Town Manager Directed To Find Funds For More Community Responders But Not From Police Budget

Hundreds of people, led by Amherst youth, marched from Amherst High School to the Police Department on June 13 in support of Black lives. Photo: Mary Custard

At their final budget review meeting on June 1, the Finance Committee (FC) voted 3-1-1 to recommend that the Town Council approve the $69.7 million Fiscal Year 2022 operating budget proposed by Town Manager Paul Bockelman. (Griesemer, Steinberg, Pam voted yes; DeAngelis voted no; Schoen abstained; three resident non-voting members indicated their support). 

The budget includes $130,000 shifted from the police department to the social services budget for a new Community Responder (CRESS) program, an alternative to using police officers for non-violent calls, proposed by the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG). The $130,000 comes from cutting two out of four vacant police officer positions, reducing the police department from 50 to 48 personnel.

A second motion by Councilor Lynn Griesemer, passed with the same votes, recommended that “the Town Council direct the Town Manager to seek funds to fill eight community responder positions and the other elements of the [CRESS] program as proposed on May 27, and report back to the Council how he plans to accomplish this no later than January 31, 2022.” Griesemer said she would “strongly prefer that we not tell the Town Manager where to find additional money.”

In the revised CRESS program budget presented by Bockelman to the FC and the CSWG on May 27, he proposed a pilot program with fourresponders to begin in February 2022, with funding allocated for the five months through June 30, 2022. Following the May 27 meeting, the Town learned that State Senator Jo Comerford had secured $90,000 for the program. Griesemer said that grant could cover the cost of two more responders, which would bring the number from four to six for the period February-June 2022. 

Griesemer’s motion to further increase the number of responders to eight puts the onus on Bockleman for finding money to fund two more responders, either from additional cuts in the police budget or cuts from other programs, although Griesemer made it clear she did not support further reductions to the police department. “I think sending a message to our police that we are going to freeze more positions is a mistake,” she said, expressing concern that it would hurt police recruitment efforts.

Also strongly opposed to further reducing the police budget was Chair Andy Steinberg. “I don’t want to [reduce the police department] at the cost of jeopardizing the safety of anyone in the community encountering violence,” he said. 

Councilors Cathy Schoen and Pat DeAngelis felt it would be a mistake to not specify where the money would come from, and supported freezing the two vacant police officer positions, at least until January, to ensure there would be sufficient funding for the two additional responders. “We have not had murder and mayhem because we’ve been down four positions all year,” DeAngelis said.

The recommendation to increase from four to eight responders in the coming year without identifying funding for all eight was also a concern for Finance Director Sean Mangano, Comptroller Sonia Aldrich, and Bockelman. “This is an accounting nightmare, to put it mildly,” Aldrich said. Bockelman wanted clear guidance from the Council whether the CRESS program is a high priority that should take precedence over all other requests. Increasing to eight responders was doubling what he had budgeted and would require that the Council either cut other department budgets or freeze police officer positions with the intent to shift the funding to the responder program.

According to Bob Hegner, one of the three resident non-voting members of the FC, eight responders would allow for one team of two to staff the program 24/7. Bernie Kubiak, another resident non-voting member, thought one team was sufficient and said that he had not seen data that would support the level of staffing in the CSWG’s report. (The CSWG recommended there be two teams of two responders per shift, as well as dispatch and other staffing. Their report included an analysis of police calls and other data to support the recommended staffing.) Kubiak wants the Town to consider outsourcing the program to a not-for-profit agency. Neither Hegner nor Kubiak supported directing the town manager to reallocate funds from the police department for the additional responders.

Funding CRESS Beyond FY22
Identifying the funding to continue the program with eight responders beyond June 2022 was of significant concern for Schoen, who said that the pilot program needed more than five months to be successful. With debt repayments for the major building projects expected to begin in FY23, Schoen said operating budgets will be extremely tight. She urged the FC to identify a potential funding source now, possibly by shifting funds from the police department budget or by postponing design work for the DPW. However, Griesemer would not prescribe the funding source and said they couldn’t “bind” next year’s budget. “It’s going to be tough when we go to fund it a year from now,” she said.

Like Schoen, Mangano was concerned about funding for FY23. “We’re going to have to find $350,000 just to maintain four responders,” Mangano said. “If it is eight, and the [state] grant doesn’t come back, you can double it. It would potentially impact operating budgets even more than has already been projected.”

Schoen abstained from the vote on the operating budget because of the lack of direction and assurance on funding for the increase in responders in FY22, and also concern for funding the program through FY23. “I’m really worried about FY23 operating budgets,” she said. 

While Counselor Dorothy Pam said she empathized with Schoen, she ultimately voted yes on the operating budget. “My yes vote is a vote of support for the Town Manager. I believe he will do what needs to be done,” she said.

Explaining her no vote, DeAngelis said, “I cannot support this budget because it doesn’t do enough to fund this [CRESS] program. I believe money should be coming from the police department.”

Other FC Votes
A vote to recommend appropriating $4.6 million for the Capital Improvement Program passed unanimously, while a borrowing authorization order, which included $3.5 million for design and engineering of a new DPW and fire station, passed 3-1-1 (Griesemer, Steinberg, DeAngelis voted yes; Schoen voted no; Pam abstained; the three resident members indicated their support). 

Schoen said that the debt repayments on the DPW and fire station design borrowings could be the difference between a 2 percent and a 2.3 percent operating budget in FY23, meaning that if the borrowings were postponed, operating budgets wouldn’t have to take as big a hit in FY23. Pam said she was concerned that promising so much money to large capital projects put pressure on the town to accept more development, such as the controversial mixed-use buildings downtown.

Regarding the debt authorization for the DPW design work, Steinberg said, “I trust our Town Manager, Finance Director, and Comptroller to manage this appropriately. If we get the property that we hope [for a new DPW], we need to move forward. I don’t see any reason to delay giving the authorization.”

The Town Council will discuss the FY22 budget at their meeting on June 7 and a vote is scheduled for June 21.

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