By Toni Cunningham
Many Amherst residents will have heard about the four major capital projects in need of funding, namely a replacement (or replacements) for two elementary schools, a new fire station, Department of Public Works headquarters, and a renovation/expansion of the Jones library. These are not, however, the only significant projects vying for funding via the capital budget.
I recently combed through publicly-available documents and spreadsheets, and totaled all the projects and equipment that are projected to cost $300,000 or more between 2020 and 2030. The estimated amounts were astounding: $173 million on the low end; $256 million on the high end. This is at least double what the Town could afford to borrow and three times the Town’s annual budget.
It is worth noting that the $256 million figure excludes the many projects and equipment requests that are less than $300,000 over the ten-year period, and cost escalates over time so the real figure is likely far higher.
This year, 9.5 percent of the property tax levy was dedicated to capital items — approximately $5 million. Current debt obligations were deducted first and the remainder, about $3.5 million, was allocated to a list of prioritized capital improvements. As has happened in previous years, many items that town departments requested were postponed to later years due to insufficient funds, a new fire department ladder truck for example.
In order to afford the four major projects, Capital Projects Director Sean Mangano has said it is likely that the town will seek debt exclusion overrides for two of them — most likely the school and library. A debt exclusion override is a temporary increase in the tax levy to cover the cost of a loan/bond for major capital expenditures. It would raise property taxes for the duration of the bond (likely 20 to 30 years), with the yearly amount starting off highest and decreasing as the bond is paid down.
At a budget forum in March, Town Manager Paul Bockelman advised that “not everyone is going to get everything they want. There are going to have to be changes; adjusting expectations; figuring out what’s affordable compared to our needs.” To date, however, no decisions on funding priorities or budgets for specific projects have been made.
Some of the larger items in the capital improvement list beyond the “big four” are road and sidewalk repairs and improvements; upgrades to athletic fields; exterior and interior upgrades at all five Amherst school buildings; fire trucks, ambulances, police cruisers, and public works vehicles; Information Technology equipment for all departments; development projects at the North Common, North Amherst intersection, Kendrick Park, Pomeroy Village and East Village center; and a new Senior Center.
Town staff and elected officials have deferred maintenance on municipal buildings and facilities for decades, and the last new municipal building was the Police Station in 1990. In addition, some capital projects have had funding allocated for them in past years but they have not been completed. These projects are no longer included in the current list since they have already been approved.
With town real estate taxes already high and with a continuing shortage of affordable housing for working families, it is difficult to see how the town will manage this backlog of needs without pricing more people out of town. At the budget forum in March, one Amherst resident commented, “I feel like, as a resident, we are considered the credit card for the town. You need to take into consideration that there are lots of us out there who are just squeaking by with the real estate taxes. We love the town and want to stay here.”