Town Council Passes Regional School Budget With $1.2M Cut In Services. Operating Budget Provides Minimal Funding For Alternative To Policing

Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council (5/3/21)

Editor’s note:  This is one of three articles posted in The Indy this week about the Town Council meeting of 5/3/21.  The others can be found here and here.

The meeting was conducted on Zoom. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here.

Present: Councilors Lynn Griesemer (President) and Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke , and Andy Steinberg (At-large), Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1),  Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Steve Schreiber and Evan Ross (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council), Sean Mangano (Finance Director), and Sonia Aldrich (Comptroller). Mike Morris Superintendent of Schools

Regional School Budget
The first presentation of the Regional School Budget was at the April 5 Town Council meeting. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, all departments, including the schools, will receive a 2.1 percent increase in their budgets. However, increasing school expenses and decreasing enrollments will effectively result in a $1.2 million cut in services. Some additional state and federal money from several recovery programs will probably be allocated to the schools, but how much this will be and what it can be used for is unclear. Some stimulus funds have been used to improve ventilation and space allotment.

As Finance Committee Chair Steinberg pointed out, the Regional School budget must be approved by all four towns involved. Amherst alone cannot increase the funds available. The other towns will discuss the budget at their town meetings this month; Leverett has already approved its share. Steinberg noted that the Amherst Regional School District already has one of the highest costs per student in the region.

Pam asked if any Recovery Act money will be allocated for enrichment programs; Morris replied that the high school is offering about a third more summer programs than in the past and the Middle School is still formulating its plans for the summer. He also said that the enrollment decrease is real, not just due to the pandemic, and that the cohort now in the high school was the smallest cohort even in kindergarten. Next year, there will be fewer than 800 students at the high school, when just a few years ago there were 1,000. This smaller number of students leads to a loss of some electives, which is not satisfying but necessary. He did say that there would be no cuts in the dance program as several councilors mentioned as an example of a decrease in the arts program.

In addition, Morris said that non-classroom staff has been cut by 25 percent in recent years. The remaining administrative positions are necessary to be able to provide data required by the participating towns and the state. Pam said she hopes the budget can be made whole again if supplemental funds are received.

Four separate votes were required to approve the Regional School budget. The first was to consider the approval out of the regular budget cycle in order to comply with the town meetings of the other towns. The second was to approve the assessment method for each town. The third was to approve the budget, and the fourth was to approve a debt authorization. DuMont dissented on the budget, but the other three votes were unanimous.

Town Operating Budget and Capital improvement Budget.
Bockelman said he is proud of the FY22 budget, which he calls a “Budget of Hope.” It is balanced and is aligned with the goals the Council set last fall. He is also enthusiastic about the new format on the Engage Amherst website, the Story Map format , which allows people to scroll through the highlights or concentrate on certain issues, such as Climate Action, Covid Response, Racial Justice, or Economic Vitality. The actual budget is 279 pages, but the story maps format is much more accessible. There are still many unknowns for next year, but Bockelman was confident that this is a good start. The public is invited to give feedback or ask questions at the above site.

The budget projects an increase in revenue of 5.7 percent. Originally, all departments were to be level funded, but an improved economic forecast (the Town expects a recovery in hotel and meal tax revenue as well as increased income from parking) has increased the funding level by 2.1 percent. Last year’s capital projects budget was decreased to 5 percent from the ideal goal of 10 percent, but FY22 capital expenses are set at 8.5 percent of the total budget. 

Budget Fails To Fund CRESS Program
In response to a recommendation by the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG), $130,000 from frozen positions in the Police Department will be devoted to the creation of a Community Response for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program to deal with nonviolent problems. This amount is far less than the over $2 million requested for the program, and several speakers in public comment noted that the meager amount budgeted demonstrated that the Town is not committed to correcting racial biases in public safety . Bockelman responded that this is an entirely new program, unlike those such as the Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon, which is based in the police department. There is no model to build on, he said, and he thinks that the $130,00 will be enough seed money to design the program, determine what problems it would handle, and decide how many staff will be needed.

The CSWG also proposed a full-time staff member for Diversity and Equity. Bockelman said he is working with the CORE equity group of the Town staff to create a half-time position. He has budgeted for the CSWG to continue its work into the next year.

With the Town beginning to plan for a new fire station and a new public works building, a greater share of the Town’s Capital Improvement budget is allocated to these projects (20 percent and 22 percent respectively). Bockelman also plans to hire an economic development director. Mangano will work on developing a parking plan, based on the recommendations of the Downtown Parking Working Group that were presented to the Council on November 18, 2019

The budget was referred to the Finance Committee. There will be a public hearing on May 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the start of the Council meeting. The capital budget will be discussed at the June 7 Council meeting.

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