Saturday, June 02, 2007

Inching forward, ever so slowly

The previous post was a mere snippet of the meeting, evocative though it was. This one is the whole enchilada.

First up, Jim Chumbley moved to reconsider Article 16 – approval of the regional school assessment formula. He said that the new information regarding the Department of Education’s interpretation of the revised statute necessitated reconsideration. He said that the original vote had taken place with the understanding that Town Meeting would get to express its opinions on the regional school budget directly, and didn’t need to use Article 16 as leverage. He said the reasons to reconsider were to reassure that all voices were heard on the matter, to confirm that the action has its intended consequences – which he would do by moving to resume discussion and vote again at the end of the budget, and to communicate with the other towns in the region to make them understand the seriousness of Amherst’s structural deficit.

The Moderator talked about the technicalities of reconsideration – only someone absent or voting with the majority could move to reconsider; reconsideration puts the body back to the point in time and discussion right before the original vote was taken; and a vote can only be reconsidered once, so it was then or never.

Elaine Brighty, Chair of the Regional School Committee said that one might choose to reconsider for two reasons: on the merits of the article or based on new information. She said the merits of the article didn’t lend themselves to reconsideration because the per pupil assessment method is the most fair option and took much work to achieve. She said the new information amounts to the law being unchanged – approval of the budget by three out of the four towns is binding. She said the Regional School Committee has never voted anything other than a 3% budget, but had considered options for eliminating the second study hall requirement when a 1% budget seemed likely. She said she hoped any new discussion would be on the merits of the article and not on the possibility of using lack of approval as a way to pressure the other towns.

Alice Carlozzi, Chair of the Finance Committee, said that body had no position on reconsideration, but maintained its original position in support of the article. She said that this had been confusing, and that some people may feel frustrated. She said that no one was to blame for the situation and emphasized that other towns in the region had been in the same situation of being bound by a budget they did not want but that the other towns had approved. She said that the fact that it is now Amherst’s turn to be in that position isn’t really so shocking, and that it would be a bad thing to mess with the assessment, considering the history of cooperation among the towns.

Gerry Weiss, Chair of the Select Board, said that he had spoken in support of the previous vote being a pro forma one, and had recommended that people support Article 16 in good conscience, knowing that they could address the budget later. He said that while the circumstances are now different, he still recommended that the article be supported.

A member asked a question about the implications to other towns if we were to reconsider and reject Article 16. Ms. Brighty said their school committees would take it up again, and they would probably have to reconvene their Town Meetings. She said that with teacher contracts in place, and the possibility of creating a different assessment formula that would require towns to fund contracts they couldn’t afford, chaos would result.

In one of the most clear and persuasive opinions I have yet witnessed at Town Meeting, Jim Pistrang spoke against reconsideration, and compared the situation with his experience coaching the self-officiated sport of ultimate Frisbee. He said that if you step out of bounds, you need to call that, even if no one else saw you do it, and said that was easy when you have a big lead, but much harder in a tie game when the stakes are high. He said that the main issue with Article 16 was fairness, and that financial implications were secondary. He said that had been an easy call to make when we thought we could affect the budget later, but that now that we can’t, and now that we have to deal with the financial implications, it is as though our game is tied, and we still need to make the call based on fairness.

There was a question about Town Counsel’s opinion. Town Manager Larry Shaffer said that he agreed that all four towns had to approve the assessment formula and three out of four had to approve the budget. He said that although Pelham had voted on the budget already, they would be considering a Special Town Meeting warrant article about the situation shortly.

A member pointed out that last year two of the towns had contributed money to help pay Amherst’s share of the assessment to ease the transition to the new formula, and that the amount they contributed was pretty close to the amount a 2% assessment would cost us this year. He said that discussion of the budget would be a sham without the assessment formula agreed to, and said that the difficulties of the situation would be compounded if we don’t stick with the previous vote.

Another member said that he supported Jim Pistrang’s position, but also supported reconsideration. He said that there was enough uncertainty to warrant reconsideration, but said that instead of deferring the new vote, we should address it immediately and not use it as a pressure tactic. He said we should confirm our original vote on the fair option – approving the per-pupil assessment formula.

So then it was time to vote. And I voted in favor of reconsideration.

I am absolutely unequivocally in support of the current assessment formula and I am deeply offended by the idea of using it to blackmail the other towns to lower their budget. I know that sentiment is out there, and I know that if the article were to be reconsidered, that would be a risk. But I also think that Town Meeting can only function, such as it does, if everyone feels that the process is fair. If some critical mass of members was feeling that they were tricked or forced into the original Article 16 vote, then that could have a poisonous effect going forward. So I was voting for the integrity of the process, and hoping to reaffirm and strengthen the original vote.

A couple of months ago, when the Select Board was considering its options regarding putting an override question or questions on the ballot, a similar thing happened. After having first voted against two override amounts on the ballot, they then voted for two amounts, following a confusing and convoluted discussion about the smaller amount and whether it was simply a number or a half-baked plan. It was immediately clear that not everyone completely understood or supported what four of them had just voted for. Anne Awad was SB Chair at the time, and had favored two amounts. She knew that reconsidering that vote was all but certain to reverse that outcome. But she did it anyway. I was really impressed by that.

Anyway, I voted for reconsideration, but I was in the minority. The motion to reconsider failed.

Next up: Planning, Conservation and Inspections. The main issue here was that the Select Board was recommending an additional $12,000 for seasonal staff for Puffer’s Pond and its trail maintenance.

The Finance Committee said they had voted at one point to support that extra $12,000, but the new reality of needing to fund the looming regional assessment obligation had them supporting the lower amount instead.

David Ziomek, Conservation Director, said that the Conservation Department has one full-time land manager and one part-time assistant land manager to cover all the Town’s conservation lands and trails. He said seasonal staff addresses the needs of the Puffer’s Pond area at peak summer crowd time.

There were a couple of questions regarding the specifics of the budget numbers and the Town’s liability at Puffer’s.

A member asked about cutting an inspection position and the wisdom of doing that in light of complaints about inspections and permitting from the business community. Mr. Shaffer said that this position had been hard to fill anyway because of the salary attached to it, and said that many improvements are being made to the inspection process. He said the issue is not one of how many inspectors the Town has, but how they provide that service.

Someone asked if the Town could charge fees for inspections to take some of the burden off tax payers. Good idea – such a good idea, in fact, that we already do, and those fees surpass that department’s expenditures.

Once the Select Board formally offered their amendment for the extra $12K, some earlier points were reiterated. One TM member said that the $100,000 general government cut that is being redistributed, including for this proposal, shouldn’t be used for the schools because it is part of the original budget and should be used for regular budget items. He said that the regional assessment money should come from reserves.

Another member stressed fiscal restraint and said that there were enough bad cuts in a 1% budget to provide stuff for everyone to hate. He suggested that the $100K was being treated like found money and he didn’t think that was reason to stray from the 1% budget. He said he questioned the priorities after last week’s line painting recommendation. He said that we should stick with the 1% recommendations or risk dipping into reserves for much bigger sums.

Mr. Weiss said the Select Board did not stray from a 1% budget. He said that it is the policy making body and that the recommendations represent the Select Board’s best guess on policy based on feedback from the community.

A member said he had originally agreed that the amendments were a question of different ways of dividing up the same money, but said that the regional assessment issue changes that because now more money is needed. He said that any of these additions increase the amount that will ultimately need to be taken from the reserves.

Alisa Brewer said she had originally supported the Select Board’s recommendation for this $12K but due to the regional assessment situation, she no longer supports it.

Mr. Weiss said that the key issue with using the $100K for the regional assessment is that it means taking money from the Town budget to give it to the schools.

A member asked if the $12K were approved, would the money necessarily fund the Puffer’s Pond position, or might the Town Manager use the money elsewhere. Mr. Shaffer said that he would be mindful of the Town Meeting vote, but would have to assess the priorities when the entire appropriation process is complete and all the figures are known. He said he would retain the power to move money around as needed.

Someone asked about the implications for this year and future years of not having that staffing. Mr. Ziomek said that the trails at Puffer’s Pond are being “loved to death” and that the area was not designed to accommodate the volume it has now. He said that the cliffs are a particular problem and that when people are doing stuff there that they aren’t supposed to, he calls the police to take care of it.

A member spoke to it being inefficient to use expensive highly-trained police officers to deal with issues that seasonal staff – typically college students – could do very cheaply instead. Regarding Mr. Weiss’ point, he said that shifting money between the Town and the schools would undermine future budgets and make people not trust the budget process.

The vote on this extra $12K went to a tally: 78 Yes, 113 No. I voted No. The subsequent vote on the lower FinCom amount was nearly unanimous.

Community Services. To help with the nomenclature issues of the Community Services budget versus the Community Services line item, we temporarily renamed the line item “human services funding,” which is still a little confusing because it includes not just the money for human service agencies but also a portion of the salary for the Community Services Director. And because all of the Community Service items are individual mini-dramas, (human services funding, LSSE, the pools) we will deal with each separately.

Andy Steinberg spoke to the Finance Committee’s recommendation, the details of which are available in the FinCom Report. He said that it is not a budget that would be recommended if more money were available. Regarding funds for human service agencies, he said it was a practice that started when the Town had more money; that other towns don’t do this; and that the practice is not akin to the State contracting for services it needs to provide to its citizens, but is more like a foundation providing grants. He said that the amount spent here affects the amount that will be available for the upcoming consideration of schools and libraries. He said that just like individuals can’t respond to every envelope or phone call seeking charitable donations, the Town can’t either, and that under the current financial situation, the proposed $25,000 for that purpose is generous and responsible.

Mr. Weiss said that number represents an 82% cut to last year’s funding amount and isn’t fair. He said it impacts the most vulnerable residents and that this funding should be considered one of the main things Amherst does, not an extra. He talked about how the Federal and State government cuts have already hurt these vulnerable populations. He said the extra $41,000 that the Select Board was recommending was also a pitiful funding amount, but that it was the best that they could do.

Isaac BenEzra then offered his recommendation for an extra $117,387, which represents full funding at last year’s level plus 1%. With seven extra minutes granted, he then used his time to let the chair of the Community Development Committee and reps from the affected agencies speak.

With all due respect, I think this kind of thing is a complete waste of time. Everyone spoke about what important work they are doing and how important the Town’s money is to them.

Well, duh!

The work being done by these agencies – and so many other agencies not included in the Town’s human service funding – is crucial to society, locally and on a much larger scale. What they accomplish with the resources they have available warms your heart and blows your mind. To me, that is a given. And entirely beside the point.

So what to make of the intent and effect of this parade of virtue? Was it really meant to persuade people that these agencies are doing good work? Had there been any doubt of that? Worse, were there some Town Meeting members who actually experienced eureka moments and decided to support more money for the agencies because they were now convinced of their worthiness? As in, “I didn’t know the Survival Center was really helping people! Now I’ll support more money for them!” Or “Wow, now I realize the importance of the English language program at Center for New Americans – let’s give them more money!

That almost certainly happened, and was almost certainly the goal. That is depressing for so many reasons. It means that some Town Meeting members don’t realize or appreciate what these agencies are doing. It means that some Town Meeting members don’t recognize the need to which the agencies are responding. And it means that people elected to make informed and careful decisions are instead voting based on a last-minute whim.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not talking about people who fervently believe that this is an area where the Town should be spending money regardless of our budget situation. That is a wholly defensible position, one with which I respectfully disagree. We can assume that those folks needed no persuading by the agency presentations. We can also assume that the people like me who fervently believe that this is not an area in which the Town can afford to be more generous this year were similarly unaffected by the presentations.

So who is left? Undecideds who either: a) made their decision based on the “new information” that these agencies really are doing important work; and b) worse, made their decision based on finding the presentations “unworthy” of support. If there are a lot of such undecideds, Town Meeting is in big trouble. If there are a few, then that is why I find such presentations to be a waste of time.

It is exactly the same as the grandstanding that happens with other budget areas like public safety, public transportation or the schools. If Town Meeting members need to be convinced of the value of such expenditures with heartwarming or heart-wrenching tales, then we are doomed. Soon our budget will be determined not by economic prudence or fiscal necessity but by which budget area has the best drama coach.

That long aside sums up how the rest of the discussion went. The Community Development Committee also presented its recommendation, which was about half way between that of the Select Board and Mr. BenEzra, adding $88,973 to the Finance Committee’s recommendation. More people chimed in, sometimes eloquently, about why we should or shouldn’t support the different amounts. And eventually we voted. The Select Board’s recommendation prevailed, and I voted against all the amendments and for the Finance Committee’s recommendation.

In my previous post I elaborated on my wacky tally vote encounter. Thanks to all who commented or e-mailed about that. I keep wondering what that might have meant. Was it an attempt to strong-arm my vote? Was it meant to insult or challenge me personally? Was it simply a spontaneous inappropriate remark? We’ll never know. I wonder if she realized that she was targeting someone who transcribes and blogs about the proceedings.

Town Meeting is now crawling along at a glacial pace. We finished Thursday just before 11:00, and we reconvene Monday, June 4th. With the schools. Good grief.


Gavin Andresen said...

Will we reconvene with the schools? Or continue where we left off, with the Community Services part of the budget?

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Good question. I've been assuming that because last week we specifically put the schools for Monday, that we would start with them and then go back to community services. But I don't know.

Mary E.Carey said...

In my experience, when TM sets a "time certain" to begin debate on a particular article, that is what happens, so I would say, barring any behind-the-scenes procedural rearrangement, it will schools, schools, schools on Monday.