Public Forum On Capital Improvement Plan And Preliminary Discussion Of FY22 Budget

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, June 7, 2021

Prior to the public meetings discussed below the Council convened in Executive Session to discuss the pending litigation about the disqualification of signatures asking for a public referendum on the borrowing for the Jones Library expansion.

The meeting was held via Zoom. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here.

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

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council), Sean Mangano (Finance Director)

Highlights

  • Council held a public forum on the capital improvement plan
  • Public comment questioned the need for a debt exclusion for a new school and the failure to fully fund recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group
  • Finance Committee commented on its comprehensive report on the FY 22 budget
  • Town Manager reported on plans to implement the CRESS (community responder) program
  • Fort River Sixth Graders Sponsor Resolution To Support Forests and Wildlife
  • Council voted to support HR40 Bill in Congress in support of studying reparations for African Americans
  • Council discussed the possible resumption of in-person meetings for all government business
  • Planning Department presented proposed revisions to Supplemental Dwelling Units bylaw
  • Council heard about proposed changes to the public way near Kendrick Park
  • Elementary School Building Committee received favorable report from MSBA
  • Town Manager’s report included announcement that there will be no town-sponsored activities for July 4 this year

Public Forum on the Capital Improvement Plan
Amherst Finance Director Sean Mangano gave a brief presentation on the proposed five-year plan for capital expenditures. The plan incorporates the four  major capital projects that have been proposed ( elementary school, fire station, public works complex, and expansion of Jones Library) and includes maintenance of roads and sidewalks that had been deferred during the pandemic. 

Investment in capital improvements is proposed to increase to 8.5 percent of the budget, from the 5 percent in the FY21 budget. The plan includes a debt exclusion (property tax override) for the elementary school. New to the budget is $100,000 for a sustainability investment, expected to be included in all future budgets. There is also $50,000 for accessibility improvements and $350,000 for roof repairs for the three elementary schools. $4.6 million will be borrowed for the design of a new Public Works building and a new fire station, so those projects will be ready to be put out to bid. Other major expenditures are for a new street sweeper and a new chiller for the police station.

Public Comment
Public attendance at the forum was sparse. Jeff Lee said the Town has the borrowing capacity to finance a new school, new fire station, new DPW and a moderately sized Jones Library expansion without raising property taxes, and therefore he feels that a debt exclusion override (for a new school) is not needed. He pointed out that property taxes in Amherst are the eighth highest in Massachusetts, and that Amherst is one of the poorest towns in the State. A debt exclusion, he said, will continue to drive families out of town.

Zoe Crabtree asked the Councilors to remember the large sums proposed for capital improvements when they say “there isn’t any money” for programs like the Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program. “It is a matter of choice,” she said.

The vote on the Capital Improvement Plan will be at the June 21 Council meeting.

Town Manager Reports On Plans To Implement The CRESS Program
Finance committee chair Andrew Steinberg referred to the comprehensive report in the meeting packet  He noted two corrections that need to be made: The cannabis revenue stream of $206,000 applied to a fund for reparations for Amherst’s African heritage residents is for this year ( is not intended to imply that cannabis revenue will be the source of reparations funds in the future.) Also, the report does not take into account the budget for “general governance.” Steinberg said that these two corrections will be made before the next meeting on June 21.

Council Questions Funding of the CRESS Program
Most of the discussion about the FY22 budget centered around the funding of the CRESS program and other recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG). Bockelman has enlisted the help of Director of Senior Services Mary Beth Ogulewicz to implement the CRESS program and said he has allocated another $40,000 to the program from the police budget, funds previously slated to hire a  Director of Economic Development position would now be used to create a position of  Director of the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. These changes do not increase the Town’s expenses, he said.

Ogulewicz said that the Town’s proposal is an implementation project, not a pilot. She has been working with the Harvard Kennedy School and is researching programs in other towns, in addition to applying for additional funds. She said the Town is committed to making the program successful. She stressed the need to determine the right number of staff, the right skill sets, and the need to analyze police data to determine how many police calls could be handled by CRESS responders. Current estimates range from 8 to 20 percent. 

She stated that similar programs have a long history of success. Olympia, Washington, with a population of 55,000, began by providing services from 7 to 9 p.m., seven days a week. The Olympia program found that what was most needed was recognizable faces (peer responders). Ogulewicz also pointed out the need to link the responder program to available social services, and that links to these services need to be established. She said that if the Town gave a contract for the responder program to an existing social service agency, it would decrease the need for a long training program. Sean Mangano added that the FY23 budget would be adjusted according to the needs for the program determined in FY22.

Councilor Sarah Swartz objected to the meager funding of the programs recommended by the CSWG. She said that CRESS came about because people are unhappy with traditional policing. She wants the public to be able to reach the alternative responders any time during the day. She also objected to Steinberg referring to police as “necessary for domestic violence” situations because police officers are known to be “more likely to abuse their families than the general public.” Bahl-Milne admonished participants, saying that the Town must take the perspectives of the police into account when changing how policing is done. However, she questioned why the current budget calls for increasing the number of police officers. She also stated that the Town needs both an Economic Development Director and a Director of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion.

In public comment, Zoe Crabtree said that the budget shows a lack of understanding of and commitment to the CSWG recommendations. She has heard Councilors express the belief that CSWG could be appeased by hiring a person of color for the Police Department, and noted that the the proposed hiring of two more officers indicates that the Town is anticipating that CRESS might fail. She noted, “The CSWG has put together a plan to reduce the police force over the next five years. What you are saying is not what they are proposing.”

Fort River Sixth Graders Sponsor Resolution To Protect Western Massachusetts Forests and Wildlife
Eleanor Rasche and Macey Pariseau, students in Tim Austin’s sixth-grade class, sponsored a resolution urging passage of Massachusetts House Bills 912 and 1002, which urge protection of forests and wildlife management areas. Councilor Cathy Schoen suggested that the resolution include the content of the bills referred to, and the students were willing to add this information, but then the resolution would have to go back to the Governance, Operation and Legislation Committee (GOL) of the Town Council for clearance. Since the bills are up for discussion at the State House at the end of the month, it would be difficult to get the resolution passed by the full Council in time. The vote was unanimous to approve the resolution and to forward it to Governor Charlie Baker and members of the State House and Senate.

Council Supports HR40, US House of Representatives and Senate Bill: Commission To Study And Develop Reparation Proposals For African-Americans Act 
The Amherst African Heritage Reparations Coalition sponsored a resolution in support of the bill put forth in the U.S. House and Senate recommending a study of remedies for the injustices Americans of African descent have faced over the past 400 years. 

The bill also refers to February 25 as National Reparations Awareness Day.

Brewer questioned the reference to the National Reparations Awareness Day, as she was not aware of its creation. She requested that it be removed from this Resolution and added as a separate resolution prior to February 25, 2022. The paragraph referring to National Reparations Awareness Day was removed and the motion passed 11-1-1 with DuMont voting no and Pam abstaining.

Implications of Ending the Governor’s State of Emergency
Governor Baker has lifted the State of Emergency as of 12:01 a.m.on Tuesday, June 15. This has implications for many measures instituted during the pandemic. For the Town, the ending of the order would require government meetings to be held in person in Town buildings and would stop outdoor sales of alcohol, among other provisions. The State Legislature is proposing bills to extend many of these provisions, possibly indefinitely.

Bockelman said that all Town buildings will be fully open by June 15, with the exception of the libraries and the Bangs Center, where vaccine clinics are still being held. Brewer felt that remote meetings should be allowed until at least September 1. She said there should be consistency between committees, not having some held on Zoom and others in person.

Hanneke said she would like all meetings to be in person after June 15. Since public participation has been much higher with remote meetings, Griesemer said she wants to see if the Town can integrate remote public comment, even if the meetings are in person. Brewer agreed, saying that she can’t accept that “if you can’t be there in person, you can’t give a public comment.” She said we must incorporate what we’ve learned during the pandemic about increasing public access. She said that other states have allowed remote meetings for years, and if it is possible, the Town should continue them until Labor Day.Schoen also voiced a preference for allowing remote meetings until September, especially because the Elementary School Building Committee meets at 7:30 a.m., and it would be difficult for an out-of-town contractor to attend in person. DuMont asked whether it violates confidentiality to ask people if they are vaccinated before they attend in person meetings. Bockelman wasn’t sure. 

The Council did not reach a decision on preference and will wait for guidance from the State.

Planning Department Presents Proposed Revisions to Supplemental Dwelling Bylaw
Planners Christine Brestrup and Ben Breger presented the Planning Department’s recommendations on updating the regulations for Supplemental Dwellings, first by renaming the Bylaw “Accessory Dwelling Units” to conform with conventional terminology. This proposal had previously been endorsed by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) of the Town Council and the Planning Board. The new bylaw recommends increasing the maximum size of accessory dwelling units from 850 square feet to 1,000 square feet and allowing the Building Commissioner to approve most ADUs without approval of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) unless a detached unit is more than 50 percent of the size of the existing structure. This new process would streamline the approval process. Abutters would only need to be notified if a special permit from the ZBA was required. One of the two units would have to be owner occupied but this could be the ADU).

DuMont felt it was not fair that owners of larger houses could build ADUs without a special permit, but owners of smaller houses would need a Special Permit for the same size ADU if it is  more than 50 percent the size of the primary dwelling. She also wants the bylaw to specify sustainable features in any new construction. Bahl-Milne agreed that owners of smaller houses should not be “penalized with extra expense and time” for the same size project. Obtaining a Special Permit through the ZBA typically takes 6 to 12 weeks, as opposed to 2 or 3 through the Building Commissioner.

The matter was referred back to the CRC and Planning Board. Those bodies are required to hold a public hearing before the matter can be passed by the Council. Ross pointed out that the Council will need a legal opinion about the number of votes needed to pass the bylaw change. (Some zoning bylaws now require a majority vote instead of a two-thirds vote, according to new State laws.)

The proposed amendment to the Converted Dwelling bylaw suggested by Schreiber was referred to the Planning Department for revision and was removed from the agenda of this meeting.

Changes to the Public Way
Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring presented plans to raise the pavement at the intersection of McClellan and North Pleasant Streets for traffic calming and add two crosswalks to permit safer access to Kendrick Park . This would be largely paid for by money left over from the funds allocated for the playground at the park. He also said that a consultant recommended that the portion of North Pleasant Street near the park be made one-way, going north, to allow construction of a sidewalk and parking along the street. Mooring said the latter proposals are not being entertained now, but are presented as possible future changes.

Mooring also presented a plan to connect the multi-use path that has been constructed along East Hadley Road with Groff Park. This would involve widening the sidewalks. The crosswalks would be updated and the bus shelters redone.

Both of the above proposals were approved 12-0-0 with Steinberg absent.

Elementary School Building Committee Receive Favorable Report
Schoen reported that the ESBC received a favorable review from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, so they will be able to start the feasibility study. The committee hopes to follow an aggressive timeline. The MSBA was pleased with the net zero goal for the building.

Town Manager Report
The full report is reprinted in this issue.

Bockelman announced that the DPW will be fixing crosswalks throughout the downtown area in the coming weeks. He announced that the chiller at Fort River School was not working properly, resulting in the early dismissal of students on several hot days. The spray park at Groff Park has opened and has been widely used.

Town Hall has opened and will be up to normal capacity next week.

There will be no Town-sponsored festivities for July 4. Construction at the Kendrick Park Playground has been delayed while the Town waits for the granite for the edging walls. As required by the State grant, construction needs to be largely completed by the end of the month.

The meeting adjourned at 10:24 p.m. The next Council meeting will be June 21.

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