Opinion: Local And Green: Town Must Reprioritize Capital Spending To Meet Needs In The “New Normal”

Photo: danielasgroup.ca. Creative commons

Editor’s Note:  This column appeared previously in The Amherst Bulletin.

Darcy Dumont

Amherst has significant expenditures planned in its proposed capital budget and some needed but not yet budgeted. We can’t afford them all. How do we decide in a fair and transparent way what spending is most needed and most fulfilling of our town goals?

Projects on the current list include the new consolidated elementary or other school, a Department of Public Works building, a fire station, the Jones Library expansion project and renovation, the North Common, Kendrick Park, a performance shell on the Common, and the development of the East Street School, Hickory Ridge Golf Course, and West Pomeroy Village Center Project.

What capital needs to be preserved for maintaining and repairing existing buildings and for purchasing equipment and vehicles? What priority do we put on roads, bikeways and sidewalks?

And what of the “new normal?” How does the continuation of the pandemic play into our financial decisions? What economic trends will be coming down the pike? What about the climate emergency and the need to plan for resilience against climate impacts? And the need for racial equity here and across the country?

In a message to the Town Manager offering budget guidance, the Town Council Finance Committee stressed the need for financial flexibility. The committee said it recognizes there isn’t enough money to meet all of the town’s needs, noting that finding a way to support initiatives not previously funded will require difficult decisions and, in some cases, will require envisioning a town budget appropriate for a post-COVID era.

“Nevertheless, the Council would like to work with you to consider the need, cost, other challenges and benefits of addressing some important unmet needs….,” the committee wrote.

The committee said it wants the recommendations of a Community Safety Working Group considered in budgets. That working group is studying two areas — community health and safety, and racial equity and social justice.

Similarly, the Town’s Energy and Climate Action Committee is likely to make recommendations as it drafts a climate action plan that has budget implications. The committee also asks the town manager to consider those recommendations as he develops budgets.

“Finding ways to support initiatives not previously funded will require difficult decisions and intensified efforts to secure grants … we note, explicitly, that adding new initiatives — be it investments in climate action or racial justice — will mean that there will have to be reductions in other areas of the budget. We recognize that we have not provided guidance on what to reduce and rely on the best judgment of you and your staff.”

We are clearly not going back to “business as usual.” How could reprioritization of funding, then, change or add to the list of potential capital projects? Should we add a community resilience hub, as in Northampton? Solar canopies on our parking lots and municipal buildings? Resilient microgrids and battery storage? Electric vehicle infrastructure? Electric or hybrid police cars, DPW and school vehicles? Incentives for building retrofits? More bikeways, bike shares and bike racks? A permanent seasonal or long-term shelter for our homeless residents?

Should the Town take over waste hauling in order to take control of reducing our waste and to provide the types of services residents want?

Currently the Town doesn’t have a complete picture of infrastructure and other capital spending needs, making it difficult to prioritize infrastructure spending across competing projects. Projects that proceed are often those with the most powerful political support, considered on a case by case, “siloed” basis. It isn’t helpful when councilors are asked to decide on the affordability and merit of projects like the North Common and the Jones Library in a vacuum.

What is needed instead is a process that would enable Amherst to prioritize projects based on factors such as cost, critical need for safety, health or essential services, anticipated economic, cultural, recreational or historic preservation benefits, and whether they meet our climate mitigation, resilience and racial equity goals.

Looking at the balance between the operating and capital budgets is important too. Are we leaving the operating budget too thin by trying to finance too many new capital projects? Are staff being stretched too far? Are there important positions that we need to add in order to implement our new initiatives such as climate action and racial equity?

The Community Safety Working group will most likely propose shifting funding between departments for staffing of emergency calls. The Energy and Climate Action Committee will propose multiple actions to bring our town greenhouse gas emissions down and make us more resilient to climate impacts that will require new staff in order to implement them.

Amherst deserves to have a process that helps decision-makers evaluate tradeoffs and improve resource allocation among projects and that helps us to select and prioritize projects in an outcome-focused process that is transparent to the public.

Let’s be open to reprioritizing to accommodate the new normal era and our changing needs.

Darcy DuMont is a member of the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee, a founding member of Western MA Community Choice Energy, a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, and an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.

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