Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, May 1, 2023
This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded. The recording 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), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5).
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Sean Mangano (Finance Director), Holly Drake (Comptroller), and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Participating on Zoom: Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4), and Ellisha Walker (at large). Absent: Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5).
There were seven members of the public in the Zoom audience and one present in the Town Room.
Mangano And Bockelman Summarize Proposed Budget For FY 2024
Town Manager Paul Bockelman introduced the presentation of the proposed $93,457,917 FY2024 budget by thanking the staff and community members who contributed. He and Finance Director Sean Mangano gave a brief PowerPoint presentation that summarized the 288-page budget document. Bockelman said that this was a balanced “no nonsense” budget that maintains services with a three percent increase in funds. He said there are few new programs, and most of the requests for expanded programs and services have not been granted. The budget does incorporate Increases for salaries, health insurance, and pensions. He summarized the document, saying, “The FY24 Budget Proposal accelerates progress in key initiatives, like climate action, public safety, and racial equity, and addresses the clear need for greater investment in our roads.”
Mangano said that the budget process began with the Financial Indicators presentation in the fall, followed by the goals and priorities established by the Town Council. He stated that there are five major components to the budget: the municipal budget (which includes the four enterprise funds), the elementary school budget, the regional school budget, the library budget, and the capital improvement budget. The regional school budget was passed at the April 24 council meeting. In addition to these major areas, there are also budgets for Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).
Next year’s budget maintains 10.5% for capital improvement to continue accruing funds for the major capital building projects. It also allots a record $2.5 million for road and sidewalk repair; this includes state funds. There is also $40,000 for tree planting, removal, and repair, because many trees in town are in poor health and need to be replaced. The Department of Public Works has requested $230,000 in equipment to improve maintenance of the town’s natural grass athletic fields.
Electric School Buses And Hybrid Police Cruisers Included In Budget
To further the town’s climate action goals, $775,000 has been earmarked to purchase two new electric school buses. Two hundred thousand dollars of this amount will be reimbursed from the state grant. Three hybrid police cruisers are expected to cost $225,000. Another $22,000 will go to the sustainability director to pay for ValleyBike Share membership and professional development programs.
The town has also started to replace HVAC systems in town buildings with non-fossil fuel sources.
Safety And Social Programs Maintained
The proposed budget continues to fund the 10-person Community Responders (CRESS) program, but does not allow for an increase in staffing that would allow the program to operate full time. The two-person Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is slated to receive an additional $6,000 to support training and community engagement. As suggested by the council, $5,000 has been earmarked to pilot a childcare reimbursement fund for elected officials
The fire department plans to get a new pumper truck and a new ambulance, as well as a second lead dispatcher to provide 24/7 supervisory capacity for emergency calls.
The Community Preservation Act committee designated $1.8 million to support two affordable housing projects, one on Belchertown Road and one on Ball Lane.
In the enterprise funds, $700,000 was allocated to replace pump station number 4, and $70,000 to replace the scale at the transfer station. Costs have continued to rise due to increases in wages, benefits, fuel,and transportation costs, and debt accrued for financing the new Centennial Water Treatment Plant and the gravity belt thickener for disposal of sewage.
Five Year Budget Outlook Improved
Mangano noted that revenue from property taxes was higher than anticipated in the past year, primarily due to new construction in town. Also, the town received more state aid than anticipated. Expenses for pensions are also decreasing as the town is nearing the end of its accelerated pension-funding program. There may be a slight shortfall in 2028, but the town is in “good shape overall” for the next few years.
Goals for the coming year include:
- Working to secure annual, non-tax, funding for EMS/Fire services, which will allow the town to incorporate four new positions into the operating budget and purchase a new ambulance in FY24
• Working to set-aside $100,000 annually in non-tax funds to promote safe and healthy housing
• Reviewing options to allocate remaining ARPA funds for upcoming capital needs (such as school roof replacement projects) to help relieve pressure on the capital budget
• An internal working group that will focus on long-term financial sustainability in the schools and will study and make recommendations on:
• Funding levels; Cost saving measures; and Facility planning,
- to be submitted by December 31, 2023
• Creation of an Economic Development Task Force in partnership with area Institutions
Finance Committee To Meet Twice Weekly In May To Review The Budget
The Finance Committee will be meeting on most Fridays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. to review the 288-page FY 2024 budget in detail. Each of these meetings will be posted as a full council meeting as well, so all councilors can participate.. All are open to the public and will be livestreamed and recorded. The Finance Committee will meet with representatives of each department. Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) urged councilors to submit their questions to Mangano in advance of meetings, so that any research needed to provide answers can be done.
Friday, May 5 will be devoted to overall budget questions, water and sewer rates, and optional tax exemptions for elderly residents, disabled residents, veterans, and widowed residents of low income. The May 9 meeting will discuss the elementary school and library budgets, and the May 12 meeting will be for public safety. The DPW and enterprise funds will be discussed on May 16. The full budget will be brought back to the council in June. There will be a public hearing on the budget at 5:30 and a public forum at 6 p.m. preceding the May 15 council meeting.
Water And Sewer Rates To Rise In FY24
Water and sewer rates for next year will be discussed at the May 5 Finance Committee meeting. Water usage has not fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, but the costs are fairly fixed, necessitating an increase in rates from $4.75 to $5 per 100 cubic feet, approximately $23 per household per year. Sewer costs will increase from $5.20 to $5.50 per 100 cubic feet, or about $28 per year. The town has received favorable borrowing terms and some grant money to help fund improvements to both systems. If consumption increases due to new housing growth, future rate increases could be reduced. Amherst still remains in the middle for area towns, as far as total water and sewer costs are concerned. The council will most likely vote on the rate hikes on June 5.
Public Comment: Don’t Wait For Legislature To Act To Institute Ranked Choice Voting
Andy Anderson, who was present in the town room, submitted a petition signed by nearly 60 residents in support of instituting ranked choice voting for town elections, hopefully beginning in November 2023. The town petitioned the state legislature in 2021 to permit ranked choice voting in Amherst. He said, “The legislation was introduced more than two years ago and only barely got out of committee at the very end of the session last July. It then promptly died. The excuses we’ve heard include falsely [asserting] that the statewide referendum failed so Amherst shouldn’t have it either; or Amherst, Northampton, Belmont, and Concord all have different versions, so we can’t deal with it. There are only two months left to get it addressed in this session.” He concluded, “It’s time to reconsider the original intention of the Charter Commission, that is that the Council directly implement ranked choice voting in Amherst as a bylaw.”
Councilor Michele Miller (District 1) requested that rank choice voting be put on a future council agenda.
Bockelman said that the front steps at Town Hall will soon be replaced. During construction, all visitors to the building will need to enter at the Main Street entrance. He also noted the end of the public health emergency for COVID-19 on May 11. After that time, all conditions will revert back to pre-pandemic state, as far as capacity limitations on rooms and required masking. The Health Department will continue to offer testing and vaccinations.
Hampshire College graduation will take place on May 20. UMass and Amherst College graduations are Memorial Day weekend (May 27–29).
Bockelman and Mangano will hold a Cuppa Joe informal gathering at 8:30 on May 12 at the Bang’s Center.
Anika Lopes (District 4) announced that there will be a press event for the Jones Library Capital campaign with Congressman Jim McGovern on May 3 at noon on the steps of the library. In case of rain, the event would be held in the Woodbury Room.
As the liaison to the Recreation Commission, Pat DeAngelis (District 2) noted what she called “a culture clash” between tennis players and pickleball players. A temporary pickleball court was created on one of the tennis courts at Mill River Recreation Area while a permanent site for a pickleball court is sought. The first-come, first-serve policy has resulted in some conflict between those wanting to play tennis and those wanting to use the court for pickleball. Mill River, Groff Park, Kiwanis, and the cow pasture near the North Amherst library are being considered for the permanent pickleball courts.
The final report of the Community Resources Committee’s Rental Survey Community Engagement Project is included in the packet for the May 15 council meeting.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:15. The council will next meet with the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee and the Human Rights Commission on Wednesday, May 10 to discuss the handling of the incident between the police and several teenagers on July 5, 2022. This meeting was to resolve some of the issues raised at the November 14 meeting between the groups.
The next regular council meeting is set for May 15.