Finance Committee Recommends Track and Field Renovation


Athletic Fields, Amherst Regional High School and Amherst Regional Middle School. Photo: Chris Condit

Committee Approves New Surplus Property Rules

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Finance Committee, March 5, 2024

The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded.

Bob Hegner (Chair, District 5),  Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large),  Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1),  Absent: Ellisha Walker. 
Non-Voting Community Members:  Bernie Kubiak.  Absent: Matt Holloway.  One vacancy. 

Staff: Jennifer LaFountain (Town Treasurer),  Doug Slaughter (Interim Superintendent of Schools), Paul Bockelman (Town Manager). David Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager)

The number of members of the public attending on Zoom was not announced.

Track and Field Renovation Project
The finance committee voted 4-1 to recommend to the Town Council that they approve a new debt authorization of $1.5 million to allow the track and field renovation, under consideration since 2012, to proceed.

The Finance Committee continued its discussion of  the proposed replacement debt authorization for the Amherst Regional High School Track and Field renovation project (see also here, here, and here) that began on February 20. The Regional School Committee (RSC) voted at their meeting of January 23, 2024 to rescind and replace the debt authorization to borrow $1.5 million to resurface the track and make it ADA accessible. Under the previous debt authorization, the RSC was only permitted to either repair the six lane track in situ or to install an artificial turf infield for a reoriented and expanded new track. The replacement authorization allows the RSC to explore the full range of options for improving the track and field facility (including natural grass instead of artificial turf for the interior field, east-west versus north-south orientation, inclusion of lighting, irrigation, etc.).

Escalating costs, lagging fundraising, and growing concern about the public health and environmental hazards of artificial turf have led some RSC members to consider a broader range of alternatives in order to expedite the repair of the track which is currently not suitable for use.  The district has contracted with the design firm SLR to complete a site assessment, including wetlands, stormwater, and the culverted Tan Brook in the coming months. They will also provide the district with updates of the cost estimates originally provided by Weston Sampson for the four options they proposed in 2021.  Those estimates will also include the costs and scope of work for necessary site improvements. It is not clear whether it will include testing of materials and monitoring soil and water for contaminants if an artificial turf option is chosen.  

Any work beyond the design phase requires reauthorizing the borrowing under discussion.

Cathy Schoen asked the committee to recommend to the council that they approve the reauthorization, saying that It offers a lot of flexibility for the project, which is going to be needed given the cost escalations from when the project was first approved.

Mandi  Jo Hanneke pointed out that the town needs to know precisely how much money is available for the project before moving forward. She said that while there is talk of a potential additional $240,000 that could be allocated by the Community Preservation Act (CPA) committees of the district’s other member towns,  those committees would  not have the opportunity to deliberate and approve such funding before a contract needs to be signed. 

Hanneke said she would oppose the current motion “with a heavy heart.” She said she believes the town needs a new re-oriented track, expanded to eight lanes, but that “it would not be responsible for the council to approve borrowing with so many options on the table and without a realistic funding plan.”  She strongly recommended that the request for a new borrowing authorization be sent back to the RSC with a directive to come back when they have realistic cost estimates.  “We can’t move forward with a proposal where the costs estimates are three years old,”  she said.

Schoen noted that Hanneke had opposed any project that did not include artificial turf. She said, “I have always been comfortable if we just got a track out of it.  We’ve got this money on the books right now and if we take it off the books that money is likely to be allocated to other capital needs and the chances of getting a track goes out the window.  Our track is currently unusable.  Without this authorization  Doug (Slaughter) will have a hard time getting cost estimates.”

Hanneke responded, “I can’t even trust that the $1.5 million on the table is enough for Option 1A (only resurface six lane track in its current location) and I don’t even want 1A.”

Bernie Kubiak said that there is a risk to the town in moving ahead with the project without having the necessary funds in hand and without a solid plan but that risks not getting any improvements  when the track and fields have been in sorry shape for so many years.  He said that while he doesn’t think the project will actually happen, he wants to give the superintendent room to maneuver.  

The vote in favor of recommending the new debt authorization passed 3-1 with Hanneke voting no, with Walker and Holloway absent. 

Surplus Property Rules
The committee voted unanimously (4-0 with Kubiak supporting and Walker and Holloway absent), following a brief discussion, to recommend that the Town Council adopt the proposed new surplus property rules.

The proposal has drawn public interest because of concerns about a lack of available public civic space in Amherst and about the future disposition of the Wildwood School Building (see also here)  after September 2026 when the town’s new elementary school will open.

Schoen raised a concern that  the requirement of an impact statement seems to demand a lot of work from town staff, which might be necessary but could hold up an action for a long time.  She said that she would submit a memo to the committee that shows what another town does with regard to  “surplus property.”

The draft new rules follow:

Policy and Process for Disposing of Surplus Real Property
Pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 40, section 15, the Town Manager shall notify the Town Council that, in their opinion, any Town-owned real property is no longer required for public purposes and may be deemed surplus and shall present the Town Council with a request for disposition of the property.

When such a request is made, the Town Manager shall provide the Town Council with a memorandum that includes the following information:

1. A description of the property including its past uses, current use, foreseeable future governmental or public uses, and any structures thereon, including the dates of any additions or major renovations, the condition of the structures, and critical components, such as HVAC.

2. Whether the property is held for a specific purpose and/or under the custody of a particular board or officer that would require a change in use and/or transfer of custody pursuant to M.G.L. c. 40, Section 15A, and if so, a recommendation from that board or officer.

3. A map of the property and abutting parcels.

4. The existing zoning status of the property.

5. Projected annual revenues and costs associated with the property.

6. Analysis of alternative uses for the property, including public benefits and drawbacks, development potential, environmental impact, and financial impact for each alternative.

7. A summary of reasons for deeming the property surplus, including any analyses that aided the Town Manager in reaching that conclusion.

8. An independently prepared appraisal of the property’s fair market value,including any salvage value of materials.

9. Restrictions that may be placed on the property prior to sale.

10. Recommended action, including a recommended minimum amount the Town shall be paid for the property.

Prior to acting on the Town Manager’s request, the Town Council shall hold a Public Hearing within 90 days of the submission of the Town Manager request for disposition. The Clerk of the Council shall post a notice of the hearing on the Town Bulletin Board no later than 10 days prior to the Public Hearing. The Clerk of the Council shall notify abutters to the property of the Public Hearing by mail no later than 10 days prior to the Public Hearing.

The disposition of Town property shall require a 2/3 vote of the Town Council, unless a different quantum is required by Massachusetts general law. M.G.L. Chapter 30B, section 16, the Uniform Procurement Act, sets forth additional steps the Town must take to dispose of Town property. No Town property shall be disposed of prior to compliance with applicable State or local laws.

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