Report On The Financial Indicators Meeting, Public Forum On the Budget, and Regular Town Council Meeting, November 15,2021
This meeting took place on Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here. The extended discussion of Community Safety Working Group recommendations are reported in a separate article Indy link.
All councilors were present, although Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) left at 10:30 p.m.
- The Finance Department shared financial indicators for the FY 2023 budget with the Town Council, the Elementary School Committee, and the Jones Library Trustees with feedback from the public.
- Finance Director Sean Mangano presented plans for use of the $12 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds over the next four years.
- Extra free cash is slated to be used to complete the dog park and to improve roads and sidewalks.
- The council extended the contract for the electronic information signs downtown for another year.
- The Surveillance Technology Bylaw was passed unanimously with revisions.
- The referral to the Community Resources Committee of the Temporary Moratorium on Large Solar Installations will be reconsidered at the November 22 council meeting.
Financial Indicators Meeting
Town Councilors, Elementary School Committee members, and Jones Library Trustees, along with the three nonvoting members of the Finance Committee, Bernie Kubiac, Matt Holloway, and Bob Hegner, heard a presentation by the Finance Department on the state of Amherst’s finances and the projections for next year’s budget.
Finance Director Sean Mangano, Comptroller Sonia Aldrich, Assistant Comptroller Holly Bowser, and Town Collector Jennifer LaFountain teamed up for the financial indicators presentation which can be viewed here. In summary, Amherst is on solid financial ground coming out of the pandemic. The town received an excellent bond rating and is building back its capital funds, after cutting back during the pandemic.
Although economic growth was fairly flat for the past 10 years until 2020, when it decreased to 4.7% and in 2021 to 4.1%, there are new residential projects on the horizon with the upcoming purchase of Hickory Ridge, the development of the East Street School, and mixed-use buildings on 462 Main Street and South University Drive, as well as the supportive studio apartments at 132 Northampton Road. All of these will add to the property tax base.
Amherst is below peer communities in the Commonwealth and the region as far as operating expenses per capita, which includes the student population. Over the past 10 years there has been an increase of 11.8 town positions. Reserves are now 27% of the operating budget, because of federal CARES Act funds and salary savings from vacant positions. Optimally, the town should have about 15% of the budget in reserves, but Mangano said the plan was to increase the reserves in anticipation of borrowing for upcoming capital projects.
Next year, Amherst plans to add two new departments to Town Hall, the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and the Community Responders (CRESS) program for alternative policing, and other departments have had to adopt new responsibilities due to COVID. The DEI would have two positions and a budget of $250,000 and the CRESS program would eventually have 10 positions. The town recently received a Department of Public Health grant of $450,000 to be combined with $250,000 from the American Rescue Program Act (ARPA) and $300,000 in the town budget to support the CRESS program.
The Finance Department projects a 2.5% increase in property tax, $600,000 in new growth, flat state aid, and an increase in water and sewer funds, bringing them back to normal levels. A debt exclusion override is not anticipated for 2023. The 2023 budget recommends a 2.5% increase for all departments plus $300,000 to begin the CRESS program.
The budget is expected to have a $685,000 shortfall. The Finance Committee will spend the next two months to develop budget guidelines.
Questions From Elected Officials
Library Trustee President Austin Sarat asked what effects inflation or a default on the federal level could have on the town budget. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the town’s bond rating is a reflection of not only the town, but also the financial health of the state and the federal government. He said, “If the feds have a problem, then we do, too.” Mangano added that the town needs to absorb increases in capital costs, such as the increased cost of vehicles.
School Committee member Peter Demling questioned the $300,000 added to the operational budget for the CRESS program, when the schools do not get an extra sum for their programs. He said it is “a weird look” for the town budget to get such a large increase compared to the schools. School Committee President Allison McDonald agreed that this differential funding was “awkward”. Mangano indicated that more discussion was needed.
Jones Library Trustee Alex Lefebvre pointed out that the town pays 78% of the salary of library staff, and the library funds the rest. She made a plea for the town to fully fund library salaries, since library staff are town employees. She said the salaries eat up much of the library’s state aid, which the library could use for other things such as programming. Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) asked if the minimum wage for the part-time library workers has been raised to $15 an hour. Mangano said no, the wages are not yet at that level.
Councilor Pat DeAngelis (District 2) was concerned that ARPA funds are being used to support increased staffing in the fire department and the health department. She said the increased staffing levels should be in the ongoing budgets.
The public forum on the budget began at 7:30 p.m. There were about 30 members of the public present. Ash Hartwell, representing the views of the League of Women Voters of Amherst, said that “effectively addressing issues of racial equity and injustice are central to this community and Amherst should be an example to other communities.” He added that the initiatives originating from the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) are important and need to get started well, which will require increased investment in them at the outset.
Michele Miller and Jamileh Jemison, co-chairs of the African Heritage Reparations Assembly(AHRA) requested an annual transfer of 20% of free cash as well as all cannabis tax receipts as well as some of the ARPA funding for their initiatives. They requested funding for recreation, transportation, housing, and a youth empowerment center aimed at the BIPOC community. The group also plans to apply to the Community Preservation Act Committee to fund a program highlighting the history of Blacks in Amherst.
Four members of Sunrise Movement Amherst spoke against the cuts to the school budgets when the police budget is being increased. They also said they support full funding of the CRESS program and other CSWG recommendations.
Nick Chirekos of the Amherst Fire Department made an impassioned plea for an increase in the number of firefighters. He said staffing in the department is dangerously low, so low that Amherst must continually rely on neighboring communities to meet demands. He said firefighters “are burning out; they are paying with their physical and mental health.” He added that the four positions paid by CARES and ARPA funding are not for additional positions, but just to maintain the minimum staffing of 45 positions.
Other comments echoed the views of the four Sunrise students that the schools and CSWG programs should be funded by decreasing the police budgets. Community members Lydia Irons, Allegra Clark, Isolda Ortega-Bustamante, and Town Councilor-elect Ellisha Walker supported this view. Ortega-Bustamante pointed to the increased mental health needs of students due to the pandemic. CSWG co-chair Brianna Owen also spoke of the need to pay stipends to the new Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and Resident Oversight Board.
The Public Forum ended at 8:16.
Proposed Spending Of American Rescue Plan (ARPA) Funds
Mangano stated that, when determining how to best use the federal funds supplied through the ARPA program, the town tried to look through the lens of diversity and equity to address populations most affected by COVID. Some funding would be for programs expected to be completed by 2026, and others would be transition funding for programs expected to be ongoing and self-supporting in the future. The town held four listening sessions for the public in October and received about 20 comments on the Engage Amherst website on the best use of the approximately $12 million expected to be awarded to Amherst. Some suggestions were to fund economic development, fire and police, food and housing security, and local artists.
The current plans for transitional programs are to supply funding over two to three years for:
- An economic empowerment office
- The Survival Center food delivery program
- The four EMS workers that have been funded by the CARES Act over the past two years (to be permanently phased into the FY 2025 budget)
Plans for public health and transitional programs are:
- The ambassadors program, which would be extended from the downtown area to underrepresented populations
- Premium pay (additional compensation for staff who risked their health to come to work during the pandemic)
- A Youth Empowerment Center ( to be funneled through the recreation department)
- A grants administrator to oversee the use of the ARPAfunds
- A town-wide preschool to be funded over four years, after which it would be expected to be supported by fees and other grant programs.
- Downtown development with $300,000 to the BID and $100,000 for small business startup grants
- $500,000 for sustainability
Mangano was not sure if ARPA money can be used to augment the reparations stabilization fund, but it may be able to be used for reparations themselves.
Ongoing programs, which will be added to the town budget in coming years, are:
- The Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department to be in the FY2023 operating budget
- Translation services to be added to the FY24 budget
- Four EMS/firefighter positions to be included in FY25
- Transition costs for moving the sixth grade to the middle school, including readying the building and covering additional operating costs and rent to the regional school system and use of regional school staff (FY24?)
Cathy Schoen (District 1) suggested creating a resident emergency fund for residents with unanticipated job or housing losses. Hanneke questioned why town ARPA funds were being used for the transition of the sixth grade to the middle school, when the elementary schools will receive their own ARPA funds of about $1.5 million. Mangano replied that the elementary schools plan to use their ARPA money for programming, primarily for mental health needs, so the town is funding the non-programmatic side. With the move of the sixth grade being delayed a year, this money can be held to see if it is needed.
George Ryan (District 3) spoke for using more of the funds targeted for housing to promote home ownership and not only rentals. Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) hoped that some of the money aimed at homelessness could be used to create a year-round permanent shelter. Mangano said that he has been working with the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust to address these issues.
The Finance Department will develop a final plan for use of the ARPA funds to submit to the state by the end of the month. Specific programs to be supported, such as those for sustainability and housing, will be developed over the coming months with input from the relative committees.
Use Of Free Cash
The town has an excess of free cash due to reimbursements from the state for some COVID programs and decreased salary costs because of vacant positions. Mangano proposed that $75,000 be used to complete the dog park on the old south landfill off of Belchertown Road to meet unanticipated costs for protecting the cap on the landfill. The Department of Environmental Protection requires the cap to be protected in perpetuity. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek pointed out that the majority of the money for the dog park was raised through a $200,000 grant from the Stanton Foundation, Community Preservation Act grants, and private donations, but additional funds are needed to complete the project.
Councilors Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont (District 5) questioned the funding for the dog park. Bahl-Milne suggested that the council have a conversation about priorities in the near future. Bockelman said that ordinarily an expenditure such as this would go through the Joint Capital Planning Committee, but this is a special situation because the town has free cash it can use for this one-time expenditure.
Hanneke raised questions about the $1.2 million slated for road and sidewalk repair while the town is not dealing with other major capital needs such as a new ambulance, a ladder truck, the roof and windows at Crocker Farm school, and a comfort station at the Kiwanis park. Bockelman said that repairs for roads and sidewalks have long been stressed as a priority by the community and the council, so the town wanted to devote an infusion of cash to repair them. The problem with ordering new vehicles is that there is a long wait to receive them, so it would not be appropriate to allot the free cash currently available to that purpose. He did say that a new ambulance should be delivered soon and that a new pumper truck is scheduled to be ordered, but will take 14 months to be delivered.
Alisa Brewer (at large) pointed out that the town still needs a ladder truck, since the existing one is 30 years old. Finance Committee chair Andy Steinberg (at large) noted that ambulances are usually funded through the fees received for EMS services. A new ladder truck would cost over $1 million, so would need to be bonded—to be paid through borrowing, not with cash.
The use of free cash funds was referred to the Finance Committee which will give its recommendations at a future council meeting.
Downtown Soofa Signs Renewed For A Year
Although Councilors Dorothy Pam (District 3) and DuMont said they’ve heard misgivings regarding the appearance and utility of the three digital information signs in the downtown area, IT Director Brianna Sunryd pointed out that they have been used to display transit times, public health information, emergency alerts, job openings, and promotions for local businesses. The town has no analytic data on how much they are used (although the associated charging stations have been useful to residents). Use of the signs also seems to have increased since QR codes were added. Sunryd requested a one-year extension for the signs at a total cost of $6,000 from existing funds. The first year was provided by CARES funds. Sunryd said that there were some complaints about the poor weathering of the vinyl coating on the signs when they were first installed last December, but she has heard no complaints since that problem was remedied.
The council voted 12-1 to keep the signs for another year. DuMont wanted to delay the vote until a subsequent meeting in order to permit more input from the public, so she voted no.
Surveillance Technology Bylaw Approved With Modification
At the last council meeting, councilors expressed discomfort with the requirement of the Surveillance Technology Bylaw that the council create an annual report on the use of surveillance technology by the town. The bylaw was amended to require a report only on request from the council or town manager. With that amendment, the bylaw passed unanimously (12-0, with Bahl-Milne absent).
Temporary Moratorium On Large Solar Installations To Be Reconsidered On November 22
Steinberg said he was recently made aware of MGL 40A, section 3, which sets limits on what communities can do regarding solar energy systems: they cannot unreasonably limit construction except when it would affect public health, safety, and welfare. The council received an opinion from KP law shortly before this meeting, that because the moratorium was temporary, it is allowable under state law. The opinion was received too late to be discussed at this meeting, but Steinberg wanted the council’s decision to refer the moratorium to the Community Resources Committee to be reconsidered at the November 22 Council meeting. This passed 11-1 with Ross voting no and Bahl-Milne absent. The Planning Board is holding a public hearing on the moratorium on December 1.
Council Resolutions For Small Business Saturday And Merry Days
The council proclaimed November 27 as Small Business Saturday and December 3 and 4 as Merry Days with the lighting of the Merry Maple and gift card promotions offered by the BID and Chamber.
The meeting adjourned at 11:24 p.m. The council will meet again on November 22 at 7 p.m.