The Joint Capital Planning Committee’s (JCPC) meeting on May 20 was their first public discussion about how to allocate limited funds in a dramatically-reduced capital budget.
Newly-hired Finance Director, Sean Mangano presented the Town Manager’s proposal that most of the $1.4 million in anticipated “cash capital” be used for roads and sidewalks.
Mangano reported that the portion of the Town’s property tax revenue allotted for capital will be cut from 10% to about 5% this coming year — from about $5 million to $2.8 million — and that $1.4 million of that is already allocated to service existing debt. “Chapter 90” funds from the state for road repair may add about $800,000 but Bockelman cautioned that this revenue is not certain. Bockelman proposed allocating $900,000 for roads and $200,000 for sidewalks, leaving ~$300,00 for everything else under the title “capital reserves.” These reserves would be drawn from over the next year for any critical or urgent capital needs that arise town-wide.
The proposal was met with resistance from the Town Councilor, School Committee, and Library Trustee representatives who comprise the JCPC. Library Trustee Alex Lefebvre reminded the committee that many town buildings are old and in need of repairs, and she wanted to know how the word “critical” was going to be defined. She also questioned whether a new source of tax revenue from Uber/Lyft in the amount of $62,000 had to be earmarked for downtown improvements such as lighting, sidewalks, and kiosks, and indicated that she couldn’t support the proposal as is.
JCPC Chair and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen suggested that the committee be provided a complete and prioritized list of road and sidewalk projects so that a comparable level of scrutiny can be applied to that work. When Mangano noted that what he is hearing from this group is that roads and sidewalks are not a top priority, both Schoen and At-large Councilor Andy Steinberg said that they were not suggesting this, only that the proposed budget looks like they are the only priority.
In defense of his proposal, Bockelman said that when he was hired, one of his “directives” was to address the estimated $20 million backlog in road and sidewalk repairs in town.
School Committee members Kerry Spitzer and Peter Demling reported that revisions to both the elementary and regional schools’ capital budgets, which included only what they considered critical projects, had already been proposed by Superintendent Michael Morris at their recent meetings. At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke noted that the JCPC had received input from the schools and library about what they considered top priority projects but had not received similar information from Town departments.
Schoen asked for an accounting on projects that have been funded in prior years but that have not yet been initiated or completed, a request that she and Hanneke have both made at prior JCPC meetings. Mangano acknowledged the existence of these unspent funds in several departments and said they could be used to catch up on some of the projects this year. At a recent School Committee meeting, both Morris and the Schools’ Finance Director Doug Slaughter mentioned that funds are still available to repair the Fort River elementary school roof.
The JCPC’s intention this year had been to create a realistic 5-year capital plan. Schoen noted that the 5-year plan created last year showed a multi-million dollar deficit in the “out years”. Now, with the impact of COVID-19 on the budget, those “out years” look even worse with multiple projects from this year being pushed off into later years, and that is before any debt from the major capital projects is included.”
Amherst can apply for funds for COVID-19-related capital expenses from the Federal CAREs Act and FEMA/MEMA (Federal and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agencies). Mangano clarified that these would need to be sought as reimbursable expenses that had not been budgeted beforehand. Bockelman said he would also inquire whether lost revenue, such as Amherst expects from lower meal and lodging taxes and water use fees, could be reimbursed from this funding source.
Bockelman said that the Town’s financial situation would become clearer over time as the impacts of COVID-19 were better known, and that spending for critical needs that may arise in the next year would go to the Town Council for approval. Hanneke wondered if the requirement of a line item budget could be foregone in favor of a bottomline budget. Aside from the time sensitivity of moving forward with seasonal paving work, Bockelman asked for time to consider this request.
The JCPC will meet again on May 27 at 7:15pm. Public comment is welcome.