In their second meeting to discuss how to distribute the anticipated $1.4 million in funds for capital expenses next fiscal year, the Joint Capital Planning Committee expressed support for cutting the Town Manager’s initial suggestion of $1.1 million for road and sidewalk repairs to $630,000. The remaining $770,000 would be held in a capital reserve fund that would be drawn from throughout the year with the Town Council’s approval. These funds would only be used to pay for urgent spending to prevent 1) a system failure, 2) a public safety concern, or 3) discontinuation of core services to the Town.
The list of projects that the Town departments, schools, and libraries have indicated would fit this bill currently include the following:
Ambulance – $355,000
Ambulance laptops – $15,000
Animal control vehicle – $50,000
Poll pads (for elections) – $14,000
Van for Special Education transportation – $48,000
Munson Library HVAC – $30,000
Town Hall front steps – $125,000
Dam/Dike Repair at Puffer Pond – $25,000
Conservation truck – $85,000
Councilor-at-large Mandi Jo Hanneke advocated seeking Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to pay for the front steps of the Town Hall. She also wondered whether Federal CAREs Act funds could cover HVAC-related expenses at the schools (not on the short list of top priority projects) or the Munson Library but Town Finance Director Sean Mangano explained that to qualify, expenses would need to have been caused by the pandemic, not be a previously-identified need.
Committee members again asked for an accounting of what monies remain for capital projects that had been funded in prior years but were never completed. This information has been requested multiple times over the course of the budget process this spring. It is still not available, and both Hanneke and Library Trustee Alex Lefebvre said that without knowing how much previously-approved money had been spent, they could not decide how much more to allocate to those same areas.
The committee devoted most of its time to a discussion about the relative importance of road and sidewalk repair to Amherst residents. Councilor-at-large Andy Steinberg and Library Trustee Tamson Ely expressed support for a 50/50 split plan put forth by Chair and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, meaning half of the $1.4 million would go to roads and sidewalks and the other half to the reserve account. Hanneke and School Committee member Peter Demling favored a 40/60 split that would decrease monies for roads and sidewalks further. Although Town Comptroller Sonia Aldrich confirmed that roads and sidewalks are brought up at every public meeting about finances, Demling questioned “to what level is this really a public priority?” and stated that “sometimes our loudest and most frequent complainers are not necessarily a proxy for the public will”. The committee eventually seemed to settle on recommending a 45/55 split to the Town Manager so as to avoid a non-unanimous vote.