Walker’s Bid To Use $10 Million From Reserves Defeated
Report On The Meeting Of the Amherst Town Council, Public Forum, And Finance Committee Meeting of April 3,2023, Part 1
These meetings were held in hybrid format and were recorded. They can be viewed here.
Councilors in the Town Room: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5).
Participating on Zoom: Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), and Ellisha Walker (at large).
Non-voting members of the Finance Committee: Bob Hegner, Matt Holloway, and Bernie Kubiak.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Sean Mangano (Finance Director), and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council).
There were six members of the public present in Town Hall, and 13 on Zoom.
After four hours of discussion, the Town Council voted 12-1, with Ellisha Walker dissenting, to recommend the borrowing of $92,492,295 for construction of the new elementary school at the Fort River site. About $40 million of this amount is expected to be awarded to the town from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). The total includes $5 million from the town’s capital stabilization fund, as well as other funds previously allotted to the project. Voters must approve the debt exclusion authorization by a majority vote at the May 2 special election for the project to proceed. If the debt exclusion passes, it is estimated that it will raise property taxes on the average Amherst home by $451 per year for 30 years beginning in 2026.
Public Forum On Using Reserves Draws Mixed Opinions
The public forum began with Finance Director Sean Mangano outlining the proposed borrowing authorization for $92,492,297 that included $5 million to be taken from the capital stabilization reserves, as proposed by Cathy Schoen (District 1) and recommended unanimously by the Finance Committee on February 28. The Finance Committee expects that a good portion of that $5 million will be returned to the capital stabilization account when energy credits are received at the completion of construction. No mention was made of Ellisha Walker’s suggestion to use another $5 million from the reserves to lower the amount of the override, which was tabled without a vote at the March 28 Finance Committee meeting. Mangano’s presentation noted that the Elementary School Building Committee had reduced the cost of the project by over $5 million by reducing the size of the building by 8000 sq. ft. and changing some construction materials.
Public comments mostly concerned Walker’s request for additional money from reserves.
Tim Neil objected to using more than $5 million because of the need to use the reserves for other capital projects.
Claire Bertrand voiced similar sentiments, urging councilors not to rob resources from future projects to finance the school.
Peter Demling, Matt Blumenfeld, and Ginny Hamilton noted the strong support for the school project and hoped the council would affirm its support unanimously.
A member of the Amherst Firefighters’ Union detailed the poor condition of the town’s fire stations, saying, “Some of the biggest risks we take are avoidable and come from our own station environment.” She worried that taking more money from reserves would further delay funding for a new firehouse which has been talked about for decades, yet “always seems to be placed on the back burner.”
Vincent O’Connor and Jeff Lee felt the town should give the maximal support to the elementary school project to show voters that the cost to taxpayers has been reduced as much as possible.
Carol Gray objected to proceeding with capital projects while the teachers’ and paraeducators’ contracts remained unsettled.
Birdy Newman, Allegra Clark, and Amber Cano Martin decried the fact that Walker had not been allowed to make a motion to use additional reserves for the school project, despite raising the issue and several meetings (see also here).
Maria Kopicki noted that this avoidance of allowing a discussion of Walker’s proposal has resulted in a “manufactured crisis of time” with a decision needing to be made at the last minute during this meeting. She also said it was “shameful” to pit the fire station against the school project when the town does not have a site, a building committee, or even a preliminary cost estimate for the fire station and she objected to some people telling other people what they can afford.
The public forum concluded at 6:50 p.m.
Finance Committee Fails To Recommend Use Of Additional Funds For The School
A meeting of the Finance Committee (FC) followed the public forum. This meeting was to reconsider the tabled motion made on March 28 by Council President Lynn Griesemer and seconded by Schoen to use the entire capital stabilization fund for the school (an amount slightly less than the $10 million proposed by Walker). Although most members of the FC did not support the use of reserves over $5 million, Griesemer suggested that the Town Manager develop options to ease the burden on taxpayers and present them to the council by November 30, 2023. She pointed out that the increase in taxes would not occur until FY 2026. She thanked Walker for calling attention to the challenges faced by low-income residents, but said she has also heard of concerns about the tax increase from constituents with moderate to high incomes. Schoen agreed that the town needed to figure out better ways of easing the tax burden for those living on a restricted income. Nonvoting FC members Bob Hegner and Bernie Kubiak felt the $5 million from reserves was a good compromise that would not delay the construction of a new fire station or Department of Public Works (DPW) building.
Walker, however, questioned why she was never allowed to make a motion at an FC or council meeting. She said she was “continuously told her motion was premature, and now is being told it is too late” to be added to the financial order for the borrowing. She pointed out that Schoen’s motion to use $5 million from reserves is included in the financial order, despite being only voted on by the FC and not the entire council. She abstained from the vote on the recommended financial order. All other members of the FC voted in favor. The FC committee ended at 7:25 p.m.
Convoluted Discussion Leads To No Change In Financial Order For School Override
At the start of the regular council meeting, Walker asserted that the town should do whatever it can to keep the taxpayers’ share of the debt exclusion override close to the $40 million originally projected in the fall of 2022. She said she has been trying, without success, to initiate this discussion for many months, and felt the town could use another $5 million from the reserves prudently, since the first $5 million proposed by Schoen would largely be replenished by energy credits for the net zero school. She noted that the opinion obtained from K-P Law indicated that the council could only lower the suggested amount from reserves, not increase it, so she requested the additional funds from reserves be added to the financial order now. She said that having the town manager look for other sources of funds to ease the burden on taxpayers was not as compelling as committing the money now and having him look for other funds in the future. She moved to add the additional $5 million from reserves to the financial order if other sources of that money could not be found in the next six months. Pam Rooney (District 4) seconded the motion.
FC Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) said he felt Walker’s motion was not financially sound. Schoen pointed out the need to keep the capital reserves, not only for the building projects, but also for road and sidewalk repairs. Michele Miller (District 1) and Dorothy Pam (District 3) said they were glad Walker was finally able to make her motion. Miller advised that the council look at the process it followed and do better in the future. She liked the idea of giving the town six months to find other sources for $5 million and, if not, then allocate it from the reserves. Walker pointed out that taking a total of $10 million from the reserves would still leave $14 million which is 16% of the operating budget and would not negatively affect the town’s bond rating or significantly delay other projects, since none are imminent and the reserves could be replenished prior to them being needed.
Walker’s motion as amended read:
Should funds, comprising that additional $5 million not be secured and guaranteed by Oct 2, 2023, the Town Manager shall be requested to direct an amount equal to the difference between the $5 million and what has been secured, not to exceed a total of $5 million to be drawn from the stabilization accounts to fund the elementary school. Should any alternative funding opportunities emerge at a later date, those dollar amounts shall go back into the stabilization funds to replenish those accounts for future capital needs.
This motion was defeated 10-2-1, with only Rooney and Walker voting for it and Pam abstaining.
Some councilors voiced concerns that the K-P law opinion seemed to indicate that the whole process would need to start over if the financial order were changed. Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) worried about setting a precedent of always asking the Town Manager to try to find other funds for capital projects, adding that the motion seemed to be a way of circumventing the idea of using more reserves. She said, “I believe our time and resources will be better spent directly supporting the people who need the support.”
Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) noted that securing some funds, such as support from Amherst College may take longer than six months, and the town really has three years to find other funds before the full property tax increases kick in.
After several attempts at other motions and amendments to them, the following motion by Griesemer and seconded by Schoen was passed unanimously:
MOVED: To request that the Town Manager develop options to reduce the financial impact of the debt exclusion for the Elementary School Building Project on residents by proposing a financing plan that identifies an additional $5 million of alternative funding to be presented to the Town Council by November 30, 2023.
The full financial order for the financing of the school passed by a vote of 12-1, with Walker voting no. Walker said that her vote was difficult, because “I found all my fellow councilors were not interested in helping constituents who are going to be deeply burdened by this project.”
The motion read:
An order authorizing the construction of a new school at the Fort River School site and appropriation and borrowing authorization (9 yes votes needed) MOVED: In accordance with Charter Sec. 5.6, having been published on the Town Bulletin Board for a minimum of 10 days on March 20, 2023, a Public Forum held on April 3, 2023, and having been reviewed by the Finance Committee report of April 3, 2023, to adopt Council Order FY23-06C: An Order authorizing the construction of a new school at the Fort River School site and appropriation and borrowing authorization, as presented and shown on pages 14-15 of the Council Motions Sheet.