Council Approves $1.5 Million For Repair Of High School Track

Pitting and patching dominate the surface of the Amherst High School track. Photo: Art Keene

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council May 2, 2022

Highlights

  • Regional school budget approved, despite controversy over funding for repair of the high school track.
  • Budget includes $1.5M for track repair.
  • Council receives initial presentation of the FY23 budget. Public forum is set for May 16 at 5 p.m., and Cuppa Joe with Finance Director Sean Mangano for May 20 at 10:30 a.m. on Zoom https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/93952241687#success 
  • Increase in Rental Registration permit costs approved.
  • South Amherst school being evaluated as a possible temporary site for Amherst Media.
  • Council president requests federal funding to offset increased fundraising needs for the Jones Library renovation.

This meeting was held both in person and on Zoom and was recorded.

Present
Councilor Anika Lopes (District 4) was absent. All other councilors were present
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Six members of the public attended virtually.

Announcements And Proclamations
Public forum on the new elementary school building: May 5 from 6:30 to 9. It will be recorded and available for viewing on the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) web page

Public forum on the FY23 budget: May 16 at 5 p.m. prior to the regular council meeting.

May was proclaimed Asian American and Pacific Islander month. Sponsors of the proclamation are councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) and Michelle Miller (District 1) and the Human Rights Commission, Richard Chu, Leo Hwang, Yasmin Padamsee Forbes, Minakhshi Bharath, and Millann Kang. A celebration will be announced at a later day.

May 1–5 was proclaimed Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Sponsors are councilors Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Anika Lopes (District 4), Hanneke, and Miller. The community sponsor is Sarah Swartz.

Regional School Budget Approved Despite Controversy Over Track
A public hearing on the proposed regional school budget was held at the April 25 Council meeting, and then the budget was discussed at the Finance Committee meeting the following day. Most of the questions raised were regarding the capital part of the budget, not the operating budget, specifically about the repair of the high school track. The controversy is summarized in the Finance Committee report

Superintendent Mike Morris and School Finance Director Doug Slaughter were present to answer questions from the councilors. The budget must be approved by all four towns in the region. Leverett, which held its town meeting last weekend, did not put the track as a separate item on its warrant, which means that in accepting their budget, they also approved the track repair. Pelham is holding its town meeting on May 14, and Shutesbury on May 21.

The proposed budget authorizes a debt authorization of $1.5 million to repair the high school track, which has been unable to host home meets since 2018 due to its poor condition. A previous study financed with Community Preservation Act funds recommended spending $4.7 million to reorient and widen the track and to improve the drainage of the playing field in its center, replacing the sod with artificial turf. The playing field is often unusable because it is poorly drained and oriented so one team is playing into the sun. 

Morris admitted that the larger project is much preferable,  but the regional school committee sensed resistance from all four towns to allocating the larger amount  and all felt the project could not be delayed another year. The $1.5 million would allow only resurfacing and repair of the track. Amherst would still not be able to host regional track meets that require an eight-lane track. Nor will it be able to host playoff soccer and field hockey on the inner field. Replacing the grass with turf would lower maintenance costs and permit more sports to use the field.

Morris said that at least this lower amount would permit something to be done to improve the track. There would be a fundraising effort to enable the larger project if most of the additional funds were raised by January 16, 2023. Funds could come from CPA funds, American Rescue Plan Act funds, grants, and the community. 

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said she would vote against the budget because if the smaller project is done now, the inner field will not be fixed for a generation, when the track needs repair again. President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said a “yes” vote tells the other towns that 

we support this and opens the possibility of doing the larger project. “A “no” vote gets us nothing,” she said.

Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) said she felt like the council is “between a rock and a hard place.” She said that when she was on the CPA committee, the committee said it would only fund the larger project. She added, “I’m not happy with where we sit.” She and Morris noted that the larger project is not only better for the schools but for the community as a whole. 

Dorothy Pam objected to the situation of having to vote on a project that is suboptimal and will actually prevent the correct project from being done for many years. She suggested that reorienting the track, but using grass to cover the playing field might lower the costs of the project by $800,000. But Morris reiterated the advantage of artificial turf and didn’t feel grass was a viable option, an opinion shared by the athletic director and the DPW. Andy Steinberg (at large) said that voting down the $1.5 million will not permit any renovation of the track until at least another year.

Devlin Gauthier said, “I don’t believe in protest votes, especially when the well-being of students is at stake,” but she hopes the regional school committee will report back to the council on the state of fundraising in the fall, and that it never puts the council in this position again.

The vote to approve the regional school budget with the $1.5 million project for the track passed 10-1-1, with Hanneke voting no and Pam abstaining. The discussion took up over 75 minutes of the meeting.

Town Budget Introduced
Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Finance Director Sean Mangano gave an initial presentation of the proposed FY23 town budget. Although the full document is almost 300 pages, Bockelman summarized the essential points in his presentation. He stated that the town is in an excellent financial state with strong reserves in anticipation of the upcoming large capital projects. He said all departments were held to a 2.5% increase over the FY22 budget, but $300,000 was added to the municipal budget to fund the new CRESS community responders program. He emphasized that all allocations were evaluated through the lens of sustainability and equity and that the budget aimed to maintain core services.

Mangano suggested that residents go to the Engage Amherst site to review specifics about the budget and to ask questions of the Finance Department. There will be a public forum on the budget at 5 p.m. on May 16 prior to the regular council meeting. The Finance Committee will be meeting twice weekly in May, discussing the budget with town departments. The Cuppa Joe with Mangano has been rescheduled to May 20 at 10:30 on Zoom. The council will vote on the budget in June.

The proposed budget does not include the $52,000 requested by the school committee to fund full-time art and technology teachers at each elementary school next year, as this would be a greater than the 2.5% increase over FY22, but the council could increase the school’s allocation by a 2/3 vote. The Finance Committee will discuss the elementary school budget at their May 12 meeting.

Adding in the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, makes the FY23 budget 5.1% greater than FY22. 

Allocations from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, ARPA, are listed on page 269 of the budget and require  quarterly reports to be posted. Michele Miller (District 1) asked if the hoped-for Common Share Food Coop would be entitled to technical assistance from ARPA funds to enable it to develop its business plan. Mangano said the BID will open an application portal for ARPA funds within the coming weeks.

Ellisha Walker (District 5) asked if there are plans to support families most impacted by Covid, in addition to businesses. Mangano said the town has created a “resident emergency aid program”, using ARPA funds and administered through Family Outreach of Amherst and Amherst Survival Center to help individuals and families.

Rental Registration Permit Costs To Rise
The Finance Committee and the Town Services and Outreach committee both recommended increasing the costs of rental registration permits for next year. Fees for owner-occupied properties with a maximum of six units will remain at $100. All other rental properties will be charged $250 a year for a permit. Inspections, usually only conducted to respond to a complaint, would cost $150. Although there was some discussion about the wording of the motion to adopt these fees, the motion passed unanimously.

Jennifer Taub (District 3) reminded the council that almost all of the 1,400 in the population growth of Amherst from the 2010 census to the 2020 census was due to the construction of the Commonwealth College dorms during that interval. In the past 10 years, UMass increased its enrollment by 4,000, which means that the population of Amherst has actually decreased for non-students. She stressed the need to maintain Amherst’s year-round population and the sufficient availability of  affordable family housing.

Public Comment
Margaret Sawyer and Grover Wehman Brown commented on a house on Station Road that has been abandoned for the past 10 years with unpaid taxes of $80,000. The house is now on the market for $175,000 and has generated a lot of interest from realtors. They asked about the town’s policy on abandoned properties. Sawyer noted the irony that the back taxes owed are almost exactly what the schools requested for full-time arts and technology teachers. Bockelman said that the buyer of an abandoned property has to pay the outstanding taxes prior to taking ownership.

Adam Finke and Adam Klem voiced support for decriminalizing plant medicine use in Amherst. Both noted that plant medicine had improved their depression and that traditional medicine had not done so. Somerville, Northampton, Easthampton, and other Massachusetts towns have taken such measures. The resolution protecting adult access to plant medicine was taken off the agenda for this meeting, but will be introduced at a later date.

President’s And Town Manager’s Reports
Griesemer reported that she and Bockelman recently met with State Representative Mindy Domb and State Senator Jo Comerford to advocate for an increase in reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for the new elementary school. They discussed the issue of the allocated cost per square foot being too low. Also, although the MSBA encourages sustainability features and even offers seminars on them, it does not reimburse anything to schools for solar panels. In addition, by allowing only 8% of total costs to be used for site work, it does not pay for  geothermal heating.

Steinberg pointed out that the allowed cost per square foot was slightly increased last year, and is not likely to be increased again. Also, the MSBA appears to want to fund more projects, at a lower level for each, rather than fewer projects at a higher level for each.

Griesemer also wrote a letter on behalf of the entire council to our federal representative and senators requesting an additional $1.1 million in federal funds to help defray the fundraising needs for the Jones Library renovation and expansion. She justified the letter by noting that the last council had approved the project by an 11-2 vote. She said that because the state and town contributions are fixed, other funds will be needed to meet the escalating costs of the project.

In response to Walker’s question regarding the status of Amherst Media finding temporary headquarters, Bockelman said that the building commissioner will evaluate the South Amherst school, which is currently unused, as a possible site. The full town manager’s report can be read here

The meeting was adjourned at 10:18 p.m. The next Town Council meeting will be on May 16, with a public forum on the budget at 5 p.m. and the regular meeting at 6:30.

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