Council Approves Purchase Of Hybrid Ambulance. Retains Single Property Tax Rate For FY 21

One of Amherst's four conventional ambulances on a downtown call. Photo: Art Keene

Report on the Town Council Meeting of 11/16/20

The meeting was held as a Zoom webinar and was simulcast on Amherst Media Channel 17. The recording can be viewed here

Participating Councilors

At-large: Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg

District: Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1), Pat DeAngelis and President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Steve Schreiber and Evan Ross (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont (District 5)

Highlights

  • Council approves purchase of a hybrid ambulance
  • Town retains single tax classification for property taxes
  • Health Director informs Council of rising COVID cases in Town
  • Plan for remodeling the North Common is presented
  • Council approves solar signs, solar charging stations, as well as three new bus shelters downtown
  • Council passes bylaw banning Exotic and Wild Animals in Traveling Circuses or Shows
  • Council announces new vacancy on the Finance Committee 

New Ambulance Purchase
A public forum was held for an out-of-cycle appropriation to purchase a new ambulance. The Town’s oldest ambulance failed inspection and requires a $30,000 repair. The proposed new ambulance would cost $300,000 which includes $25,000 for a hybrid option in which the internal combustion engine turns off when idling. Funds would come from ambulance receipts, which are sufficient to cover the new ambulance as well as supporting operating costs . The Town will also apply for grant funding to offset the hybrid upgrade of $25,000. 

There were no comments from the public. The measure passed unanimously later in the meeting.

Public Hearing on FY 21 Tax Classifications
Principal Assessor Elizabeth Duffy, who began work on January 1, presented the Board of Assessors recommendation that Amherst continue to have the same tax rate for commercial properties as for residential properties. The presentation can be viewed here. . 

Duffy said that almost 89 percent of property in Amherst is residential, with only 7 percent commercial, so the effect of a separate commercial tax rate would be minimal and might discourage business development here. Personal exemptions for the elderly or other special circumstances affect 3.4 percent of properties. Twenty-eight percent of land is tax exempt. She said that in her opinion, creating differential tax rates would not increase the taxes collected, but only shift the assessments between the categories.

Councilors Pam and DuMont asked about the possibility of residential exemptions for owner-occupied dwellings, under a single tax rate. Duffy said her staff is in the process of gathering data about which dwellings here are owner occupied. It was noted that differential rates would involve creating an overlay account to provide refunds to property owners who make successful appeals; and that absentee landlords, including professors who rent out their homes while they take sabbaticals, would be charged as such; and that most of the state’s municipalities, including all of its small towns, use a single rate. The tax rate in Amherst is currently $21,82 per $1,000 value.

No members of the public made comments during the hearing. DuMont later recommended, during the Council meeting, deferring the tax rate vote until the next Council meeting to allow more time for public education and comments. She was outvoted by all of the other Councilors (12-1) so the single tax rate will continue for FY 21. Duffy invited anyone who has questions to contact her at Assessor@amherstma.gov.

COVID-19 Update
Town Manager Paul Bockelman and new Health Director Emma Dragon presented data on the coronavirus pandemic in Amherst . As of Monday, November 16, there were 87 active cases in Amherst, an increase from 22 two weeks prior. This correlates with increased exposure at Halloween and during the elections. Eighty-nine percent of the active cases here are among UMass students, nine percent in the general population, and one percent each in Amherst and Hampshire Colleges. Most of the transmissions were in household settings.

In response to the rising incidence of COVID-19 in the State, Governor Charlie Baker passed new mandates requiring face masks in all public settings, early closing of bars and restaurants (by 10 p.m.), and maximums of 10 people at indoor gatherings and 25 outdoors. Outdoor events are limited to 100 people. Businesses are required to comply with contact tracing and quarantine guidelines. In the past, workers deemed to be essential to a business often did not have to quarantine after exposure.

Bockelman urged residents and Town staff to be careful during the holidays and when they return to work. Thanksgiving marks the end of the semester for UMass and the colleges, so there will be fewer people in Town for a time. UMass is encouraging students, faculty, and staff to get tested before traveling. The positivity rate in Amherst is still low, at 0.4 percent of all tests.

In response to questions from Councilors, Dragon said that most data suggest that transmission in schools is low. She said she thinks that gathering in a tent with sides is not safer than gathering indoors. She was not sure how many Amherst residents who are not part of the UMass and college communities are getting tested and what their positive rate is. Bockelman said that the Town has contracted with Family Outreach of Amherst to provide a Spanish-speaking social worker to communicate with Spanish-speaking residents at risk for COVID-19.

North Common Remodeling Plan
Town Planner Chris Brestrup and Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek presented a scaled-down plan for redesigning the North Common. 

An excellent presentation with photos of the Common through history can be found here. The Common is as old as the Town itself. In 1874, Frederick Law Olmstead produced a design with a band shell. There is also a photo of stately elm trees lining the common. Parking first appeared in the 1960s. 

The North Common has been troubled by poor drainage, ailing trees, and uneven ground. There is also a non-functioning water fountain left over from a Women’s Christian Temperance Union project.

The scaled-down plan is part of the Business Improvement District’s “Destination Amherst” project. 

Planning for a North Common upgrade began with several focus groups in 2013. In 2016 and 2018, the project was awarded Community Preservation Act funds totaling $550,000, and the Town engaged the Boston landscaping firm of Weston and Sampson to develop plans. Town Meeting also allocated $400,000 in funds that would be reimbursed by the Transportation Fund for a DPW (Department of Public Works) plan for the parking lot there.

Weston and Sampson incorporated some of the many suggestions received, such as creating a plaza in front of Town Hall that would mean a loss of 12 parking spaces. The original plan is estimated to cost $1.9 million. Ziomek estimated that modifications recommended by the DPW will lower the cost to $1.5 million and save more trees than the earlier plan did. The lower cost is still $600,000 more than is available, but the remainder can probably be raised through a PARC grant and private donations, he suggested. 

In response to a question from Councilor Pam about accommodations for the Civil War tablets now in storage, Ziomek said the tablets need to be kept indoors to prevent weather-related degradation. DeAngelis expressed concern about turning Boltwood Avenue into a one-way street, which would potentially interfere with Grace Church’s events. 

The matter was referred to the Council’s Transportation, Services and Outreach Committee (TSO) for review and public input before presentation to the full Council within 90 days.

Public Way Solar Signs and Charging Station
Communication Director Brianna Sunryd presented a proposal for a one-year pilot project for three solar-powered communication signs and three solar charging stations for mobile devices. The signs and charging stations would be supplied and maintained by SOOFA, a Cambridge-based company. The signs would offer messaging, as well as free advertising of local businesses. The advertising would be free during the pilot year and a source of revenue after that. The charging stations would remain even if the Town were to decide not to keep the SOOFA signs. Sunnryd was unsure of what the cost of the signs would be after the first year. The Design Review Board approved the project and the Council referred it to the Council’s Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO) for a report due on 12/7/20 because the proposal has to be voted on by December 31.

Downtown Bus Shelters
Amherst received $130,000 from the Department of Transportation’s Shared Streets Program for three new bus shelters downtown. 

Ben Breger of the Planning Department proposed shelters in front of St. Brigid’s Church and on South Pleasant Street near the parking lot on the Commons and Spring Street, as well as replacing the deteriorating shelter on Main Street. The plan has been approved by the Design Review Board. The money from the Department of Transportation must be spent by December 31, and the Council approved 11-2-0. Pam and Schreiber dissented because they feel that time is needed to consider alternatives to the planned “Victorian design” of the already existing bus shelters.

Bylaw Banning on Wild and Exotic Animals in Traveling Circuses and Shows
This bylaw, sponsored by Rebecca Schwartz and Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, had been discussed at the November 9 Council meeting, when it garnered support during public comment and was passed unanimously. Animal Control Officer Carol Hepburn said that in her 20 years on the job she has rarely encountered exotic animals here, but is in favor of anything that protects animals, and that it is better to be prepared in case the situation does arise. Birds of prey and animals involved in academic studies or other education are not covered by the bylaw.

Public Way Delegation to Town Manager
Temporary zoning Bylaw Article 14, allowing businesses to expand outdoors during the pandemic was extended to December 31, 2021 at last week’s Council meeting, but the authority of the Town Manager to approve alterations was not included and would expire on December 14,2020.

Included in the memo is Section 3, which permanently delegates authority for bus shelters, signs, sidewalk seating, and such to the Town Manager. This clause was thought to require more consideration, however, and the memo was referred to the Council’s TSO and Governance,Organization and Legislation (GOL) Committees. 

The emergency measure will be discussed on December 7. The extension of the Town Manager’s authority will be discussed at a later date.

Vacancy on the Finance Committee
In Committee Reports, Finance Committee Chair Andrew Steinberg announced that Sharon Povenelli, a non-voting member of the committee, has resigned from the Board. Her term expires June 30, 2021. GOL will replace her for the remainder of her term.

GOL reported that it will be discussing the Proclamation on Structural Racism sponsored by Councilors Pat DeAngelis, Bahl-Milne, and Alisa Brewer.

Town Manager Report
Bockelman reported that Town employees distributed 65 gift bags to veterans in commemoration of Veteran’s Day. He also announced that voting on Election Day went smoothly and that the final count has been certified. 

The entire report can be read here.

The meeting was adjourned at 11:30 p.m.

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2 thoughts on “Council Approves Purchase Of Hybrid Ambulance. Retains Single Property Tax Rate For FY 21

  1. In the recap of the Covid-19 cases, it is mentioned that the higher cases correlate with increased exposure due to Halloween and the Nov election. The evidence is clearly there re: Halloween gatherings, but I am curious if there have been any Covid cases directly connected to the election & if so how many. The Town took many precautions to keep Amherst voters and polling places safe during the election, including through the use of social distancing at each polling site, plexiglass barriers, face masks, sanitizing of surfaces, and more. In addition, many Amherst voters submitted ballots during the early voting period either by mail, dropoff at Town Hall, or in-person voting at the Bang Center where the same Covid safety protocols were followed as on Election Day. Perhaps there were some Covid cases as a result of election-related social gatherings, but it doesn’t seem quite fair to me to blame those on the election itself. (Note: I have been an election worker in the Town of Amherst for the past 20+ years).

  2. I agree.

    “Eighty-nine percent of the active cases here are among UMass students,…” given our embarrassingly low voter turnout, it would also be interesting to know how many UMass students registered to vote in Amherst did so in person.

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