Town Council Allocates $2 Million For Reparations

Photo: umcjustice.org

Report of the Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, June 27, 2022. Part 1

This is the first of two articles and this week’s Town Council meeting.

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

Present
Town Councilors: Michele Miller and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (left early) and Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), Shalini Bahl Milne and Ana Devlin-Gauthier (District 5), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andrew Steinberg, and Ellisha Walker (at large). Absent: Pam Rooney (District 4) 

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

30 members of the public attended remotely

Highlights

  • Despite recommendation for a $1 million reparations fund from the Finance Committee, the council approves a maximum of $2 million
  • Renovation of the North Common to proceed after acquisition of federal grant
  • Funding for high school track and field renovation referred to the Finance Committee with a public hearing on July 18
  • Sites for posting of election warrant approved
  • Town Council meetings to remain in hybrid format, and council committees to continue to meet virtually if allowed by state law
  • Public forum on rental registration bylaw scheduled for July 25

Council Votes To Increase Contribution To Reparations Fund
The African Heritage Reparation Assembly (AHRA) recommended that the town fund a stabilization fund from cannabis tax refund revenues to support reparations to the Black community for past harms. Members of the Finance Committee objected to earmarking funds, feeling that would not allow flexibility in budgeting in the event of changing economic circumstances. To assuage these concerns, the AHRA developed a proposal that the town contribute an amount from free cash, money unspent at the end of the fiscal year, in an amount equal to the cannabis tax revenue, but not more than $205,000 per year. The free cash would be in excess to the 5% of the budget placed in reserve for emergency expenses.

Although the Finance Committee agreed to this funding mechanism at its June 21 meeting, it voted to cap the maximum town contribution at $1 million, as opposed to the $2 million requested by the AHRA. Finance Committee members were concerned about budget deficits in coming years due to upcoming capital projects, and several expressed discomfort that AHRA had not yet developed plans for how they will use the funds. AHRA members countered that they could not survey the Black community about effective reparations if they did not know they had a reliable source of revenue. It was after this Finance Committee meeting that the AHRA limited the maximum yearly town contribution to $205,000, with a $2 million cap to the fund.

Members of the public spoke passionately for the larger fund. Evan Naismith, Demetria Shabazz, Paige Wilder, Amilcar Shabazz, and Kathleen Anderson stressed the need for the larger amount. Phyllis Labanowski noted that there will always be large projects in front of the town, and there will always be pressure on the budget, so if Amherst is serious about reparations, it should “just do it.”

“As a Black woman, I am tired of waiting for reparations. You [councilors] are spending $1.8 million on a town common. Put your priorities straight! You are elected to represent our values.”

Pat OnOnibaku

AHRA member Irv Rhodes said he was baffled by the opposition to funding AHRA requests. He said the Assembly was “not trying to displace anyone or any other budget priority. What was requested was any free cash coming as a surplus equal to revenue from the cannabis tax after all other priorities were funded.” 

Pat Ononibaku said, “As a Black woman, I am tired of waiting for reparations. You [councilors] are spending $1.8 million on a town common. Put your priorities straight! You are elected to represent our values.”

The AHRA proposal also gained support from Kamm Howard, co-chair of The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, who said that local efforts are important to recognize and remedy the most harmful effects of racial discrimination, and can serve as a model for national programs. And Robin Ru Simmons of Evanston, Illinois noted that the Evanston reparations program has started to disperse funds. Simmons added that more than 100 municipalities are looking to create programs and national legislation is gaining support.

However, Martha Hanner urged the council not to allot the $2 million to a reparations fund at this time, citing the need for the CRESS program, the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and AHRA to work together. She said it was disrespectful to take this vote one week before Pamela Young takes over as head of DEI. She noted that all of these programs need funding.

Council Discussion And Vote
In support of her amendment to the Finance Committees proposal to support a reparations fund up to $1 million, AHRA chair and Town Councilor Michele Miller (District 1) noted that Evanston, with an annual budget of four times that of Amherst, started with $10 million in its fund. She said the AHRA request for up to $205,000 per year amounts to one-quarter of one percent of the Amherst budget. When fully funded, the $2 million endowment would yield about $80,000 annually for distribution. 

Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) said that though some may be concerned about taking away from existing needs, the AHRA revised plan uses surplus funds and includes flexibility. Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) called attention to the increasing construction costs for the major capital projects and said this will  cause a “pretty big hole” in the budget in coming years. He said future councils could amend the cap on the fund, and it is easier to raise the cap than to decrease it, and a larger amount would be more acceptable once the community had a better idea on how AHRA planned to use the reparations fund. 

Cathy Schoen (District 1) noted that the cushion in the budget is there to be used for emergencies such as the ladder truck for the fire department. She thought the original $210,000 allotted to the reparations fund last year would be supplemented by grants and fundraising, not only by more town contributions, and she had concerns about who would be eligible for reparations. Although she said she is wholeheartedly supportive of reparations, she wants to see a clearer path forward. President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) also thought it was prudent to start with a $1 limit. Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said she would vote against both the $1 million and $2 million proposals, because she said the AHRA charge was to develop both a community wide process for reparations and a revenue stream to support it, and that the two goals should go hand- in-hand. She said that, at this time, she has no knowledge of what the money will be used for. 

Dorothy Pam (District 3), however, did not agree with the Finance Committee recommendation. She said there is no limit on the amount of money needed to address the wrongs to African Americans over the past 400 years. She noted that the proposed plan had safeguards to the town in place and should be approved. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said the only way we can address white supremacy is to trust the Black community to make decisions on its own behalf. Ellisha Walker (at large) stressed that racism in America is a public health emergency. She said these conversations are triggering for her, and she felt others were disregarding the lived experiences of Black committee members in questioning the AHRA request.

Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) liked the idea of an endowment, saying the plan had guardrails to protect the town, and that the $2 million endowment could help more people. Anika Lopes (District 4) gave a nod to the AHRA for modifying the proposal in response to feedback from the council. She noted that the money will be monitored and highly controlled by the council with the decision to transfer free cash made every year.

The vote was 10-2 to increase the amount of the endowment to $2 million. Steinberg and Schoen voted no, although Griesemer waited until the end to cast her vote. The vote on funding the endowment through free cash contributions annually also passed by a vote of 10-2 with Schoen and Hanneke voting no.

Support For Trash Hauler Reform In Public Comment
Darcy DuMont of Zero Waste Amherst (ZWA) urged support of ZWA’s proposal to provide universal composting. She listed four main elements in the ZWA plan which would reduce trash by 40%:

(1) changing from individual resident subscriptions with a hauler to the town contacting with a hauler through a competitive bid process

(2) collecting compost from each household

(3) using the compost locally, and

( 4) changing to a “pay as you throw” fee structure. 

She said the ZWA proposal is supported by dozens of organizations, both local and national, as well as the Amherst Board of Health. She urged the council to take up the proposal which is supported by several councilors.. 

Funds Approved For North Common Remodeling
A public forum before the regular council meeting on the plan for renovating the North Common generated little public input. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek presented the design approved by the council in 2021. With the $500,000 in Community Preservation Act funds voted by Town Meeting in 2015 and 2017, another $500,000 in CPA money added by the council in 2021, and a recent $827,000 Federal Land and Water Act award, the town could afford to implement the design without borrowing, he said. The federal grant requires that the common be restricted to passive recreation in perpetuity. 

The Finance Committee approved the financing of the project in its June 7 meeting. In public comment, Martha Hanner was assured by Ziomek that the new plans would include at least the required number of handicap van accessible parking spaces. The council approved the financing plan for the North Common improvement plan by a vote of 11-0 (DeAngelis and Rooney were absent).

Funding For High School Track Referred To Finance Committee
On June 2, the CPA committee approved unanimously borrowing of $800,000 to finance Amherst’s share of the $4.7 million plan to reorient the Regional High School track and improve the enclosed playing field. The project is dependent on the other three towns in the system contributing their shares and to a successful fundraising campaign. If those conditions are not met, the $1.5 million approved in the regional school budget will be used to resurface the track, but not to complete the comprehensive project. A previous design funded by the CPA strongly endorsed the larger project. 

The matter was referred to the Finance Committee. A public forum will be held before the July 18 council meeting. The council will vote on the proposal at that meeting. The $800,000 will only be borrowed if the larger project is undertaken. Finance Director Sean Mangano will give an update on what is happening in the three other towns in the region regarding the project.

Sites Selected For Posting Of Election Warrants
With the redistricting resulting from the 2020 census, the town is required to specify where it will post election warrants, in addition to putting the warrant on the town website. Town Clerk Sue Audette presented a plan for posting sites at the June 13 council meeting. In response to suggestions from councilors, she drafted a revised plan with sites as follows:

• Amherst Post Office, Montague Road – Precinct 1a 

• North Amherst Library, Montague Road – Precinct 1b 

• Amherst-Pelham Regional High School – Precinct 2a 

• Jones Library, Amity Street – Precinct 2b 

• Town Hall – Precinct 3a • Amherst Post Office, University Drive – Precinct 3b

• Amherst Post Office, North Pleasant Street – Precinct 4a

• Campus Center, University of Massachusetts – Precinct 4b 

• Bangs Community Center – Precinct 5a 

• Munson Memorial Library – Precinct 5b 

This plan was adopted unanimously by those present.

Council Prefers To Continue Hybrid Meetings And Zoom Council Committee Meetings If Allowed By State Law
As of this meeting, the governor had not extended the ability for town committees to meet remotely past July 15. If he does not extend the provision, all committees will need to meet in person. Councilors who need to participate remotely will need to request permission from the president prior to each meeting, although Steinberg said he was uncomfortable with no limit on how many times a councilor could participate remotely. Pam said sitting through the lengthy council meetings was difficult for her. According to  pre-pandemic rules, the person conducting the meeting, the minutes taker, and a quorum of the council will need to be present in the room.

However, should the remote participation be extended, Griesemer proposed that the council continue the hybrid option until September 19. The public will continue to participate only remotely. This motion passed unanimously.

As for council committees, Griesemer proposed that they continue to meet remotely. The option for hybrid participation requires additional staffing. Hanneke was opposed to continued virtual meetings, but Walker pointed out that those who work or have young children might have difficulty participating in committee meetings that occur during the day. The vote was 10-1 to keep the remote format for council committees if allowed by state law. Hanneke voted no and Rooney and DeAngelis were absent.

Archipelago Receives Approval For Long-term Temporary Use Of Public Way
Archipelago Investments requested use of the public way at 11 East Pleasant Street from June 28, 2022 to September 1, 2023 in order to construct the mixed-use building planned for the site and approved by the Planning Board. The construction will impact the sidewalk along East Pleasant Street. The request was granted by a vote of 8-0-3. Schoen, Taub, and Pam abstained.

Committee Reports And Announcements
The Community Resources Committee will hold a public forum for discussion of proposed revisions to the rental registration bylaw on July 25 at 7 p.m. Whether the forum will be in person or over Zoom will depend on the state’s determination of meeting format. As of now, the remote option is set to expire on July 15.

The Finance Committee will meet on July 19 at 3 p.m. to discuss an updated model to analyze the budgetary impact of the four major capital projects. A previous version was developed prior to the pandemic, and is not applicable to current conditions.

The Elementary School Building Committee has submitted its preferred schematic design (three-story building at the Fort River site) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The ESBC will visit other schools over the summer to get ideas for the new Amherst school. The net zero subcommittee of the ESBC will meet on July 6 at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the merits of ground source versus air source heat pumps.

Several councilors voiced concerns about the unreliability of the spray park at Groff Park. Bockelman noted that the pumps were getting plugged with pollen and malfunctioning. He said a 15-minute shut down every hour has improved the problem. Walker also noted that with the War Memorial pool not opening due to needed repair, children at the town’s camps will not have access to swimming, since there is no transportation provided to Mill River. Bockelman said he would look into the problem.

The meeting ended at 10:53 p.m. The next council meeting is on July 18 at 6:45, preceded by a public forum on the high school track.

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3 thoughts on “Town Council Allocates $2 Million For Reparations

  1. I have a question about the logic used by the National Park Service in deciding the $827,000 Federal Land and Water Act award. According to the front page article in The Reminder, the source is the “Land and Water Conservation Fund.” Given that the development will have accessible paved paths, permanent seating and tables, a performance structure, and new lighting infrastructure, it is hard to grasp the extent of land and water conservation that will result. I suppose ripping out the parking lot and converting that area to have some grass and trees results in some increase in conservation. But the whole area is stated to be one acre. I’d say this was more a way to increase human traffic and usage rather than a conservation project. It will result in a prettier Common. But the erection of new parking structures elsewhere results in moving an eyesore to another location in my layman’s opinion.

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