Finance Committee Discusses Disposition Of Town’s “Surplus Buildings”

Clubhouse at the Hickory Ridge Golf Course. Photo: Art Keene.

Report On The Meeting Of The Finance Committee, May 26, 2022

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here

Andy Steinberg (Chair), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Michele Miller (District 1), Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Ellisha Walker (at large)

Non-voting members: Bernie Kubiak, Bob Hegner, Matt Holloway

Other councilors: Jennifer Taub (District 3), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Dorothy Pam (District 3)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Sean Mangano (Finance Director), Sonia Aldrich (Comptroller)

The Finance Committee concluded its discussion of town-owned facilities, Health Services, Inspection Services, Senior Services, and Veterans’ Services.

Report On The State Of Town-Owned Facilities
Facilities Director Jeremiah LaPlante said the big focus of the FY23 facilities budget will be to replace the chiller at the police station. This will be accomplished with much of the funding being supplied by Mass Save. He noted that upgrades to building efficiency and energy source has resulted in a decrease in the town electrical bill. Cathy Schoen asked why the cost of utilities for the North Amherst Library is not in the budget. LaPlante replied that utilities are currently paid by the library, although this may change in the future.

LaPlante said that there have been improvements to the North Amherst Fire Station and the Bangs Center. The third floor of the Bangs Center is being remodeled for the CRESS program, and, with the Musante Health Center on the first floor, Bangs is becoming more and more of a service center and less of a community center.

In addition to the repairs at the police station, the facilities department will be tackling deferred maintenance and updating the reports on 12 of the town’s 63 public buildings as part of an effort to inventory the facilities and their conditions. LaPlante said he works with Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello to incorporate the town’s climate goals in all new projects.

Council President Lynn Griesemer opined that “people dump buildings on us [the town] and leave us with a maintenance challenge.” She asked rhetorically if the town should accept these buildings, which leads to the town having “a bunch of buildings badly in need of repair.” She said the town needs a policy to deal with “abandoned” town buildings.

In reference to buildings that are currently not being used (e.g. the South Amherst school,  the former Hitchcock Center, and the Hickory Ridge Clubhouse), Council President Lynn Griesemer opined that “people dump buildings on us [the town] and leave us with a maintenance challenge.” She asked rhetorically whether the town should own municipal buildings that are not maintained , and suggested that it can lead to the town having “a bunch of buildings badly in need of repair.” She said the town needs a policy to deal with buildings it has “abandoned.” Schoen agreed.

LaPlante said his department’s approach is to keep the major systems operable in unused buildings to avoid serious repairs later. Town Manager Paul Bockelman noted that buildings no longer used by the school department, as well buildings  at the old Hitchcock Center and at the newly purchased Hickory Ridge pose liabilities for the town. He was glad that the town was able to preserve the East Street school building, which will be used for housing, and that it is using the North Amherst school building for the Head Start program and storage. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek said the Hitchcock Center building was purchased over 50 years ago as part of one of the town’s first conservation areas. The building had been the “carriage house” for the Common School building, and lacks insulation. It also floods sometimes, and its use is restricted to conservation purposes. 

Non-voting member Bernie Kubiac agreed that there is “a place for a bulldozer” in dealing with some “surplus” buildings. He  asked why the town is keeping the South Amherst school. Ziomek responded  that although the south end of the school is not distinctive, the land is valuable and could be the site of something creative for the town.

Ellisha Walker commented that although some municipal properties might not be worth keeping, it might  be financially responsible to invest in adapting other buildings for new purposes.

Ziomek stressed that the decision to “mothball” some buildings is deliberate, but the town needs to get better at communicating its reasoning. Andy Steinberg said the Select Board had a surplus building policy to govern buildings no longer being  used, and he might bring that policy before the council, which might want to adopt it.

Health Department
Health Director Jennifer Brown gave an overview of the role of the Health Department and Board of Health. She noted that she is hoping to hire a public health nurse to fill the position, which has been vacant for the past 18 months. That position is listed as 0.8 equivalent, and she said she would like it to be full-time so that the nurse can do more outreach.

 Inspection Services
Building Commissioner Rob Morra said his department of 10 full-time employees and two part-time inspectors are catching up on inspections delayed during COVID and   inspections necessary for the new construction in town. In addition to inspections for privately owned structures, they conduct the electrical inspections of new buildings at UMass and the colleges.

The department will also implement the newly revised rental permitting program, and has instituted an on-line permit application for inspections to streamline the process and help with communications between applicants and the town. 

Senior Services
Director of Senior Services Haley Bolton noted that the Senior Center maintained services through the pandemic, but now that seniors are getting back together in person, there is a need for exercise space and a coffee café. Goals for the coming year are to better meet the needs of  BIPOC seniors and to restore transportation services. She said that, in addition to the two minivans, the Senior Center is working to acquire a retired PVTA handicap van to transport non-ambulatory seniors to appointments. She plans to use ARPA funds to pay the van drivers.

Bolton said she will present the need for more space for seniors during the next capital planning cycle (for FY24).

Veterans Services
Steve Connor, Director of Veterans Services, said that although the number of veterans in Hampshire County is decreasing, their needs are increasing due to aging. Some lost their case managers when their living situation stabilized, but now need help again because of  new needs, such as home modifications. He said the potential closing of the VA hospital in Leeds is particularly worrisome, since it would take more than three hours each way to reach the VA hospital in Springfield by bus, and community health centers are not experienced with handling the special needs of veterans.

Several councilors expressed hope that the Health Department, Senior Center and Veterans Services will coordinate with the new CRESS program to enhance services to all vulnerable community members. Brown, Bolton, and Connor all said they have been in communication with CRESS Director Earl Miller on a regular basis, and that they plan to work with CRESS to help with some of the needs of their programs.

Public Comment
Toni Cunningham hopes that once the location for the new elementary school is selected on June 13, repairs on the school occupying the site not chosen would be reinstated in the budget. She stated that there is a critical need for more public space in town, and that one of the current elementary schools could serve that purpose when no longer needed as a school. She noted that Wildwood is a perfectly habitable building where her two children spend each school day. She also hopes that meetings of the “property disposition advisory group” referred to earlier by Ziomek will be made public.

Final Budget Recommendations To Town Council To Be Discussed On May 31 

The Finance Committee will meet on Tuesday, May 31 at 9 a.m. to discuss its final recommendations to the Town Council. Public comment will be held at the start of that meeting, rather than partway through it or at the end, so that the committee can respond to concerns from the public.

At the May 31 meeting, the committee will discuss the School Committee’s request for an additional $52,000 above the budget submitted by the Town Manager to bolster art and technology programs, and help address the funding needs of the public safety departments.

In addition, the Finance Committee will discuss adding to the reparations fund either from free cash or from cannabis tax revenue. Comptroller Sonia Aldrich noted that neither the amount of available free cash nor cannabis revenue will be known until the final accounting for FY22 is complete, which will be late in the summer. But African Heritage Reparations Assembly chair Michele Miller said that her group was charged with finding a revenue stream for reparations by June 2023, so it is important to discuss this matter before work on the FY24 budget begins in the fall.

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12 thoughts on “Finance Committee Discusses Disposition Of Town’s “Surplus Buildings”

  1. I am somewhat stunned that anyone would think that the South Amherst School is not worth preserving. It’s beautiful and a central building in historic South Common which is surrounding by lovely historic buildings, including the Munson Library. This building could be used by the town or sold-with legal protections to preserve it. This reinforces for me the need to implement the goals in the Master Plan and Amherst’s Historic Preservation Plan to establish more local historic districts to protect the buildings around South Common, East Common and downtown. This doesn’t mean that new buildings can’t be built, old buildings can’t be changed and expanded, only that changes be made thoughtfully. Historic preservation is an economic driver that strengthens our town.

  2. All town owned buildings have value and potential, particularly when one takes a long term view. In addition, should Amherst “grow” as is the desire of many, any removed buildings will soon be missed. New construction costs continue to rise. Conserve for future use and redeployment is a prudent long term mindset for multiple reasons, IMO.

  3. I don’t understand the “people dump buildings on us” opinion. All the examples mentioned are buildings the town has either always owned or voluntarily purchased.

  4. We need a functional senior center. The the school on the south common would be an easy, affordable solution. It is already adl compliant and sitting empty.

    With six planners on town staff, certainly they have plans for these buildings. Perhaps they could share them.

  5. It looks like there is a core of town leadership that hopes to sell them.
    Looks very short sighted to me. Certainly, any plans to sell town property should not move forward without rigorous modeling of future space needs and long term fiscal implications of giving up land in a town where it is already scarce. And there ought to be a robust public discussion of the results of such modeling. I agree that the town is not meeting the needs of its seniors and the need for new space for them is urgent. I think we need folks in government to answer the question – if we are not going to use our currently unused buildings to meet pressing civic needs (senior center, BIPOC youth center, community center, temp space for Amherst Media) then how and when will those needs be addressed?

  6. According to the property card for the South Amherst School, the first floor of the 2-story building is 6,192 square feet. The semi-finished basement is 2,509 square feet. There is minimal parking on the 2.53 acre lot.

    The Director of Senior Services reported the findings of a 2017 study which said they would need “a one-story structure on two acres of land with 25,000 square feet of building and 129 parking spaces.”

    I don’t think the South Amherst School would suffice. There would, however, be sufficient room in the to-be-vacated 82,000 square foot elementary school. To even keep that open as an option, the Elementary School Building Committee would need to select Fort River as the preferred site for the new larger elementary school next Friday June 13. If they choose Wildwood for the school, in my estimation there is zero chance that the Fort River building and site would be retained for town use and repurposing.

  7. Toni, why is there zero chance that fort river would be retained? I have heard this assertion many times, but I would like to understand the assumptions behind it, please.

  8. Fair question, Marcus. A number of town leaders have made comments in public meetings that they want to get the vacated school and site off the town’s books so they don’t have to do upkeep and improvements or pay utilities, and use the site instead to generate revenue for the town. One of the reasons it seems like they would rather the vacated site be Fort River is the accumulation of many comments basically upselling Wildwood’s benefits and downplaying its shortcomings while doing the opposite for Fort River. There was an assumption that a school at Fort River would cost a lot more but that has not proven to be the case, and the water/soil problems at Wildwood that need mitigation were not well understood before this process. It also seems likely that Fort River would be more valuable, seeing as it is more than twice the size of the Wildwood property and is relatively flat.

    I think letting go the vacated site is shortsighted because 1) many groups in town need space for their needs and there is none available, 2) the town may need space in the future to expand this new school if enrollments were to increase significantly, and 3) residents should have a say in what happens to town properties and there is support for keeping the building and site, as well as support for keeping the Fort River playing fields for community use.

  9. Thank you, Toni, for the reply. I am still concerned with the use of absolutes. I would like to understand further.
    I understood the comments by the councilors in the Finance Committee meeting were in relation to existing empty town structures, though I could see how one could extrapolate that to include future ones. The concern seems to be the poor state of repair that these existing structures are in, and the significant outlay required to bring them to a standard for occupancy once more. Is the assumption therefore, that a large outlay would likely be required for changing the use of the existing buildings from an elementary school to wider use, and that could prove concerning to the wider community?
    You made the comment that the Fort River site has not proved to be the most expensive option. Do we have new project costs for the two sites? The numbers presented at the 2nd community forum do suggest that Fort River would be more expensive (~$80m vs ~$77m, for new build). I realize that the difference isn’t that great, and it’s far too early in the process to hold those costs up as a standard, but they are what we have right now. These costs also don’t include costs associated with connecting the sites to the existing transportation infrastructure. Again though, these are the numbers we have, please let all of us know if there are other numbers that prove otherwise.
    I am curious though, why the thought is only about the size of the land? Are we assuming that a site can only be sold as a whole? One could look to the North Hadley village hall, where the town sold the building, while requiring the continued community access to the adjoining playing field. One could also see that the Wildwood site would be more desirable for sale, given its proximity to UMASS.
    As to the future use of the building, I completely agree that we should get creative with the potential use of the unused site (whichever one it is), but that needs to be balanced against both the cost of renovation of the building to modern codes, and its impact on the town’s climate change commitments. These building’s all run on fossil fuels and none of them even have double-glazing. The continued use of any of these buildings will be a large commitment to the town, we cannot just walk in the next day to its new use. There is also the question of the hazardous materials present to address for the longer term if the buildings are to continue in their current form.
    One could see that the town use the sale of part of the unused site to go some way to fund the development of a modern, energy efficient structure on the site that could address the needs of the town more effectively.
    Both sites have their pro’s and con’s and I think that needs to be a key part to this, there are no absolutes at this stage.

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