Report On The Meeting Of The Community Preservation Act Committee, December 22, 2022
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded.
Sam MacLeod (Chair), Matt Cain, Robin Fordham, Michelle Labbe, Tim Neale, David Williams, and Katie Allen Zobel. Absent: Andrew MacDougall
Staff: Sean Mangano (Finance Director) and Sonia Aldrich (Comptroller)
The Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) received requests for more than $8 million in funding for FY 2024. CPA grants are funded by a three percent surcharge on property taxes and matching state funds. Grants must be for historic preservation, affordable housing, or recreation and open space. This year, there were 15 proposals for the $2.3 million available after accounting for the $440,000 debt service from previous projects. The applications for the projects can be viewed here.
At previous CPAC meetings, the total amount requested was reduced after consulting with applicants. The proposed renovation of the playground at Crocker Farm school was dropped and will be brought back with a more complete plan in a subsequent year. A proposal to develop preservation restrictions was also withdrawn. Finance Director Sean Mangano spoke to Wayfinders regarding the $1.8 million requested to construct affordable housing at East Street School and 72-80 Belchertown Road. CPA reduced the amount requested to $400,000. The town has committed to supporting the project with $1 million, but the other $600,000 will come from another source.
A residents’ proposal to upgrade the athletic fields at Fort River School in conjunction with the construction of the new elementary school was reduced from $3.7 million to $2.2 million by eliminating the lights and the comfort station.
The request for $500,000 for the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust (AMAHT) was reduced to $250,000, because it was not linked to a specific project and the trust has about $600,000 of funds currently available. Seventy thousand dollars was targeted for conservation area improvements, instead of the $100,000 requested, because there was still CPA money remaining from the Kendrick Park playground construction.
Fort River Playing Fields Funded
After their December 15 meeting, the committee was uncertain about how to fund three of the projects: the Fort River athletic fields, repair of the North Amherst Church roof, and phase 2 of Amherst Community Connections’ rental subsidy program.
Three residents, Rudy Perkins, Maria Kopicki, and Toni Cunningham had submitted an application to fund improved drainage and relocation of the playing fields at Fort River School in conjunction with the construction of the new elementary school. These fields are heavily used by school and recreation department teams, as well as for casual recreation. The location of the new school to the south end of the site will necessitate moving the playing fields to the north. The new school is expected to be funded by a debt exclusion override, and the funds from CPA would reduce the amount of the needed override.
Most committee members supported awarding money to the project, although not at the $2.2 million requested. Whatever the amount decided on, it would be bonded as a loan to the CPA funds. Mangano said that if the CPA committee wants to support the project, it has to award the funds prior to the override vote this spring.
Tim Neale vigorously disagreed with supporting the fields. He said that he supports doing something with the fields, but feels that an improper process was followed because the application was submitted by residents, not by the School Committee. He said he thinks the request is “political”, aimed at lowering the amount requested in the override to improve the chance of the override succeeding. He also thinks the fields should be funded by the override, not CPA funds. In addition, he was upset that Fort River was chosen over Wildwood as the site of the new school over the recommendations of the Town Manager and School Superintendent when it was known there were problems with the fields (editor’s note: There are no playing fields on the Wildwood site which was a factor in the reason the Elementary School Building Committee chose Fort River.)
The other committee members countered Neale’s arguments. Chair Sam MacLeod reminded him that the committee was looking forward, not debating a past decision. He added that last year’s award to build pickle ball courts originated from a residents’ proposal, and the process for the athletic fields was neither improper nor unprecedented. He also noted that the School Committee and superintendent did endorse the proposal. Robin Fordham likened this proposal to the $1 million awarded to the Special Collections at the Jones Library in 2022, even though the committee recognized that the majority of funding for the Jones project would have to come from town borrowing and fundraising. Several committee members said that a CPA award indicates support of the project as a whole. Matt Cain said a CPA award would provide assurance that the athletic field part of the elementary school project would not be dropped if costs for the new school were more than budgeted. The CPA funds could also provide an extra feature, such as a softball backstop.
The committee debated what level of support the athletic fields project should receive. Opinions ranged from $150,000 to $1 million. Eventually, the vote was 6-1-0 with Neale dissenting to borrow $700,000 for it, contingent on the override passing and the new school being built. The debt service on the $700,000 is estimated to be about $100,000 a year, beginning in 2026 or 2027. Neale continued his opposition and insisted on submitting a dissenting opinion when the proposal is presented to the Town Council.
Funds Reserved For North Amherst Church Repairs
The North Amherst Congregational (Zion) Church requested $163,700 to fix the church’s leaking roof. The church is an historic building, and the committee worried that waiting until FY 2024 funds were available on July 1, 2023 might result in irreparable damage. Members discussed whether to use funds left over from 2023 to enable the repairs to be done earlier. They requested more information about the repairs and a plan for future maintenance, because the congregation of about 30 people may have limited resources to do other repairs on the large building.
Comptroller Sonia Aldrich worried that using funds in reserve from a previous year would set a bad precedent for other projects that might want earlier access to funds. Usually, unspent money is rolled over to be awarded to projects in a subsequent year. In the end, CPAC decided to keep the amount necessary for the roof repair in the reserve fund until it can hear more specifics from the congregation. The vote was 6-0-1 with David Williams abstaining.
Three Year Amherst Community Connections Bridge Program Supported
Amherst Community Connections (ACC) requested $205,000 to fund Phase 2 of its program of rental subsidy to find transitional housing for families who are unhoused or severely rent burdened. The question before the committee was whether to fund the program for two years at $133,000 or for three years at the full amount. The full funding would require reducing another award by $25,000.
Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek said that his staff’s preference is to build new housing, either for rental or homeownership, as opposed to the intensive support bridge program offered by Amherst Community Connections. Cain suggested that rental subsidies should be provided by the state voucher program, not CPA funds. However, the majority of the committee wanted to support the program for three years. It was decided to reduce the Affordable Housing Trust award to $200,000 in order to fund the ACC program for the full three years..
Votes on the other proposals were unanimous, except for the repair of the War Memorial pool liner, which Fordham thinks is routine maintenance that should not be funded by the CPA.
All award recommendations require final approval of the Amherst Town Council. MacLeod will prepare a report on CPA committee’s recommendations to present to the Council by February. The meeting was adjourned at 9:05.
Inventory Of Projects And Votes
The table below (need to combine tables) lists all fifteen applications for FY 2024, the amounts requested and awarded, and the committee votes on each. The projects listed in blue are existing bonded projects for which money has been borrowed and for which ongoing debt service must be paid.