Part 2 of the Financial Indicators and Town Council meeting of November 15, 2021
This meeting took place on Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
All councilors were in attendance.
The proposed FY 2023 budget includes an additional $300,000 beyond the 2.5% increases allotted to the town operating budget, the elementary schools, and the libraries. The $300,000 is to be added to a $450,000 grant from the Department of Public Health and $250,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund the Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program. The program is slated to be operational, though probably at a reduced level, in February 2022.
In order to create the CRESS program and the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as recommended by the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) whose report was accepted by the council on October 25,2021 , Town Manager Paul Bockelman proposed the creation of two new department at Town Hall (see here and here). Reorganization of town agencies is discussed under Section 6.3 of the Amherst Home Rule Charter, which states that the Council must approve any recommendations on reorganization proposed by the Town Manager within 60 days and after a public forum held within 30 days of the proposal. The DEI department is allotted $250,000 in the FY2023 budget.
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) suggested that the creation of the DEI Department and the CRESS program be referred to the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) Committee with a public forum to be held within 30 days and a vote at the second council meeting after that. If there is no vote within 60 days, the reorganization plan goes into effect automatically. TSO Chair Evan Ross (District 4) said the committee can hold a public forum on December 9 and make a recommendation to the council by January 11, 2022 to meet the 60-day deadline.
George Ryan (District 3) said there are budgetary implications to creating 12 new positions (10 in the CRESS program and two for the Department of DEI) and two new departments, so he thought both the Governance, Operations, and Legislation (GOL) Committee, which he chairs, and the Finance Committee should also review the plans. But Ross pointed out that although the GOL and the Finance Committee can give recommendations to TSO, the council cannot change the proposals; only the Town Manager can modify them.
Alisa Brewer (at large) said, “This ship has sailed. The town and the Town Manager have already made this commitment. It is going to happen. Are there modifications we can suggest to the Town Manager? Yes. But there is no reason to refer it to finance.”
Ryan reiterated his concerns about not getting input from the Finance Committee. He said there are lots of questions raised by the creation of these programs. Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) also wanted the Finance Committee to discuss the matter. Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) said the committee would bring it up at the November 16 meeting and send comments to TSO. He also was concerned about ongoing funding for these departments after the first few years.
Bockelman said he was working on job descriptions and doing outreach for the DEI director and the CRESS responders, but no hiring will occur until the council approves the reorganization plan.
In the earlier discussion at the Financial Indicators meeting, School Committee member Peter Demling also questioned the $300,000 allocated for the CRESS program added to the operational budget, 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 Chair Allison McDonald agreed that this differential funding was “awkward”. She said that the school and library budgets are proposed to be increased by 2.5%, while the town will receive an increase of 3.7%.
Finance Director Sean Mangano indicated that it is not unusual for the budget of one department to be increased more than the others, but more discussion between the boards and committees will be needed as the budgeting process proceeds. The Finance Committee will establish guidelines for the budget by the end of the year, and then the town will develop the FY2023 budget by May 1, 2022.
A public forum on the creation of the Department of DEI and the CRESS program will be held at the December 9 TSO meeting.