Report On The Meetings Of The AHRA, June 6, 2022 and Finance Committee/AHRA June 7, 2022
The meetings were held over Zoom and were recorded. The recording of the meeting with the Finance Committee can be viewed here.
At their meeting on June 6, members of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly (AHRA) strengthened their arguments to present to the Finance Committee the following day to urge the town to devote 100% of the 3% tax from cannabis revenue to reparations for Amherst residents of African Heritage. AHRA Chair and District 1 Councilor Michele Miller drafted a memo to the Finance Committee explaining the rationale for using the cannabis tax revenue for reparations.
When the AHRA was created in June, 2021, a stabilization fund of $210,000 was created from free cash, and the Assembly was charged with identifying a revenue stream to support the fund in the future. Miller stated in her memo that, since African Americans have suffered more than other groups from drug enforcement laws, it makes sense to use revenue from legal sales of marijuana to repair some of those harms. She noted that the Town Council has never had a discussion about how to use the cannabis tax revenue.
The AHRA identified potential uses for reparations funds to promote home ownership, business ownership, education, and the Community Safety Working Group proposals for a BIPOC youth center and a youth empowerment center. Assembly member Amilcar Shabazz stressed that it is difficult to approach the Black community about what is the preferred use for reparations funds if there is no guarantee there will be funds beyond the initial $210,000. He stated that the town needs to show its commitment to reparative justice by setting aside funds and establishing a revenue stream.
During public comment at the June 6 Town Council meeting, Evan Naismith voiced objection to having race exclusive reparations. He cited legal concerns pointing to the successful suit of Latin Americans who were in the World War II I Japanese internment camps. However, Evanston, Illinois has been able to institute a reparations plan for its African American residents. AHRA member Alexis Reed urged the Finance Committee not to pit disadvantaged groups against each other. She strongly believes that race specific harms deserve race specific reparations.
Because the FY23 budget has already been created and assigns anticipated cannabis tax funds to the general operating budget, Miller’s memo suggests again adding an equivalent amount from free cash to the reparations stabilization fund when free cash is certified in the fall, but then dedicating the cannabis tax revenue to the fund in future years.
Members of the Finance Committee were supportive of adding to the stabilization funds, but had reservations about earmarking future cannabis tax revenues. Resident member of the Finance Committee Bernie Kubiak did voice support for pegging reparations to the cannabis tax. He said, “If the town is serious about reparations, it should provide a consistent revenue stream, and earmarking the cannabis tax will avoid an annual discussion which would pull attention away from the program itself.”
Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) said she was uncomfortable about committing funds to reparations now,because she is worried about the fiscal future of the town, especially in FY24 and FY25 when payments for the Jones Library expansion and possibly the fire station and DPW will begin to come due. She wants to delay committing funds to reparations for another six to twelve months, when the financial picture will be clearer. She added that the new school will be “a big ask” for the town, and that some free cash might be applied to it.
Resident member Matt Holloway echoed Schoen’s concerns, but said one of the recommended uses for cannabis funds from the State Department of Public Health is to redress the wrongs of groups disproportionately affected by marijuana enforcement. Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) clarified that these refer to the use of cannabis impact fees, not cannabis sales tax revenue.
Ellisha Walker (District 5) was strongly in favor of taking action at the June 7 meeting. She felt that there is no better use for cannabis tax revenue than restorative justice and reparations, and that it doesn’t make sense to delay. “It would be irresponsible to use cannabis tax revenue for anything other than restorative justice for the Black community,” she said.
Steinberg noted that there might be less in free cash this year due to increased costs. The town has a policy to keep an equivalent of 5% of the budget in free cash. Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said if there was less than that amount, the town would not be following its own policy by giving some of the money to the reparations fund. She added that she is strongly against earmarking funds because it reduces the town’s flexibility in dealing with a crisis. She would rather tie reparations money to the amount of free cash over the 5% of the budget that is roughly equivalent to the cannabis tax revenue. Resident member Bob Hegner agreed with Griesemer’s concern about earmarks, but said that reparations are a priority for the town, so maybe it should be a line item in the budget..
Miller’s memo addressed concerns about a possible economic downturn, as occurred in 2008 when all budgets were cut, but noted that the approximately $150,000 estimated yearly cannabis tax revenue would be unlikely to be “a make-it or break-it factor of our financial challenges.” Shabazz added that during an economic downturn, the reparations fund could provide a cushion for the most vulnerable members of the community.
The Finance Committee voted 4 to 1 (Schoen voting no) to transfer an amount of free cash equivalent to the FY22 actual cannabis revenue receipts to the reparations stabilization fund , after the free cash is certified in the fall. (The cannabis tax revenue will already have been received, in July.) The three resident members of the committee (Kubiak, Holloway, and Hegner) also voiced support for the motion. . The committee did not come to an agreement on a future revenue stream for reparations
The AHRA met again on June 10 to discuss how to proceed with the need to establish a reliable long-term revenue stream for reparations. Assembly members tasked Miller with drafting a policy to designate cannabis tax revenue for that purpose. Miller intends to review the policy with Griesemer prior to the additional Finance Committee meeting to be held either June 16 or 17. This will allow both proposals for the designation of free cash in FY23 and annual cannabis tax revenue beginning in FY24 to come before the full council on June 27.