CRESS Independence Debated by Finance Committee and Council


Pomeroy Roundabout, South Amherst. From the 2024 Town Manager's State of the Town Report. Photo:

Report on the Special Meeting of the Amherst Town Council For Budget Guidelines and State of the Town Presentations, December 11, 2023

This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen, (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes and Pam Rooney (District 4), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), and Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Participating remotely:  Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3) and Ellisha Walker (at large).

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Because this was a Special Council meeting, there was no public comment. A one-hour orientation for newly elected councilors given by Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe preceded the meeting.  

This Special Town Council meeting served to complete several of the items postponed from the December 4 council meeting, which was largely devoted to the request for another $10 million in borrowing for the Jones Library expansion. This hybrid meeting  (remoted and in-person)included the State of the Town addresses by Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) and Town Manager Paul Bockelman. In addition, the town manager evaluation, as summarized by Griesemer, was accepted and Bockelman’s contract was extended until 2027. The remainder of the meeting dealt with establishing budget guidelines for fiscal year 2025. The budget guidelines were also the topic of the Finance Committee meetings of December 7 and December 12. 

CRESS Independence Debated by Finance Committee and Council
In preparation for developing the town budget for FY2025, the Finance Committee presented a draft of Budget Guidelines for the year. After obtaining comments from councilors, the committee revised the draft, which will be voted on at the December 18 council meeting. The 12-page draft document notes that 69% of Amherst’s revenue comes from property taxes, as state aid has continued to fall short of need. 

The draft guidelines recommend a 3% across the board increase in the budgets of all town departments, and state that “the focus in the coming year in the budget should be to provide essential services including schools, libraries, public safety, maintenance of roads and sidewalks, and investments in buildings and equipment. We consider the two newest departments — Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) and the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) — as part of the essential, ongoing services. Our current services are valued by the majority in Amherst. We also support continued implementation of the Climate Action Adaptation and Resilience Plan (CAARP), with a focus on actions that will enable us to achieve the goals adopted by the Council. This includes making progress on replacing fossil fuels as we renovate and repair public buildings, replace vehicles, and/or pursue Major Capital Projects.”

The guidelines also recommend devoting 10.5% of revenues to capital expenses and not using reserve funds for recurring expenses. Nonvoting Finance Committee member Bob Hegner noted that, with the ending of federal ARPA funds and the likely beginning of the Jones Library expansion project, the town may not be able to meet the 10.5% goal. Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) replied, “If we build the library and don’t do the 10.5%, we’ll be in trouble.” She also pointed out that the town could receive some reimbursement from the Inflation Reduction Act for fossil fuel saving improvements to town buildings and vehicles. 

Although the Community Responders (CRESS) program is currently understaffed, without a director, and underfunded, the council and Town Manager stressed that they are committed to rejuvenating the program. Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said  it was important to evaluate the effectiveness of CRESS so far, noting that in Northampton and Greenfield’s programs responders accompany police to calls (in unmarked cars) and that this might be a direction for CRESS to take. Nonvoting Finance Committee member Bernie Kubiac opined that the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) model for CRESS as separate from the police was “flawed” and needs to “evolve”. 

Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) strongly objected to changing the direction of CRESS in the budget guidelines. As envisioned by the CSWG, she said, the CRESS responders are not clinicians, as in the Northampton and Greenfield programs, but are meant to offer “support” to residents in nonviolent situations. She added that CRESS is meant to be part of a robust public safety program. In addition, she said that the Finance Committee should concern itself with the cost of the program, not other areas.

Nonvoting Finance Committee member Matt Holloway disagreed, and suggested that an evaluation of CRESS should  guide appropriate staffing of the program, and affect its cost.

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) objected to CRESS and the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion being cited as essential services, while various other departments, such as the Public Health Department, are not. 

Remaining ARPA Funds to Be Used for Capital Expenses
Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) noted that many other communities have used the federal Covid relief ARPA funds for capital expenses. Schoen agreed that any remaining funds should go toward expenses such as road and sidewalk repair, new HVAC systems in town buildings, roof repair at Crocker Farm School, a renovated senior center, or solar canopies on the high school parking lot. No mention was made of reimbursing Black-owned town businesses that were left out of the original ARPA funds distribution for losses incurred during the pandemic slow-down.

Holloway asked for an accurate accounting of how much of the funding is still available for the town. The Finance Department will present that information when ARPA funding is discussed at the December 18 council meeting. The budget guidelines document did note that the use of ARPA funds to purchase the VFW site for a permanent center for services for the homeless population, obligated further expenses for hazardous waste disposal, demolition of the current building, and design and construction costs for its replacement.

State of the Town Addresses Highlight Accomplishments
Griesemer and Bockelman presented separate PowerPoint slideshows as part of their “State of the Town” addresses. Griesemer highlighted the achievements of the council in passing 21 resolutions and proclamations over the last year, as well as sewer and water bylaws, and new floodplain maps. She noted the bylaws in progress, which deal with waste haulers, streetlights, traffic calming, and disposition of surplus real property. 

Although she cited significant progress for a new elementary school and expanded Jones Library, Griesemer noted that much needs to be done for a South Amherst fire station and a new DPW building. As further improvements in town, she pointed to the completion of East Gables supportive studio housing and the addition to the North Amherst library through the gift of an anonymous donor, as well as work on a new Centennial Water Treatment plant, a gravity belt thickener for the sewer department, new Town Hall steps, and the improvement of the North Common. 

In addition to the new fire station and DPW, Griesemer pointed to the need for a permanent homeless shelter at the VFW site, a youth empowerment center, and a residents’ oversight board for the police. The town has also filed applications for special acts at the state level to permit rank choice voting, a transfer fee on high value property sales, and extending voting rights for legal noncitizens. Next year will also mark the five-year review of the town charter.

Bockelman stated, “Amherst is a community where children can grow up with a sense of community and feel safe—a place that is welcoming to all, and that embraces equity and inclusion.” He added, “Amherst is an extraordinary community with farmers living next to artists, groups like Ancestral Bridges and the Emily Dickinson Museum preserving our cultural history, and down the block you’ll find cutting-edge scientists creating new paths for the future. It’s a good town.”

He stressed the town’s fundamentally strong finances and the progress toward the 65 goals the council set for him last year, which he detailed in his 35-page self-evaluation, explicitly noting the strategic agreement with UMass, progress on reaching climate action goals, new affordable housing opportunities, and progress on major capital projects. He thanked the council, town staff, members of town committees, and Chamber and Business Improvement District for their work, saying, “Our work is a team sport.”

The library and schools did not present their annual State of the Town reports, but included them in the meeting packet, along with the report of the Board of License Commissioners.

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