Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, March 20, 2023
This meeting was held in a hybrid format, with participants present in the Town Room of Town Hall and on Zoom. It was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
in the Town Room: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5).
Participating on Zoom: Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), and Ellisha Walker (at large).
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Two members of the public were present in the Town Room.
The number of people participating on Zoom was not announced.
The African Heritage Reparations Assembly is sponsoring a showing of “The Big Payback” at the Powerhouse at Amherst College at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 30.
There will be an Interfaith Gathering to remember victims of COVID 19 on the South Common at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 26.
There will be a community meeting about the new elementary school at the Bang’s Center on Sunday, April 2, from 3 to 4 p.m
The council is holding a retreat on Saturday, March 25 from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Town Room in Town Hall. It is open to the public and will be broadcast and recorded on Zoom and by Amherst Media. No public comment will be taken.
A special Town Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 27 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the possibility of using reserves to lessen the debt exclusion override. Public comment will be taken.
The month of May was proclaimed Jewish American Heritage Month.
The month of April was proclaimed Arbor Month, with public shade tree planting planned for Saturday, April 8 from 9 a.m. to noon on Amity, Dana, and Blue Hills Streets.
The Public Shade Tree Committee will participate in the Town’s April 22nd Sustainability Festival and will hold a tree planting event at the Amherst History Museum on April 28.
Councilors Disagree On The Use Of Reserves To Ease Tax Burden For New School
Finance Director Sean Mangano reviewed the Town Council’s proposed financial order to approve borrowing for the construction of the new elementary school. The debt authorization states that the town will borrow $92,492,297 for the school. This figure takes into account funding received from other sources in town, including $5 million from the Capital Stabilization Fund, $700,000 of Community Preservation Act funds, and $1.1 million already spent for the feasibility study. Amherst is expected to be granted $47 million from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), leaving approximately $52 million to be paid for by property taxes for the next 30 to 50 years through a debt exclusion vote scheduled for May 2.
Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) expressed concern about a recommendation at the February 28 Finance Committee meeting to take $5 million from the Capital Stabilization fund, most of which be repaid to the fund when expected energy rebates are received from the state. Her objection is based on uncertainty about the expected rebates, although she has expressed enthusiasm about funding other projects on uncertain resources, such as future donations to the Jones Library project.
Councilors Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3) and Pam Rooney (District 4) advocated using a total of $10 million from reserves to lessen the amount of the debt exclusion override vote, as proposed by Councilor Ellisha Walker (at large). Taub noted that the reserves amount to $24 million. Using $10 million for the school would still leave reserves at 16% of the operating budget, a level sufficient to maintain Amherst’s AAA bond rating and ability to obtain the lowest interest rates. (The capital stabilization fund itself has just under $10 million.)
Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) argued that reducing the debt authorization would only save taxpayers an average of $7.50 per month, and argued that it could negatively impact the ability to build a DPW and fire station. Rather than lower taxes in order to fund the new school, she wants the town to explore other ways to lower taxes, such as negotiating more favorable payments from Amherst College and UMass and by encouraging new development in town.
Hanneke remarked that in the capital building plan Mangano presented to the council in October, money from the capital stabilization fund was slated to be used for a new fire station.
In response to a question from Michele Miller (District 1) about the reserves and how they are replenished, Mangano said that some of the reserves (“free cash”) are from u money the town budgeted but did not spend, and the rest come from money that was specifically set aside in the budget. The town aims to reserve 10.5% of total income every year for capital projects; on average , $1.5 to $2 million is added to the reserves yearly, although for the past two years that amount has doubled because of Covid-related increases in state aid.
Because of the councilors’ starkly differing opinions, it was clear that more discussion was needed. Therefore, the council decided to add a special meeting on Monday, March 27 to continue the discussion of the use of reserves. This time was chosen over the council retreat on March 25 and the Finance Committee meetings at 3 p.m. on March 21 and 28. Pam pointed out that the evening meeting would encourage public input.
In speaking for the added meeting, Walker said, “I would like to think of it as an opportunity for us to put our heads together as councilors, and with the advice from the Finance Committee, and hopefully Sean [Mangano] and Paul [Bockelman, the town manager] will be there to see if we can find a new way to fund the projects that also supports the residents in this town — and not for a meeting for people to tell us why the plan ‘is the way it is’. The question is, is there another way? Or really, not another way?”
Resident member of the Finance Committee Matt Holloway voiced caution, saying, “I want to extend my appreciation to this group for the deliberation and thought and genuine concern about this town as a place for family, young families, and families with children to live. Being in the top four or five in the state for property taxes is problematic for us and is a really important discussion. I do want my kids to have a new elementary school, but it’s just as important that they have a functioning fire department and that the roads are drivable.”
Support For Reserve Use Voiced In Public Comment
Jeff Lee recommended using the capital stabilization fund for this purpose, saying that the town should minimize how much it borrows and then charges taxpayers for through debt exclusion.
Adrienne Terrizzi agreed. She spoke “on behalf of seniors who might be taxed out of their homes, who are struggling to pay the increase in taxes not only under Proposition 2.5, but now it also looks like the average home will have an increase of $487 a year from the debt exclusion.” She said she was concerned that the debt exclusion vote will not get the majority needed to fund this “very important school”. She pointed out that the last elementary school was built in 1973. “Times were better then,” she said, “and we weren’t facing a plan for four major projects. Seniors with whom I’ve spoken are very concerned about being able to stay in this town.” She advocated that the councilors support Walker’s proposal.
Mangano emphasized that the most important thing for all four building projects is for the school project to move forward. “If it doesn’t,” he said, “we’re back to square one with what we do just to maintain these existing buildings.” A decision on the amount of the debt exclusion must be made at the April 3 council meeting.
First Reading Of Water And Sewer Bylaws And Regulations
There were few concerns regarding the updated water and sewer bylaws and regulations (see also here , here and here). As per previous decisions, ownership of the lines from the main to a property will remain with the property owner for at least the next two years. Pam asked if the town will be able to take over ownership of the lines in two years, given the current poor state of the DPW building. DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring said that with the current building, the department cannot access some records and has difficulty accessing some equipment, so there could be a problem.
Assistant DPW Superintendent Amy Rusiecki mentioned that the bylaws are written in a way that allows the change in ownership of the water and sewer lines without major revisions if the council decides to take this path in two years. (The Town Council is responsible for approving water and sewer rates every year and publicizing the changes afterwards.)
Flag Raising Policy And Use Of Police Surveillance Cameras Referred To Committees
A flag raising policy has been proposed by Department of Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Director Pamela Nolan Young in response to a recent unanimous ruling of the United States Supreme Court in a case about the City of Boston’s denial of a request to fly a Christian flag. The $2.1 million settlement was based on the absence of a flag display policy. To avoid a similar problem, Young proposed a policy based on the new flag raising policies of the cities of Boston and San Jose, and the state of Oregon.
In public comment, Marc Barrette questioned the statement in the proposed policy (section 3.2) that says that any raising of a commemorative flag would only be considered if the request comes from a member of the Town Council. Barrette asked if it could be changed so that a member of the public could also request a commemorative flag to be flown. The policy was referred to the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) to review, and will be brought back to the council at its April 24 meeting.
Also under review was a policy proposal to govern surveillance from police body and cruiser cameras. Town Services and Outreach (TSO) Chair Anika Lopes (District 4) said she did not bring up the questions submitted by other councilors about the policy at the last TSO meeting, but will do so at its next meeting, and will bring the proposal back to the council in April.
The council voted unanimously to send a letter to the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission in support of expansion of rail service to Western Massachusetts with an East–West rail line.
Extension Of Remote Meeting Provision Still Uncertain
Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe reported that there has still been no state ruling on public meeting format. The emergency provision that allowed meetings to take place remotely expires on March 31. Both the Massachusetts House and Senate passed bills extending the provision, but the bills need to be reconciled, and then the Governor has to sign the extension.
The meeting ended at 9:39 p.m. The council will have its retreat on Saturday, March 25 in the Town Room from 8:30 to 1:30. The retreat will be broadcast and recorded. The public can attend, but no public comment will be taken.
There will be a special council meeting on March 27 regarding using reserves to help fund the new school. Public comment will be allowed.
The next regular council meeting will be April 3. The debt exclusion override will be finalized at this meeting. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) and Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) have also requested time at that meeting.