adrienne Terrizzi; Parade – chaired by Pat Wagner; Community Week Celebration – chaired by Dolly Jolly; and Marketing – chaired by Martha Nelson Patrick.) He encouraged any and all to attend any meeting, get involved and share feedback and ideas.

There were good hand-outs on the back table about this too – a brochure with all the subcommittee info and details of event plans to date, and an announcement of a fundraising party January 10th upstairs at Amherst Brewing Company. Mark your calendars.

James Wald of the Comprehensive Planning Committee gave a recap of that committee’s work on the Master Plan: it’s been a long time in the making; it’s had tons of input; it’s not quite done yet. Thus delayed what is sure to be one of Town Meeting’s epic battles. I actually couldn’t believe we got off that easy last night.

Brian Morton, Chair of the Finance Committee, then delivered a powerful reality check to Town Meeting about the truly dismal state of Town finances now and for the foreseeable future. Not only did he lay all the bad news on the table in no uncertain terms, (we face a $1.9 million shortfall from level-services funding for FY09 – get more of the gory details here,) he also told us what to do about it: pass the necessary zoning changes to encourage real economic development. We don’t see too much of this kind of straight talk and bold calls to action, so some might not recognize it: it’s called leadership. Bravo Brian and the Finance Committee!

And don’t miss the FinCom public meeting on the draft budget guidelines for FY09: Tuesday, November 13th at 7:00 p.m. in the Large Activity Room at Bangs Center. Read the draft guideline document here.

Article 2 – payment of unpaid bills from the prior fiscal year. Despite being broke, we have no unpaid bills, so this article was dismissed in short order.

Article 3 – budget amendments. This is where we have to amend the current year’s budget to account for changes that have occurred since we approved the budget in the spring. There were two amendments: an appropriation of $562,207 from free cash to the Health Claims Trust Fund to cover the $111,000 negative balance and to have sufficient reserves to meet this year’s State-mandated requirement that self-insured trusts like Amherst’s have sufficient funds to meet claims incurred but not yet reported. (As in, you had your doctor’s appointment, but the bill hasn’t come yet.) He explained that this is a temporary advance from free cash and would be reimbursed by continuing a temporary surcharge on employee premiums that was supposed to end in January, but will now remain until this is paid back.

Then we voted on it. It passed unanimously. So simple. Weird.

The second motion on this article was to pay an assessment for the Hampshire County lock-up facility, which the State had been paying for fully, but was now transitioning to being funded by the member communities. 50% community funding is required this year, and based on a per-capita formula, Amherst’s assessment is $31,123. In future budgets, this will be a separate article, similar to the Hampshire County retirement system assessment, but this year requires an appropriation from free cash.

No questions. We voted. Unanimous. Amazing.

Article 4 – property tax exemptions for veterans’ organizations. We have two such organizations in town – the VFW and the American Legion. State law mandates an exemption up to $200,000, and communities can adopt larger exemptions of either $400,000 or $700,000. Because both properties are already approaching $400,000 in value, the $700,000 option was being proposed. The Select Board and FinCom both made the case why we should do this – keep them exempt like other charitable organizations, they’ve made great sacrifices to the country, the organizations are fixtures in the community, etc.

And we did. Simple vote. A couple Nos thrown in for good measure.

Health insurance, fees from the county, veterans – and not a peep from Town Meeting. No passionate speeches on tangential issues. No symbolic registering of opposition. Where am I?

Article 5 – portable classrooms for Mark’s Meadow. Elaine Brighty of the Joint Capital Planning Committee and School Committee explained why the portables are needed: smallest school; only 10 classrooms for 7 grades, some kindergarteners have to go to other elementary schools; some classes end up too large; currently there are two mixed-grade classrooms to deal with problem, but that won’t work for MCAS-focused teaching; no room to expand within the school which UMass owns, etc. The portables will allow for four additional classrooms. She talked about how the $195,000 was already approved through the capital plan in the spring but wasn’t spent then because the portables weren’t needed immediately, and because plans were being formulated to fold them into a larger borrowing package. Alisa Brewer of the Select Board talked about how used portables have been sought for purchase or loan from other communities, how such are not available or not desirable, and how these would be “green” and would remain as Amherst property to be used elsewhere in the future if needed.

Then Town Meeting member Nancy Gordon spoke against the purchase, saying that it didn’t make sense to buy portable classrooms for a school that is going to close.

In case you’re wondering, the simultaneous raising of about 400 eyebrows is silent.

Her logic was impeccable. Why would you put more money into a school you’re about to close? Except that there aren’t actually any plans to close Mark’s Meadow.

But that was precisely the conclusion she came to when she looked at the costs of the school, its student population and recent enrollment trends. She determined that Mark’s Meadow could be closed and its students could be absorbed by the other elementary schools – which she said were “sold” to the Town as accommodating 800 students each – and saving almost precisely the $1.9 million that the Town is projected to be short next year. Well, whaddya know?

Elaine did a very fine job explaining why the other schools are in no position to absorb the Mark’s Meadow population. Other than that, the proposal, such as it was, was pretty much ignored.

Another member provided a tip on where some available portables might be scored cheap, and then we voted. Because it involved borrowing, it required a 2/3 majority vote, and that was achieved.

Decades ago, I was a student at Mark’s Meadow. I was surprised to hear that there isn’t a cafeteria there anymore, and that kids eat in their classrooms. I should go back and check it out to see what things are like today. And maybe Nancy should come too.

Article 6 – dissolve the Senior Trust and transfer its funds. This was really an accounting issue, to transfer funds that had been donated to the 30-year old Senior Trust to the newly-formed Friends of the Senior Center group. All the money in the Trust was donated to support Senior Center activities – there was no town money involved. The old trust had to be dissolved because changes in State law rendered its organizational structure non-compliant. A new 501c3 was formed. TM needed to approve the dissolution and transfer to make everything official. (Per chance you detect bias or skullduggery in the preceding statements, let me note that I’m on the Council on Aging.)

Article 7 – CPAC Open Space. Beautiful nature. Important part of a wildlife corridor. Wood turtle habitat. Crucial watershed area. Must protect the land.

That sums it up mostly. For more details – which were well-presented by all concerned – click here and scroll down.

This article came with a lot of baggage for me. I saw the issue first presented to the Select Board last December. I attended what I think was the first Conservation Commission meeting where acquiring the property was brought up. I watched various unsuccessful machinations to try to get an article on a Special Town Meeting warrant last spring. Bottom line: this was just another incredibly determined effort to thwart development.

There were so many reasons to oppose this article. A) Despite how this has been portrayed of late, this property had NEVER been on the Town’s official list or unofficial radar of priority targets for preservation and conservation. That it is suddenly the highest priority does not mean it had previously been prioritized. B) The idea that landowner Barry Roberts – of all people! the Patron Saint of downtown Amherst – could be harassed into submission like this was appalling. C) This sense that in Amherst, property rights are secondary to public accommodation – People’s Republic, indeed.

And there are more. Rich Morse was insightful and eloquent as usual at TM when he spoke about how we mobilize for and actively pursue biodiversity, while human diversity languishes. Lots of momentum for conservation to keep our town natural and beautiful. Little momentum for economic development to make our town affordable and keep it functioning.

Even Anne Awad, no slouch in the conservation world, opposed the purchase, and defended her stance with conviction: it didn’t include the most relevant part of the parcel and it wasn’t prioritized in the larger scheme.

As a vegetarian bug-saving animal lover who has to talk myself out of the lunacy of leaving the basement open in the winter in case squirrels need shelter from the cold, I get the whole wildlife habitat thing. Deeply. But I also understand that the last house has not yet been built. Trying to keep new people from living in new places for the sake of flora and fauna is about as logical as tearing down our own homes and returning the land to its natural state. Yes, it’s true – your house displaced deer and fox and beautiful trees too.

So where was I? Oh yeah – so many reasons to oppose this article. Right. But I didn’t. I voted for it.

Why? Well, mainly out of practicality. Purchasing the land required $610,000. A State grant would cover $427,000. Private donations would cover $60,000. That leaves $123,000 from Community Preservation Act funds, half of which are State matching funds. That means that just over $60,000 of direct Amherst taxpayer money was being leveraged to buy $600,000 worth of land. (That leaves aside the issue that the State isn’t exactly printing its money in the back room – the grant money and CPA match all comes from the larger “us” anyway, alas.) Additionally, if the Town didn’t buy the land, Barry would likely be stuck in eternal litigation purgatory as the development foes were forced to find new ways of preventing those lots from being built. If that sale price apparently seemed like the best option to him, then it was the least Town Meeting could do.

And obviously, the land has much to recommend it for conservation. I don’t think acquiring it was a priority, but there was plenty to justify it.

The vote to approve the purchase was overwhelmingly in support.

A final word on that: Kudos to the FinCom and Kay Moran who anticipated all the right questions – how much property tax the land brought in currently (about $13.5 K,) how much it would bring in with houses on it (maybe $67K,) and the tempering effect of the cost of services to those houses and those who would live in them.

Wednesday we do it again.


Larry Kelley said...

Of course the Town Manager (purposely) forgot to mention the only reason Cherry Hill “expenses are down” is because they have fudged their operation costs by claiming Barbara Bilz (a $60,000 per year plus another $20,000 in employee benefits LSSE bureaucrat) is running the White Elephant with only One-Quarter time and still managers to serve the LSSE empire the other Three-Quarters.

Hmmm. So Cherry Hill went from two Full-Time employees only three years ago to One-Quarter of one Full-Time employee this year. Sure.

Anonymous said...

First, Stephanie, thanks for an exhaustive and perfectly balanced account of the Haskins Meadow issue. You're right on every point, and I voted as you did, and for the same reasons.

On the Master Plan (Art. 1): I hope that this will NOT be "one of Town Meeting's epic battles." Once finished, the Plan is to be handed over to the Planning Board for review and approval. What Jim Wald promised was, basically, to let Town Meeting know what happened.