Council Rescinds 2021 Zoning Priorities. Approves Regional School Budget With Little Discussion Or Dissent


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Report Of The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council Meeting, April 24, 2023

This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded. It 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), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5).
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council).

Participating on Zoom: Councilors Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ellisha Walker (at large)
Staff: Sean Mangano (Finance Director), Guilford Mooring (Superintendent of Public Works)

Nonvoting member of the Finance Committee: Bob Hegner


  • Council Rescinds 2021 Zoning Priorities Of Community Resources Committee
  • Regional School Budget Passed With Little Discussion
  • Timing And Procedure For Funding Demolition Of North Amherst Gas Station Questioned
  • Cannabis Impact Funds Separated From Free Cash
  • Water Reuse Project On Hold, Bond Appropriation Rescinded
  • Adjustments Made To Sewer Enterprise Expenses
  • Town Manager Stresses Need To Fill Coming Vacancies On ZBA
  • Debt Exclusion Override Vote Scheduled For May 2

Amherst Media Government Channel Moving
Council President Lynn Griesemer announced that as of Tuesday, May 2, the government channel of Amherst Media will change from channel 17 to channel 9.

Council Rescinds 2021 Zoning Priorities Of Community Resources Committee
In 2021, the Community Resources Committee of the council (CRC) passed an extensive list of zoning priorities for the town manager and planning department to work on. Although numerous Planning Board meetings and public hearings dealt with several of these topics, only a few were passed, and most are no longer considered workable, although the CRC wants the town manager to continue to work on design guidelines. 

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), who chairs the committee, said they now understand that the more specific a zoning proposal is, the harder it is for the Planning Department and Planning Board to come up with their own recommendations. Therefore, the committee  is now recommending that the 2021 priorities be removed and that they work on a more general list.

Cathy Schoen (District 1) asked if it would be advisable to talk to the Planning Department and Planning Board and find out what they consider important before revising the CRC’s priorities. Dorothy Pam (District 3) agreed, saying that the town should rely more on the professional planners instead of councilors. She pointed out that the zoning bylaw revision currently proposed by Hanneke and Pat DeAngelis (District 2), “has been moving around in a way that I can’t figure out — why it goes here, and goes there. So I support reducing this list — because it is confusing.”

DeAngelis defended the CRC’s work and process, saying, “The Planning Board does an amazing amount of work, but they don’t do everything. “At times,” she said, “they’re very limited in their view.” She pointed out that a proposal for a solar moratorium until a solar bylaw was in place for the town had been defeated by the Town Council and the Planning Board.  (A solar bylaw is currently being developed.). She noted that “all kinds of life experiences contribute to what we know about a housing or affordability or needs of the community” and said that the council should not minimize that.

Hanneke said that the CRC has barely begun to discuss a new list of zoning priorities. The previous list was withdrawn by a unanimous vote.

Regional School Budget Passed With Little Discussion
In order to have Amherst’s share of the regional school budget approved in time for the April and May town meetings in Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, the council had to take up the matter prior to the full town budget discussion. The remainder of the town budget, including that of the elementary schools, does not have to be passed until June 30.

School Finance Director Doug Slaughter briefly presented the regional school budget in a public hearing immediately before the council meeting. Amherst’s share of the $33,700,000 regional school budget proposed for FY2024 is $17,700,00, a three percent increase from FY 2023. The budget was previously reviewed and recommended by the Finance Committee. The council voted unanimously to accept the assessment methodology , which is based on a five-year rolling average of the number of students from each town with “guardrails” of a maximum change of four percent from the previous year for the three smaller towns. The council also unanimously approved the operating budget, the debt authorization for previous capital expenses, and an authorization for an additional $685,000 in expenses for roof and HVAC repairs at both the middle school and high school.

Since several contracts are still pending and the amount of state aid has not yet been finalized, Rooney asked if any increases in state aid would be automatically added to the school budget or would it be used to reduce the amount the town was assessed. Mangano replied that any additional aid would probably not change Amherst’s assessment, since that would require a vote of all four towns. But if there were a large amount of added aid, the changes would be brought before the council in the fall for discussion.

Schoen said she understands that the FY2025 budget will be especially  challenging, because additional federal funds for COVID relief will run out in 2024. She said she hopes the regional school budget will come to the council sooner than the end of April, so shortfalls can be discussed and the towns have time to advocate for additional funding if needed. 

Six Financial Orders Presented
Finance Director Sean Mangano presented six financial orders that need to be approved prior to the passage of the FY 2024 budget. These were discussed at the April 18 Finance Committee meeting and were the subject of a public forum and council discussion.

Timing And Procedure For Funding Demolition Of North Amherst Gas Station Questioned
The proposed use of unspent capital funds to demolish the vacant gas station to the north of the North Amherst Library generated the most comment. The Town of Amherst purchased the vacant gas station at 24 Montague Road for $675,000 in December 2016 with a plan to revise the traffic pattern in North Amherst Center. The site abuts the North Amherst Library, which is currently being enlarged and remodeled with private funds from an anonymous donor. The construction work is set to be completed in August, and the Department of Public Works (DPW) proposes using $110,000 of unused capital funds to demolish the gas station and repave the disintegrating parking lot prior to the opening of the new entrance to the library, which fronts the site.

During the public forum, Toni Cunningham said she supported the decision made at the Finance Committee meeting to use capital funds rather than free cash for this project. She pointed out that this expense was neither unanticipated nor an emergency—two valid reasons for using free cash that were used as an argument for not allocating more reserves to ease the burden of the debt exclusion override for the proposed elementary school on taxpayers. Cunningham pointed out that At-large Councilor Ellisha Walker’s proposal to use an additional $5 million in reserves for the school was handled quite differently than the easy change of funding source agreed upon at the Finance Committee meeting. She said the council was told that this change might require the town to issue a new financial order for funding the school and could possibly delay the project. Walker’s proposal was defeated 10-2-1 at the April 3 council meeting.

Walker also questioned why the gas station demolition was being funded at this time when more important projects are not being dealt with.  DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring replied that the town wants to remove the unsightly building and repave the parking lot before the renovated library opens in August. He noted that the new main entrance and parking lot overlook the site, and that the demolition has been intended for a while. He assured the council that this work would fit into the plans being developed for traffic redesign in North Amherst center, and said the town would continue to obtain revenue from renting parking spaces at the gas station site for now.

The council voted to appropriate the $110,000 for the gas station demolition by a vote of 12-1, with Walker dissenting because she did not agree that it should be paid for with FY2023 funds.

Cannabis Impact Funds Separated From Free Cash
When marijuana was legalized in the state, municipalities housing cannabis dispensaries were awarded some of the fees from licensing and operation of these establishments to counteract impacts from the expected increased cannabis use. Up until now, these funds, amounting to about $715,000 in Amherst, have been kept in free cash. None has yet to be used. Mangano recommended creating a separate Cannabis Impact Fund to be used at the discretion of the town manager with an annual report back to the council

Pam Rooney (District 4) asked if these funds could be used for reparations for Black residents as the taxes collected on cannabis sales have been. Mangano noted that the reparations fund is actually funded from free cash in an amount equal to the annual cannabis tax receipts, not from the tax directly. He explained that the cannabis impact money is not from taxes either, and is specifically designated to be used to counteract the impact of cannabis in town. He said the town wants to be cautious and make sure the impact money is used appropriately. Town Manager Paul Bockelman added that policies regarding this money are still developing. In addition, he said that the town expects the impact money to  be phased out eventually. 

Pam suggested that some of the impact money could go to youth services. Mangano pointed out that the memo suggested some uses for the funds, including vaping detection equipment for the high school and a curriculum for educating students and staff about vaping. The creation of the Cannabis Impact Fund passed unanimously.

Water Reuse Project On Hold, Bond Appropriation Rescinded
In 2021, the town approved a $5 million bond to improve the water reuse system by using reclaimed water instead of potable water for irrigation and heating in order to eventually reduce water consumption. Most of this reuse water was intended for use by UMass. As of now, the town has spent $300,000 on engineering design costs, but the project has now been put on hold because UMass has decided to use  geothermal wells for its heating needs, so the town no longer needs the $4.96 million remaining in the bond. 

In the public forum about this project, Toni Cunningham expressed her opinion that UMass should reimburse the town for the money it has already spent. Mooring speculated that  the designs could be used sometime in the future if the town gains another large water use customer and decides to pursue water reuse again. The council unanimously voted to rescind the unspent funds in the bond but did not discuss reimbursement from UMass for what was already spent.

Adjustments Made To Sewer Enterprise Expenses
The council unanimously passed increased spending for “tipping fees” for solid waste disposal fees and a new gravity belt thickener.

Fees for solid waste disposal have risen from $511,000 to $536,000 for the year. The extra cost was authorized to be paid from the solid waste enterprise fund operating budget.

Similarly, the cost for the gravity belt thickener has risen from $2.2 million when it was proposed in 2019 to $3.3 million by current estimate. The gravity belt thickener removes liquids from waste, resulting in a decreased volume to be carted away for disposal. The original appropriation was rescinded and a new debt authorization passed. 

Town Manager Stresses Need To Fill Coming Vacancies On ZBA
In his report, Bockelman pointed out that the summer will be a busy time for the Zoning Board of Appeals, with two upcoming projects to approve. He urged councilors to encourage qualified residents to apply for the two full vacancies and the four associate positions that will need to be filled by July 1.

He also praised the work of volunteers around town at the end of Volunteer Appreciation Month and noted that last Saturday was an inspiring example of the increase in activities with the coming of spring: the opening of the farmers’ market, the sustainability fair, the drug takeback day, the UMass livestock open house, and the Bach festival. He said all were well attended and went well.

Debt Exclusion Override Vote Scheduled For May 2
Mail-in ballots and absentee ballots for the debt exclusion override for the new elementary school are available at Town Hall. On Tuesday, May 2, voting will take place at residents’ regular polling places  from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Because the voting precincts changed last summer with new districting in town, residents should check here to confirm their polling place.

The meeting adjourned at 8:21 p.m. The council will meet again on May 1 and will begin discussing the FY2024 budget.

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