By Maria Kopicki and Art Keene
Amherst’s Town Council held its first two of four scheduled listening sessions about four planned major capital projects at the Bangs Center, on Tuesday December 3rd. Two additional sessions are slated for Monday December 9th at 3:30 p.m. in the Fort River School library, and at 6:00 p.m. in the Wildwood School library. In spite of it being an official snow day, the December 3 events were well-attended with roughly 50 people present at each of the sessions, including residents, town staff, elected and appointed officials, and facilitators.
The aim of the sessions, according to Town Council President Lynn Griesemer, was to provide the Council with insights and opinions from the community. These insights, Griesemer said, will help inform the Council’s planning for and funding of significant investments in four major facilities. The Council will be determining whether each project is best undertaken as new construction, extensive renovation, or addressing only major repairs
The four facilities in question are: 1) Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools, 2) Jones Library, 3) Fire/EMS Station, and 4) Department of Public Works (DPW).
The sessions opened with a 22-minute video, in which the department head for each facility made a case for why it was necessary. School Superintendent Michael Morris spoke for the schools, Fire Chief Tim Nelson for the fire station, Director of Public Works Guilford Mooring for the DPW building, and Library Director Sharon Sharry for the library. Town Manager Paul Bockelman followed with a brief discussion of the Town’s borrowing capacity, including an estimate that these four projects would cost at least $100 million, and that at least one debt exclusion override would be needed to pay for them.
The audience was then divided into focus groups (three in the afternoon and two in the evening) that were led by professional facilitator Bill Logue and three colleagues from the Logue Group of West Hartford, Connecticut. People were asked to respond to four questions (see below). Responses were compiled as lists, which were summarized by the facilitators at the end of the evening and there was no time allotted for discussion amongst the participants within the highly structured format. The sessions were observed by members of the Town Council, the School Committee, the Library Trustees, the DPW, and the Fire Department. None of these officials participated in the discussions, with the exception of Griesemer who offered clarifications and answered the handful of questions that were posed.
These were the questions considered in the focus groups:
- What underlying core values should shape the decision making for these projects?
- Based on your concerns, what questions should the Council be asking as it considers these four projects?
- What additional information do you need about the individual or overall capital projects?
- What leaves you hopeful or excited about these projects?
Core values mentioned by the attendees included sustainability and climate goals, affordability, public safety, respect for town employees, the importance of education, and respect and civility for all without polarizing the community.
Town Councilors were encouraged to determine different ways to approach the four projects, and to consider the projects’ impact on other needed capital investments. These may include sidewalks and roads, athletic fields, a new roof and fire suppression renovations for Amherst Regional Middle School, improvements to branch libraries, a new ladder truck for the Fire Department, a new roof for the Police Building, and a new senior center among other items. In addition to expenditures for constuction, the Council was asked to study the operating and maintenance costs of the four projects, and to consider essential non-capital expenses,including concerns over the adequacy of Fire Department staffing.
Other requests for information included comparing these proposed projects with those built by other communities (benchmarking), details on the property tax implications, and environmental impacts. And how would residents rank the four in terms of importance. There was concern that the $100 million total cost estimate was overly optimistic, along with questions about what compromises would be possible in that case.
Attendees generally said they hoped that all four facilities could be improved. Some expressed appreciation that Town’s facilities needs were being considered as a whole, and that not every project will likely get everything its proponents want. The overall state of town facilities was lamented, especially in light of the long history of promises of a South Amherst fire station that have not been realized in over 50 years. Chief Nelson offered a compelling description of the unsafe conditions at the central fire station.
What Was Missing?
Not discussed at the meeting was how the information collected at these listening sessions will be used. Facilitator Bill Logue said he plans to compile the audience responses from all four sessions in a report to the Town Council. But there was no opportunity for attendees to offer their thoughts on how they would prioritize these projects and what kinds of compromises they would find desirable or acceptable. While some trends seemed evident in audience responses about what residents value, the wide range of responses would seem to offer little concrete guidance for the Council and could allow individual councilors to hear what they are predisposed to hearing or to justify any option moving forward. The responses, however, do hint at what the council ought to do as it moves forward from these listening sessions.
The Town Council will need to be intentional about taking the pulse of the public again as more information about the projects and about options becomes available. And the public will need more information if it is to weigh in, meaningfully, on setting priorities for capital spending.
Every resident should be informed in writing of the options, costs, pros/cons of each project and there should be a subsequent town-wide survey conducted to assess the priorities of the residents before each project is finalized and brought to a debt exclusion override vote.
Steve Braun’s analysis of the spending implications for the capital projects suggests that it is unlikely that the town can afford all four projects as proposed and points out the implications of different funding models. We note that the anticipated grant for the library will be available as early as July 2020 and this suggests that there may be pressure to embrace the library project first with the money that will already be in hand. But If the the town cannot afford to undertake all four projects as proposed, then each must be considered in terms of its impact on all of the others and on any other capital (and operational) spending.