The May 27 meeting of the Finance Committee was publicized as a joint meeting between the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG), which is exploring conditions and recommendations related to policing in Amherst, and the Finance Committee of the Town Council, where the Finance Committee could ask detailed questions about the CSWG’s recommendations.
The CSWG had to wait in the audience at the May 27 meeting for nearly two hours while the Town Manager presented a revised budget for the CSWG’s recommendations to a panel that included the Finance Committee, the Police Chief, three police officers, the Fire Chief, the Dispatch Director, and Town of Amherst finance staff.
Town Manager’s Revised Budget Plan
The Town Manager’s revised budget includes $475,000 for the CRESS (Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service) program. Although that is more than the $130,000 previously budgeted, it is far less than the $2 million that the CSWG has determined the program would cost.
$250,000 out of the $475,000 would come from American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds under revenue replacement eligibility. ARP funds will be available for the next several years, but as the economy recovers, the amount that could be used for CRESS will decrease, so it is not a longterm funding solution for the program.
The $475,000 would pay for a director-level position, three community responders, and an administrative assistant for CRESS, a total of five staff members. That is significantly less than the seventeen staff members that the CSWG determined would be the minimum number to make the program available 24/7. The revised plan states that the Town would need to find a lot more money to continue funding CRESS in future years, even if they stay at only five staff members in FY23 and beyond.
Additionally, the Town Manager proposed to re-allocate $90,000 currently dedicated to the vacant Economic Development Director position to create a new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) position to work alongside the previously proposed coordinator.
Finance Committee and Town Council Ask Questions
The Finance Committee and Town Council members were given an opportunity to respond to the Town Manager’s presentation before the CSWG was brought into the Zoom room.
Overall, the Finance Committee and other Town Councilors were pleased by the plan. Nearly everyone spoke favorably about it, but several questions and concerns came up multiple times, such as the following:
Will five staff members for CRESS be enough?
Councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), and Sarah Swartz (District 1) were concerned that five staff members were not going to be enough for even a pilot program to succeed. The Town Dispatch Director weighed in to say that his office used to have 9 people to run the department 24/7, but that was not enough. Now they have 12, he said, and the official formula says they should have 15.
Should we take the money for the DEI Director from the vacant Economic Development Director position?
There was a lot of discussion about the funds for the Economic Development Director position being shifted to fund a DEI Director. Councilors Bahl-Milne, Evan Ross (District 4), and George Ryan (District 3) stressed that an Economic Development Director is important, especially after the pandemic, when Amherst will need support revitalizing its economy, and increased revenue brought in by an Economic Development Director could help fund CRESS going forward.
Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Darcy DuMont (District 5) spoke in favor of the DEI Director, saying that addressing racism is even more important than focusing on economic development right now. Later on, during public comment, Dr. Demetria Shabbazz argued that pitting working on the economy against working on equity is a false choice and that a DEI Director would look at equity in all areas of the Town, including the economy. And they could address some of the reasons that people of color who go to school in Amherst often leave instead of building their lives here.
There was also significant discussion about where money for the CRESS program would come from for FY23 and beyond. Suggestions included the cannabis tax, gifts from local colleges and the university, vacant Amherst Police Department positions, state grants, and unused funds from previous years’ budgets.
CSWG’s Presentation to the Finance Committee
Upon being invited into the Zoom room for the first time at 7:19 p.m., multiple members of the CSWG remarked on how disrespectful it felt for them to be left out of the room while their recommendations were being discussed. (Later, they said that even after they were brought into the Zoom room, CSWG members with their hands raised were repeatedly ignored.)
They also shared their concern that they were not included in discussions about the Town Manager’s revised budget plan and did not know that the Town Manager would be making a presentation at this meeting.
CSWG co-chairs Briana Owen and Ellisha Walker presented a version of the presentation they gave earlier in the week at the Town Council’s May 24 meeting.
Contrary to the way it was being discussed in the earlier part of the meeting, they explained that CRESS is not a social services program or a mental health program, although it may provide mental health services. They emphasized that it is, as requested, an alternative to the police. To them, this means that CRESS offers the people in our town who do not feel safe calling the police, someone else to call for support, and not just for mental health issues.
They repeated that they are asking for the Amherst Police Department to stay at the current number of officers (44) for FY22, rather than increasing to 46 as the FY22 budget indicates, and that they have already presented a staged plan for decreasing the number of officers by 50 percent over the next five years, as CRESS responds to more calls that the police department used to handle.
They also repeated their recommendation that the CSWG must continue beyond September 1 (the current time that their charge is set to expire) so that they can be involved in all aspects of the implementation of their recommendations. Town Manager Bockelman responded later in the meeting that the group’s charge would be complete after they turn in the second part of their report on police reform and oversight on June 30. He said that there was never a plan for the CSWG to exist in an ongoing manner.
Owen then compared the cost of the CSWG’s recommended programs with other Town departments, and said that the CRESS program’s new department would cost about $2 million per year, which is less than half the cost of the the FY22 budget for the Amherst Police Department ($5.2 million) and the Amherst Fire/EMS Department ($5 million).
Furthermore, she said,, the CSWG has estimated that the DEI office would cost about $850,000 per year, while the FY22 budget allocates $1.2 million for the Finance office, with about the same number of staff.
Following the presentation, other members of the CSWG weighed in on the Town Manager’s plan. They expressed frustration that they were not in the room to ask questions about it and answer questions about their recommendations, and said that instead they had to listen to people interpret their recommendations through a lens of white supremacy.
They stressed that it is very important for CRESS to be fully funded and available 24/7 from the start. They also wondered why there was no mention of money for a marketing campaign for the program to make sure the community knows about it, and said that they need to hear a firmer commitment to making sure that CRESS has its own telephone number, in addition to being available through calls to 911. Many of the members expressed their feeling that the Town Manager’s plan was woefully insufficient, and one member said that if people of color had proposed it, they would have lost their jobs.
CSWG members were also concerned that the Town had already chosen, without input from the group, to contract with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) to decide on the kinds of calls that CRESS would answer. A few wondered why they were not considering contracting with CAHOOTS, which has more than thirty years of experience to draw from.
Finally, they shared frustration that at no point after their presentation did Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg invite the rest of the attending Finance Committee members or other Town Councilors to ask them questions as he did after the Town Manager’s presentation.
At this point, Steinberg stressed that they needed to move on to public comment, as required by law for this meeting, so that they could end the meeting. Eleven members of the public and a representative of the Amherst Human Rights Commission spoke in favor of fully funding the CSWG’s recommendations. Several urged the Councilors to move past their defensiveness and be brave enough to make real change.
The Finance Committee will vote on June 1 on whether or not to send the FY22 budget to the full Town Council, which is scheduled to make their final vote on the FY22 budget on June 21.