Council Recommends Increase In Parking Permit Fees, Reaffirms Decision For In-Person Meetings

Surface lot above the single subterranean level of the Boltwood Garage. The finance committee has recommended raising the cost of renting a private parking space on the lower level of the garage from $1000/year to $1100/year. Photo: Google Maps

Report On The Town Council Meeting January 24, 2022 

This meeting was held in person and over Zoom and was recorded.  That recording can be viewed here.

Highlights

  • Town staff recommends changes to parking policies with an increase in permit fees.
  • Council meetings will continue to be held in Town Hall, with opportunity for remote participation.
  • Eversource presents plans for adding new utility poles.
  • Health director anticipates COVID case count to rise with the return of students but to decline in spring. Public health measures remain in effect.
  • Council endorses proclamations for Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and Lunar New Year.
  • Community Forum for the new elementary school scheduled for February 3.
  • Charge for the African Heritage Reparation Assembly was extended until June 2023.
  • Town Manager Report

Present
Participating remotely: Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), and Ellisha Walker (At large) 

At Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Michele Miller (District 1), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Andy Steinberg and Mandi Jo Hanneke (At large)

Staff: Paul Bockelman, Town Manager, Athena O’Keeffe, Clerk of the Council, and Sean Hannon, IT Director

Staff Recommends Changes To Downtown Parking
In 2016, the town formed the Downtown Parking Working Group (DPWG) to recommend improvements to parking in the downtown area. The group engaged the consulting services of Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates and gave their final report in the fall of 2019. Recently Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Finance Director Sean Mangano, and Town Collector Jen LaFountain compiled the recommendations of the DPWG and suggestions from staff members to revise parking in the downtown. These suggestions comprise a first draft for the council to consider. 

The DPWG report was completed prior to COVID-19. Since March 2020, there has been a 50% decrease in revenue from parking so there are not adequate resources to hire a parking supervisor as was suggested by the DPWG. However, the town has formed an internal leadership group of staff from key departments to track utilization of lots, consider upgrades of meters and kiosks, and improve signage and lighting. This group will meet regularly.

The staff also noted that the permit fees for downtown residents and workers are too low. The cost of a permit is $25 per year and has not increased in over 10 years. For comparison, Northampton charges $45 per month and UMass charges between $300 and $400 for the year, depending on the lot

The staff also noted that the permit fees for downtown residents and workers are too low. The cost of a permit is $25 per year and has not increased in over 10 years. For comparison, Northampton charges $45 per month and UMass charges between $300 and $400 for the year, depending on the lot. The group recommended increasing the permit fees gradually over three years, beginning with a cost of $50 for 2022-2023. There was also discussion of distinguishing between vehicles registered in Amherst and those registered out of town, since those registered to Amherst pay excise tax to the town, while out of town vehicles do not. According to Mangano, 75% of parking permits are purchased by nonresidents. 

The finance department also recommended increasing the cost for the 20 reserved spaces in the lower level of the Boltwood garage from $1,000 per year to $1,100. These spaces are for people who work or live downtown. Cathy Schoen (District 1) suggested that these spaces be reserved only from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. rather than 24 hours a day.

In addition, the recommendations include high visibility and consistent signage and updating the parking section of the town website, possibly with adding the ability to notify drivers of available parking spaces. The parking group will also determine the impact of downtown development on parking and discuss making privately-owned lots available to the public during off hours.

In responding to a question from Andy Steinberg (At large), Mangano said that it will be up to the contractor for the Jones Library as to whether the North Prospect lot behind CVS will be used for staging during the construction at the library. 

Further discussion of parking policies and permit rates was referred to the Town Services and Outreach Committee for report back to the entire council by March 7.

Council Meetings Will Continue To Be Held in Town Hall
Schoen again raised the topic of meeting format for council meetings. At the January 3 meeting, in which all councilors except Dorothy Pam (District 3) were present in person, councilors voted 9-3-1 to meet in person with the option for remote attendance. Schoen said she had received feedback from constituents saying that it was hard to tell who was speaking and that the council was not modeling responsible behavior during the pandemic. 

The vote was 11-2 in favor of reconsidering the January 3 decision (Steinberg and Mandi Jo Hanneke, also At large voting no). The 45-minute discussion had Hanneke again asserting, without citing evidence, that “since April, our children have been attending school in person, with little evidence of COVID spread at school.” She also said that microphone usage by councilors was improving, and that the council will do better if more councilors are in the room.

 Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe said that she has children who are too young to be vaccinated, adding, “This is the most exposure I have, but it is my job.” Sean Hannon agreed that the in-person meetings were more risky for him and added that hybrid meetings were more challenging for technical staff.

Anika Lopes (District 4), speaking from home, worried about taking the choice of remote participation away and wondered how the staff felt about having to be in Town Hall for meetings. Bockelman said the staff would do whatever the council decided on, but those making presentations appreciated being able to do so remotely, so as not to have to spend several hours waiting to make their presentation. Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe said that she has children who are too young to be vaccinated, adding, “This is the most exposure I have, but it is my job.” Sean Hannon agreed that the in-person meetings were more risky for him and added that hybrid meetings were more challenging for technical staff.

Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), speaking from home, wanted to know if councilors participating remotely felt left out. Ellisha Walker (District 5), also at home, said she would prefer to be in person, but remote participation was safest for her family. She said she did not feel left out. Michele Miller (District 1) objected to this topic being added to the agenda without much advance notice or a memo being placed in the packet.

Dorothy Pam (District 3) said that spacing around the front table in the Town Room was not adequate for social distancing, and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) felt it was unfair to require staff to be placed at extra risk because the councilors want to meet in person. Both Pam and DeAngelis were participating remotely.

The vote to continue in person council meetings until April 1 was 6-6-1 (Steinberg, Hanneke, Bahl-Milne, Lopes, Miller, and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5)) voted yes with Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) abstaining. With the tie vote, Griesemer changed her vote to yes, and the measure passed. Griesemer stated that the hybrid format was getting easier for her to manage, but shortly thereafter, all sound was lost for those in Town Hall for about 5 minutes.

Council Supports Creation Of State Municipal And Public Building Authority
Noting the difficulty municipalities are having in financing the replacement of aging public buildings, such as police and fire stations, Griesemer drafted a letter in support of pending legislation creating a statewide Municipal and Public Building Authority that could provide state funds for these projects . The council voted unanimously to support this legislation.

Eversource Proposes New Poles
The need for upgraded electrical service necessitated a plan for additional poles at various locations. Several representatives from Eversource presented these plans. The first proposal was for the placement of four new poles on the north landfill to enable the new solar project there to be hooked up to the grid. It was determined that these poles were not in the public way, so the easement could be approved by the town manager without council approval.

The council did approve an additional pole at 20 Triangle Street to service the renovations at the Emily Dickinson Museum. It also approved a pole at 76 Flat Hills Road to provide service to a new residence. Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring said the extra pole minimizes damage to shade trees, although the dense tree growth in the Flat Hills area does make it susceptible to power outages. In both the above approvals, several councilors voiced concern about adding so many new poles and wished to encourage consolidation of poles and more use of underground cables.

The public hearings for additional poles on Woodside Avenue to provide service to the new Amherst College Building being constructed on South Pleasant Street and to upgrade service to a private home at 46 Rolling Ridge were continued until February 7. Councilors were concerned about the number of poles on Woodside, and since Eversource plans to replace all of the poles in the near future, the council wanted to see if some could be consolidated. 

On Rolling Ridge, homeowner Jicheng Tang said several neighbors objected to having another wire crossing the road to upgrade the electrical service for his house. He said he would like the cable to be underground, but was informed at the meeting that Eversource was not responsible for providing the underground service and that Tang would need to pay the cost. Tang objected to having to cover the cost of underground service, so the decision about the possible new pole was delayed until February 7. If the service is underground, the council does not need to give permission.

Health Director Presents State Of COVID In Amherst
Health Director Jennifer Brown gave a presentation about the state of COVID-19 in town. She noted that 87% of Amherst residents are fully vaccinated, but the department is hoping to vaccinate more of the 5- to 11-year-olds. She said that statistics on COVID-19 cases are posted on the daily dashboards for the town, the colleges, and the schools. She anticipates an increase in cases when the college students return to town, although over 98% of them are vaccinated, but she hopes cases will decline in the spring. Until there is a decline in cases, public health measures of masking, vaccinations, and social distancing will remain in effect.

Council Proclamations
The council passed several proclamations at this meeting. Regarding the Martin Luther King Jr Day proclamation, DeAngelis stated that the King family requested no celebration of his birthday until federal voting rights legislation was passed. The family noted that, in many states, Black citizens have fewer rights than they did a year ago.

Lopes read the proclamation of Black History Month which will be opened with a flag raising ceremony on February 1 at 6 p.m. and will be commemorated with events throughout the month.

Hanneke read from the Lunar New Year proclamation for the beginning of the Year of the Tiger. The Chinese New Year will be marked by a flag raising ceremony on February 8 at 6 p.m.

African Heritage Reparations Assembly Extended Until June 2023
African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA) chair Miller requested an extension of the committee’s work until June 2023 in order to engage in robust community engagement, explore funding sources, and determine how to legally dispense reparations benefits. The extension was granted unanimously.

Town Manager Report
Bockelman’s full report can be read here. He stated that the new hybrid ambulance is now in service. He also noted that the town received a grant to promote public art and is now beginning a study of the needs of older residents to become an Age and Dementia Friendly Community.

He added that he hoped to put the North Amherst Library expansion out to bid in the next few weeks. And, in response to a question by Hanneke, said he would discuss changes in voting precincts due to redistricting with the Town Clerk. The new districting maps were accepted and went into effect on December 31, but the town is waiting for the new local census data to implement changes in polling places.

Schoen announced a community forum with DiNisco Design for the new elementary school on February 3 at 6:30 p.m. The building committee hopes to narrow down the options of renovation versus new construction and to determine the site of the school by March with final decisions by June. 

The meeting adjourned at 10:56 p.m. The next council meeting will be on February 7. The agenda will probably include conclusion of the Eversource pole discussion, the first reading of the proposed large-scale solar moratorium, Community Preservation Act recommendations, funding for fire trucks, and a first presentation of new floodplain maps. 

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