Walker’s Pleas To Ease Taxpayer Burden Of School Override Fall On Deaf Ears
Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Finance Committee, March 21, 2023
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
The March 21 Finance Committee meeting began with Finance Director Sean Mangano’s recap of his presentation of October 2022 in which he concluded that the most effective way to achieve building a new elementary school, a new fire station, a new DPW building, and a renovated Jones Library is to finance the school through a debt exclusion and to build the fire station using reserves, while borrowing for the DPW and the Jones Library projects.
Town Councilor Ellisha Walker (at large) questioned this capital plan, asking Mangano if the town had ever looked at a model that didn’t assume financing the elementary school entirely through a debt exclusion. Mangano answered that the town’s goal is to complete all four projects, and the school costs roughly as much as the other three projects combined, so it was always assumed that the school would be the project excluded from the capital funding allocation. Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) pointed out that a debt exclusion vote for the earlier school project passed in 2016, but Town Meeting did not authorize the borrowing for the project.
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), and nonvoting member of the Finance Committee Bernie Kubiak spoke to a previous motion by Walker to use $10M of reserves to lower the amount the town would borrow to fund the school project and hence reduce the burden of the override on taxpayers. She subsequently reduced her request to $5 million, which combined with a previously endorsed (by the Finance Committee) request by Councilor Cathy Schoen to use $5 million from reserves to reduce borrowing, would reduce the amount of borrowing by a total of $10 million. Griesemer and Kubiak emphasized the importance of maintaining reserves to counteract an unanticipated downturn in the economy or in state aid, and of the minimal property tax relief that would be provided by using an additional $5 million in reserves over the $5 million advocated at the February 28 Finance Committee meeting. Walker countered with:
“I appreciate the amount of time that has gone into the funding plan and expectations for all of the capital projects. However, it’s still very frustrating for me that in all that time there has been no plan on how to help residents who will be the most vulnerable to these decisions. That was the intention of my ask for taking $10 million from the reserves. If there is a better way to offset the impact to the same degree, please let that be known. In my opinion, this is the best way to offset the impact to taxpayers. What I was hoping for was feedback in terms of how we can assist our residents and not feedback in terms of ‘this is never going to work, because we didn’t plan for it.
“It’s frustrating to me that we can make a lot of statements, saying we are unsure, like we are unsure how much we use from the reserves on a regular basis, but we can say we are sure that the fire station would be delayed if we use that money, and I don’t think that’s something we actually know for sure. We can expect that because of the model that we have, but again, a lot of the things about the model are unknown or need to be determined. We haven’t looked at certain models, like not a full debt exclusion for the elementary school.
“I also wanted to speak a little bit to housing questions, because I believe I’m the only renter on this panel, and I probably am the only person who has had a Section 8 voucher before, and so I can actually answer all of those questions for you. Section 8 works in a really interesting way. It’s not really just that you pay a percentage of your income toward whatever your rent is. There are actually guidelines as to how much money you’re allowed to spend, based on how many people live in your household. So, for example, I have three children, but two of my children are of the same sex, and so they would be required to share a bedroom under Section 8, and I would be allowed only a three-bedroom apartment. I am not allowed to pursue anything higher, even if it fits in my budget range. Also, they give you a certain amount of money to spend. So, for a three-bedroom, I am only allowed to go up to $1800. If rent does increase, you have to move. You cannot say, ‘Oh I’ll pay the extra.’ It’s actually against the rules of Section 8 to pay the extra. And you’re not allowed to go above 30% of your income. For a one-bedroom, you have $1,200, and if you realize what’s happening in Amherst with rents going up, this is why a lot of people with Section 8 can no longer live in Amherst, because it’s very difficult to find a one-bedroom for $1200.
“And that’s the point I’ve been trying to make this entire time. These decisions that we are making are literally pushing low-income people out of this town. And then for people who are not on Section 8, but rent, I think it’s kind of silly to say that we don’t know what landlords will do, because what I’ve experienced, landlords always increase your rent when they get unexpected fees, because you are living in the property, not them. And why would they want to pay for something that you are using? I would hope that we would plan for these things ahead of time.
“Also, in regards to the Rental Relief Fund. I do agree with a suggestion of trying to see if there’s a way we can create a fund or an assistance to help offset the payments. However, there are a lot of restrictions, and this is something I have talked with Paul about, on the funds that are available to renters. First of all, the funds that are available through ARPA (American Rescue Plan) COVID relief are only available to renters who are already behind on their rent. So you cannot say, ‘I’m not going to make my rent next month. I need more money.’ You literally have to miss your rent payment, get a notice to quit, have the eviction process start, and then you can get your rent paid.
“I think there should have been substantially more planning going into how we will help renters. But I think part of the problem again is representation, in that there aren’t a lot of renters on the council or the finance committee, or in places where we’re making decisions, because for people to be able to sit up here and say $45 less is enough is a privilege for some people. For some people, $5 over what you pay for Section 8 could cause you to have to move out of that apartment, because it is no longer in the guidelines.
“So I think we need to change again the way that we’re framing and thinking about this, and I think it’s really difficult to be talking about and thinking about this with people who aren’t affected by what I’m trying to do here. It would benefit us greatly to have more people who have Section 8 and live in Amherst, more people who are renters and who are low income, because then maybe we can ask them, ‘Would it be helpful if there was an additional $45 a year?’ I can almost guarantee they would all say Yes.
“If the $10 million isn’t going to work, which again in my opinion I still think we could do, maybe we come up with a plan to replenish the reserves because we need to help our residents. We need to shift the conversation to how are we going to help our residents, because we already have a plan for the town.”
Mangano responded that he has offered to do other models based on other assumptions for funding the capital projects. But Kubiak cited his 30 years in social services work and local government to say that “We’ve wasted five years and over $30 million because of some bad decisions that are made, and I’m not willing to see more bad decisions that will throw those other projects into jeopardy because of the prospect of the average single-family unit saving what amounts to 23 cents a day. I dare say nobody is going to move out of Amherst for 23 cents a day.”
Town Manager Paul Bockelman noted the restrictions on helping individuals with public money, and felt the town should explore means of helping residents in the couple of years before the tax hike takes effect, maybe through Community Preservation or Community Development Block Grant, or special legislation. He added, “I think it’s a really legitimate point that we can spend some effort on.”
These issues will be discussed again at the Town Council meeting on Monday, March 27. The Finance meet again at 3 p.m. on March 28.
2 thoughts on “Walker’s Pleas To Ease Taxpayer Burden Of School Override Fall On Deaf Ears”
Elisha Walker’s comment are a welcome alternate perspective. I appreciate her serving and being willing to speak out on difficult issues. When Kubiak talks about a “bad decision” causing the town to lose $30 million, he is probably blaming Town Meeting, but in my opinion the “bad decision” that cost us $30 million was the insistence of the Superintendent and the School Committee to push through an unpopular and controversial plan – much like the current Library Plan. Had they made plans that included all voices we would already have a renovated library and, long ago, a new school. Her questioning of the starting assumptions of the budget process is much needed. Of course the bigger problem is the enormous lack of equity in working compensation across all industries, including public entities. and the fact that housing is a profit making industry that makes the rich richer on the backs of the poor. We, the people, are giving away our community resources to profit making entities, because we are lacking the vision and the initiative of how to do it ourselves. Many of us, including myself, are invested in those entities. Yes, we are getting housing, but not the housing we need or want. Let us ALL work together and create the new models that will actually lead to real equity, inclusion and affordability. Bob Greeney
How does Mr. Kubiak figure $0.23/day/household for school debt? Before Covid $470 paid for a month of food but now it’s less than half that. Not a pittance for the MEDIAN Amherst family which is considerably less than the inflated MEAN family income.