Finance Committee Declines To Recommend Additional Funds For School Budget

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Report On The Meeting Of The Finance Committee,  May 31, 2022

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

Present: 
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: Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), , Dorothy Pam (District 3)

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

The Finance Committee (FC) voted unanimously to recommend the Town Manager’s FY23 budget to the Town Council for approval.

Highlights

  • Finance Committee Declines To Recommend Additional Funds For School Budget
  • Public Safety Budget Supported Without Reduction In Police Officers
  • Concerns Voiced About Impact of Added Town Personnel and Soaring Property Values on Future Budgets
  • No Agreement on What To Do With The School Site Not Selected For the New School
  • Committee Recommends Approval of Town Managers FY 23 Budget

Finance Committee Declines To Recommend Additional Funds For School Budget
Finance Committee (FC) Chair Andy Steinberg noted that, according to the Home Rule Charter, the committee cannot add funds to the budget recommended by the Town Manager. It can only subtract from recommended allocations, with the sole exception being a request for increased funding from the school committee. This year the school committee voted to request an additional $54,000 from the town to raise the elementary school art and technology teachers from 80% to full-time in the coming school year. This amount would raise the school budget above the 2.5% increase that all other departments were held to. Finance Director Sean Mangano clarified that the original budget submitted by the school department adhered to the town’s guidelines, but the school committee has since asked for the increase.

Matt Holloway said he had discussed the situation with School Finance Director Doug Slaughter, and Slaughter felt that the $54,000 could be found in the school operating budget through unfilled positions and other sources, so that the shortfall could be solved within the school department. 

Lynn Griesemer worried that this request for increased funds would set a precedent. She noted that, with the upcoming debt exclusion override for the new elementary school next spring, it was important for the Town Manager, School Department, and Town Council to present a united front. Bob Hepner said, “From my experience in the private sector, if you can’t find $50,000 in a $25 million budget, then you’re not really managing well. I think the money is there if it is a priority for the School Committee if they want to fund these positions.” 

Michele Miller spoke to the “elephant in the room.” She felt that the request was symbolic and that the underlying issue was the addition of $300,000 on top of the 2.5% increase to the town side of the budget in order to create the CRESS program. Griesemer said she sensed the displeasure of the school committee members in the Budget Coordinating Group when this was proposed last fall. They initially commented that the CRESS program had nothing to do with the schools, but Griesemer emphasized, “This is just wrong.” She noted that CRESS director Earl Miller has reached out to the schools and has been working with them to deal with discipline and mental health issues.

Dorothy Pam pointed out that art and technology are healing for children, and she strongly supported restoring the positions to full-time, so there would be a presence at each school every day. Miller recommended that the committee demonstrate strong support for the schools’ arts and technology programs, but not advocate for adding the additional funds to the budget with the belief that there is funding available within the budget guidelines and that the matter should be resolved within the school department.

Public Safety Budget Supported Without Reduction In Police Officers
Steinberg noted that the council and FC heard from many members of the public recommending reduction in the number of police officers in town with the creation of the CRESS program. The new budget recommends filling a vacant police position because, with CRESS just getting started, its influence on police activities will not be known for a year or two, and it takes a fair amount of time to hire police officers.

Ellisha Walker, who had been co-chair of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) that recommended the CRESS program, said that the CSWG tailored the CRESS program to the needs of Amherst, analyzing which functions of the Amherst Police Department (APD) could be handled by CRESS. This analysis led the CSWG to recommend against filling vacant police positions, but the proposed FY23 budget goes against that recommendation. She said that if the CRESS program reduces the need for police, the town will have to fire an officer in the future. She also worried that, without reducing the police budget, there will not be sufficient funding to support the CRESS program.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman thought it is not in the best interest of the town to reduce the APD budget at this time. He said there is evidence that people are avoiding calling 911 now because of a lack of trust in the police, but might turn to CRESS when it is operational, so total calls might actually increase. He added that Amherst has put the CRESS program in public safety, as opposed to Northampton, which put its alternative policing program in public health. He agreed that future funding of CRESS would be a challenge, but the town is committed to the program and will find a way to support it.

Concerns Voiced About Future Budgets
Griesemer expressed that she was nervous about the 16 new positions created in this budget (10 for CRESS, 2 for the Department of Equity and Inclusion, and 4 firefighters/EMTs), especially with contract negotiations pending. She noted that the town now has an unprecedented amount of grant money that will not be available in the future and current inflation presages increased costs.

Kubiac was concerned about the rapidly increasing property values in town, which could put a strain on homeowners by increasing property taxes. He added that he feels the town services are “understaffed, and the span of control Paul [Bockelman] has is too large.” Mangano explained that reassessment of property values is needed to bring them in line with recent home sales, but that the total increase in property taxes collected by the town was limited to 2.5%, so the tax rate may actually go down and the amount each property owner pays should not change much. 

 He added that there is a five-year forecast in the budget outline, but inflation presents uncertainty. Steinberg opined that the 2.5% increase in property tax revenue only works well when inflation is low. Planning for future budgets will be discussed at upcoming FC meetings, since there are many ideas for new programs the town should begin. Mangano added that some costs are expected to decrease with efficiencies from reducing the number of elementary schools from three to two and said that in 2034  there will be a large drop-off in pension contributions because the town has been funding its obligations at an accelerated rate.

The town is also working on formalizing agreements with UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College to pay for the town services they use, such as ambulance service and the public schools, but Mangano said these are “voluntary agreements, so there is no baseline framework.” He added that, because the town is currently in negotiations, he can’t go into detail until the agreements are finalized.

Jennifer Taub requested that the agreements clarify the jurisdiction of the UMass police. She cited a recent incident when many firecrackers were set off at 3 a.m. on Fearing Street, but the UMass police who were  within 50 feet were not allowed to intervene, and residents had to wait for the APD to respond. She added that, with the planned addition of dormitories for 800 undergraduates across from a family neighborhood on Fearing Street, incidents like this are likely to increase.

What To Do With The School Site Not Selected For the New School
Holloway noted that there has been a lot of discussion about  what to do with the school that is not selected as a site for the new elementary school. Griesemer, however, cautioned that the decision about which site to select is up to the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) and that the Finance Committee should not prejudice that decision. Only after a site is chosen should the town discuss what to do with the other site.

Although ESBC Chair Cathy Schoen agreed with Griesemer, she pointed out that the town has to win support of the voters in the upcoming debt exclusion override to finance the school, and that a discussion of possible uses of the other school might help persuade residents to support the project. Miller and Taub agreed that being proactive on the matter would be best. But Mangano came out and said that the property could become a source of income for the town and at the same time could avoid another town-owned building that has to be maintained. He added that the town would save money by not incurring operating expenses for whichever school building is not selected.  

Walker, also a member of the ESBC, noted that the state requires the town to specify its plans for the excess building, but Schoen said that plan does not have to be “written in stone.” Mangano pointed out that the town doesn’t have to make a decision about the future of  the vacant school until after the override vote in the spring. He said that much has changed economically since the plan for the four capital projects was presented in 2019, and that the plan for the new DPW and fire station must be updated to reflect current conditions. 

Steinberg said the town needs to evaluate what it wants to do against what it can afford to do regarding creation of a youth center or establishment of an updated, larger senior center. . He suggested that Griesemer, as council president, as well as Bockelman and Mangano discuss a timeline about  when decisions need to be made about use of the vacant school as well as the other proposed capital projects.

The next FC meeting is scheduled for June 7 from 3 to 5 p.m. The agenda will include the upcoming capital plan and funding reparations for the African Heritage Community.

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1 thought on “Finance Committee Declines To Recommend Additional Funds For School Budget

  1. “Slaughter felt that the $54,000 could be found in the school operating budget through unfilled positions and other sources, so that the shortfall could be solved within the school department” may translate into “Some part-time teachers may not be rehired in order to make some other part-time teachers full-time.”

    Please consider what this means for not only the richness of the school program, but also for lives of the part-time teachers who would not be rehired as a result.

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