Finance Director Sean Mangano’s modeling of the town’s “four major capital projects” has been presented multiple times over the past few years, (see also here and here) but it has moved us no closer to a realistic solution to the capital needs of the town. This is because the hard questions are never tackled head on and those presenting have sole control over the assumptions and inputs. The model had been made publicly available for a brief time in the past so that the public could enter in different values (interest rates, total cost of projects, year of construction/debt start, etc) and see their impacts. For some time now, however, the “options” have been limited to those that the Town Manager and Finance Director choose to offer and the output is carefully cultivated to demonstrate what message they want to convey.
For example, this is the first time this modeling has been shown since the much higher cost estimates for the Jones Library expansion project were unveiled in August of this year. This despite the fact that a request for modeling had been made before the Town Council was directed to vote on this project to understand the the impact of varying fundraising amounts on the town’s finances.
The entire point of models is to answer “what if” questions under different scenarios.
What if fundraising only covers part of the gap between project cost and available funding, and the town is on the hook for the balance?
What if interest rates increase beyond their current value?
What if we use some of the current $23 million dollars in reserves toward the school project to decrease the amount of tax increases to individual taxpayers in a debt exclusion override?
What if the fire station and DPW projects are re-envisioned as a single project? Or if the their total individual costs are are higher or lower?
The modeling tool used in this way could demonstrate what is actually financially feasible and what needs to be removed from consideration. The varying inputs should be based on demonstrably reasonable assumptions, with benchmarking from real world comparators in similar timeframes and scopes.
It’s time to stop using the model as a justification for a narrow argument and start using it to explore a different set of priorities and possibilities.
Maria Kopicki is a resident of Amherst.