Recap of December 18th Select Board meeting

(12/19/06) The Select Board met Monday, December 18th.

Gerry Weiss was acting chair of the meeting in Anne Awad’s absence.  Mr. Weis announced that Ms. Awad was enroute to Kenya. 

He announced two meetings:  the Comprehensive Plan Adoption Subcommittee at 8:30 a.m. December 19th and the Comprehensive Plan Work Group Subcommittee at 4:00 p.m. December 19th, both in the Town Hall’s Town Room.

He gave a brief status report on the Mutual Aid Agreement between the Town and UMass, per chance attendees couldn’t stay to hear those details in the Town Manager’s report at the end of the meeting: Weiss, Robie Hubley, and Larry Shaffer have been meeting with Amherst Police Department Chief Charlie Scherpa, UMass Police Chief Barbara O’Connor, and their staffs, and are close to finalizing a new agreement.  It is expected to be ready for the next Select Board meeting, January 8th, though they might hold off until the following meeting.  It would be circulated to Select Board members in advance of the meeting.

Public Comment Period

Isaac BenEzra announced that he had interviewed DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring on his ACTV program.  They discussed issues related to Mr. Mooring’s Iraq experience as well as DPW issues such as snow plowing.  He said it will be rebroadcast beginning Wednesday, December 20th at 7:00 p.m.

Mr. BenEzra then went on to address the complications of Medicare Part D coverage and other factors and problems of the nation’s health insurance situation.  He emphasized the cost savings of purchasing prescription drugs from Canada and that it is safe and legal.  He wanted that emphasized because Town employees will have the option of purchasing medicine through CanaRX soon.

Mr. Shaffer responded, saying the Town had met with CanaRX two months ago.  The Town is encouraging employees to use the program, and there will be an (unnamed) incentive for them to do so.  He projected a $65,000 cost savings to the Town “at a minimum,” through uses of the program.

Mark Parent, chair of the Town Commercial Relations Committee (TCRC), said he wanted the Select Board to put a strategic discussion of the role and charge of the TCRC on a Select Board agenda in the near future.  Mr. Weiss said that was part of the evening’s scheduled 8:00 agenda item, but Mr. Parent said that was different – it was  “visioning” for downtown; he wanted the committee’s charge discussed so their role in relevant Town issues, such as the recent proposed tax exemption for small businesses, could be better understood.  Mr. Weiss apologized for misunderstanding Mr. Parent’s previous request for a discussion, and suggested that some of that could be touched on in the 8:00 discussion.  Mr. Hubley mentioned that the TCRC and any committee that believes an agenda item is relevant to them should take part in the Select Board meetings without waiting "to be invited."  He also said that anyone desiring a specific agenda item can call to have it scheduled.  Hwei-Ling Greeney asked when the next TCRC meeting is, and Mr. Parent said it is tentatively scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on December 21st.

Amherst Chinese Christian Church Sign Request

Henry Lu, an elder of the church, requested approval for a sign at the church’s entrance.  It was noted that the request had already been approved by Town Planning Director Jonathan Tucker and Mr. Mooring.  There was discussion about encouraging church members to take the bus to the church.  The Board voted 4-0, one absent, to approve the sign request.

Sewer Rate Increase

Mr. Mooring said that careful budget review showed that sewer rates need to be increased to $3 per 100 cubic feet.  It was noted that this represents a 25% increase.  Mr. Mooring explained that decreased usage, particularly due to water conservation efforts at UMass, but also because of increased costs for electrical power and chemicals, necessitated the increase.  Mr. Shaffer said that he considers the increased rate to be “a bargain,” praising the system and saying the rates were well in-line with those of comparable communities.  Robert Pariseau, the Town’s Director of Water Resources, noted that rates were low when compared to communities across the State and are lower than several local towns. 

Rob Kusner noted that the money comes primarily from usage, as opposed to hook-up fees and wondered if those might be increased.  Mr. Pariseau explained that hook-up fees are paid by newly-constructed units getting connected to the Town sewer system.  He said it is currently $1000 for a single-family residence, and wasn’t sure how those rates compared to other towns. 

Mr. Weiss wanted explanation of the $1 mllion sewer fund reserve.  John Musante, Town Finance Director, explained that that has been a longstanding practice.  Musante said the sewer operating budget is $3.2 million, so a $1 million reserve represents about 4 months of operating costs and was considered a safe cushion.  Mr. Shaffer concurred, citing the high expense of fixing equipment failures and other emergencies. 

Mr. Hubley asked Mr. Pariseau to explain for the benefit of public knowledge why conservation efforts resulting in less sewer usage cause fees to increase.  Mr. Pariseau said that the more that is conserved, the less that can be billed out, and said that because of system costs such as equipment and staffing, decreased usage doesn’t translate to proportional cost savings. 

Mr. Kusner returned to the question of hook-up fees, asking if they should cost more, because current rates are equivalent to only one or two years of typical water and sewer usage fees.  He also wondered if they might be priced according to alternatives such as installing private septic tanks.  Mr. Mooring said he thought that was an interesting idea and would have to give it some thought. 

Ms. Greeney said the Town has the capacity for about 4,000 more housing units, based on available land and suggested that new hook-ups might bear more of the cost burden.  She also wondered if tiered sewer fees for UMass might be an option.  Mr. Shaffer said that as the sewer commissioners, that Select Board could establish a tiered system if they so desired, but he warned about the potential dangers of getting away from the standard equitable division of one rate for all users of the system, saying different rates could then be established to favor or penalize any subset of users.  He explained that hook-up fees are based on determining the current value of the system's assets depreciated accordingly and divided by the total number of users.

Mr. Kusner suggested basing the fee on future need might be better than basing it on current value, noting that if our plant capacity were to be reached and we were to need a new one, it would be expensive.  Mr. Pariseau said the plant is in excellent shape and has adequate capacity, operating at a 4.5 million gallon flow rate with 7 million gallon capacity.  He also responded to Ms. Greeney’s question of tiered rates, saying that they are common for water usage because it encourages conservation, but he was not aware of anyone doing tiered sewer rates.

It was agreed that the DPW would present more information on hook-up fees in the future, possibly at a public information meeting rather than as a Select Board agenda item, but that such increases would not off-set the need for increased sewer rates now.  The Board voted 4-0, one absent, to approve raising sewer rates by 60 cents to $3.00, as of January 1st.

Fire and EMS Service Delivery Study

Mr. Kusner wanted some discussion by the Select Board around the issue of emergency care, to help guide the Town Manager in his discussions with anyone who might be proposing changes in this area.  Mr. Kusner said the topic was larger than just new fire stations, and should consider issues such as paramedic and EMS needs and the lack of emergency room care on this side of the river.  Mr. Weiss concurred, noting that there are three times more EMS calls than fire calls, and suggested that perhaps we need dedicated EMS stations.  Mr. Shaffer said EMS needs are part of the discussions with the UMass Chancellor. He also noted that the Fire Chief’s primary concern is that he doesn’t have enough firefighters. 

Mr. Weiss said that perhaps the firefighter shortage is due to so many personnel being out on EMS calls.  He noted that transfers of patients between hospitals and nursing homes is a significant and lucrative part of the EMS work, and he pointed out that our coverage area is large and the reimbursement rates might not adequately reflect how much time is spent in transferring people to or from hospitals in Northampton and Greenfield.  Mr. Shaffer agreed that time in transit was a key problem, and that more time is spent there than in providing actual service.  He pointed out that 42% of the entire fire and EMS budget is covered by fees from insurance companies, other towns and UMass, and that that percentage of the budget has been increasing.  Mr. Weiss thought that EMS fees should amount to 60% of the budget, and that EMS work should be paying for itself.

Mr. Kusner noted that South Hadley is looking at such issues as well and might be consulted.  He also noted that perhaps an emergency room or triage facility might be created in or near Amherst, noting that both students and seniors probably had a higher utilization rate of emergency care than the general population.

There was discussion around how all Amherst emergency personnel are both fire fighters and EMTs, with questions about the efficiency of that arrangement, its pros and cons and whether it should be reconsidered.

Mr. Weiss noted that the nature of emergency calls was such that one couldn’t know exactly what to expect, but for the bulk of transfers, the situation was known; perhaps that could be addressed, thereby freeing up firefighters.

No decisions were made or actions taken in regard to the discussion.

Public Hearing: Alter Premises – Liquor License – Judie’s

Mr. Weiss asked for clarification of the Select Board’s role in this.  Mr. Shaffer explained that when there is a change in the conditions under which the license had previously been granted, it has to come back to the Select Board for new approval; the previous approval doesn’t reflect the new situation and it can’t be presumed that the license would be granted under the changed circumstances. 

Dave Williams, a partner in Judie’s restaurant, explained its planned expansion. It will span the current driveway and extend into the former Barselotti’s space.  It will have seating all on one level, a new professional kitchen, ADA-compliant bathrooms and an added entrance from the parking garage side of the building.  Capacity would expand from 100 to 160 seats.  Mr. Weiss and Mr. Kusner noted that they wish the expansion would include apartments above the restaurant. 

The Board voted 4-0, one absent, to approve the liquor license for Judie’s expansion.

Mr. Hubley noted that this expansion and the cinema project make it feel as though the downtown is flourishing.

Mr. Williams praised the Town departments and employees for their help through this process, saying they felt “well-cared for.”

Public Hearing – Alter Premises – Liquor License – Watroba’s

Mr. Weiss recused himself from this discussion and left the room.  Ms. Greeney was acting chair. 

Matthew Corcoran, owner of Watroba’s grocery and liquor store, spoke of wanting to store wine in an existing storage room.  He needs to be able to buy wine in 50-case minimums in order to benefit from the most competitive pricing, and buying such large quantities requires more storage space.

After brief discussion, the Board voted 3-0, one absent, one recused, to grant the liquor license with this alteration of the premises.

Public Hearing – Transfer of License – Big Guy Liquors

This transfer had already come before the Select Board recently and been approved.  Subsequently it was learned that the first Public Hearing hadn’t been posted with enough notification time, so the process had to happen again. 

Mr. Hubley brought up the subject of concern about minors being served and using fake IDs, and that a number of local businesses had been found in violation during a recent “sting.”  A representative for the new owner said that was a key concern.  Mr. Weiss pointed out that while Big Guy Liquors was among those found to be in violation, he wanted the record to show that that had occurred under the previous management.  The representative for the new owner talked about the four forms of ID that are acceptable in Massachusetts (Massachusetts driver’s license, Massachusetts liquor ID, military ID, and passport) and how the new owners had been trained in the requirements.

After brief discussion, the transfer of the liquor license was approved, 4-0, one absent.

Change of Hours – Subway

Mr. Weiss explained that Subway wants to extend its hours Thursday through Saturday nights, staying open until 2:00 a.m., and that Chief Scherpa had agreed with that, as long as Subway agreed to hire an off-duty Amherst Police officer if things get too rowdy and the Chief considers it necessary. 

Dan Marcantonio, the Subway manager, said he had spoken with the police chief about his concerns.  There was much discussion over the ZBA special permit which requires Subway to hire private security for the extended hours, and how that interacts with the Chief’s option to require an Amherst Police Officer if he deems it necessary.  Some felt it was redundant, some were unclear what each element required, some were concerned about two licensing authorities making similar rules.  Mr. Weiss thought that all establishments who are allowed to be open until 2:00 a.m. should also be subject to the Police Chief’s option to require hiring an officer.  It was ultimately decided that for clarity of intention, the ZBA’s private security requirement should be referenced in the Select Board’s motion that also includes language about Chief Scherpa’s option.  With that, the Board ultimately voted 4-0, one absent, to give Subway permission to extend its hours. 

PVTA Report

Mr. Kusner reported that the new PVTA administrator has begun a reorganization plan that includes contracting out for legal services instead of having in-house counsel.  He said he had hoped for a report from Ms. Awad about his status with the “Futures Committee” and how to share liaison duties to better communicate PVTA information to the Board, relevant committees and the Town.  It was agreed to put off further discussion on the topic until both Mr. Kusner and Ms. Awad could be present.

Public Works Committee

Ms. Greeney, referencing the previous meeting’s discussions on the topic, moved to increase the number of members of the Public Works committee from five to seven.  She said that at the last meeting there were concerns about whether enough people would be interested in serving to enable that increase, but said she was prepared to recommend two appointments to the committee at this meeting.  The original motion had February 1st as the date for the new committee size to take effect, but that was changed to December 18th because of Ms. Greeney’s intended appointments.  The vote to increase the committee’s size from five to seven members was 4-0, one absent.

Policy Discussion of Vision for Downtown Amherst

Mr. Weiss introduced the discussion by first addressing Mr. Parent’s earlier concern about the TCRC’s charge.  He asked Mr. Parent if he was looking for a formal re-writing of the charge or general discussion.

Mr. Parent said the committee’s initial confusion about its role arose with the creation of the Parking Commission.  The committee wants to know how the Select Board plans on using the TCRC effectively because the committee wants to have a useful role in relevant discussions.  He said he wanted the Select Board members to go on record as to their position regarding the business community and business development, that he wanted them to acknowledge the importance of business and to acknowledge that better processes need to be implemented to facilitate business needs.  Recognizing the Select Board’s policy making authority, Mr. Parent said he wanted to ensure that the Town Manager will be acting with specific Select Board direction and TCRC will better understand its role.

Mr. Weiss reiterated Mr. Hubley’s earlier comments about the committee always be welcomed to give input and bring matters to the Board’s attention.  He mentioned that it was through attending meetings of the group Promoting Downtown Amherst (PDA) that he became aware of the significance of inspection issues, and that prompted him to work with Mr. Shaffer on the problem.  He said that such issues could have been brought to the Select Board by the TCRC.

Barry Roberts, a TCRC member, said that the committee has tried to communicate such problems and work through such issues in the past, but that they felt “stymied” by Town staff, and their efforts never went anywhere. 

Mr. Parent emphasized that those efforts were at a different time and with different people.  Now he wants the committee to have a specific charge that gives their efforts the official backing of the Select Board.

Mr. Weiss said he believes Town staff need to do their jobs and part of that is welcoming new businesses and helping to get them up and running as quickly as possible.

Mr. Kusner said that he too has been hearing complaints about the permit process.  He noted that this Select Board had supported a zoning change at last spring’s Town Meeting that allows for mixed-use development.  Mr. Weiss noted that some of these issues overlap with the Master Plan process. Eric Nakajima, chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, noted that many suggestions gathered by the Master Plan idea sessions referenced downtown issues.

Mr. Parent said that the business community’s priorities are for permit process improvements now, and better parking and promotion in the near future.  He said those are the key issues for people doing or considering doing business in Amherst.  

Mr. Nakajima mentioned the value of all the data the CPC has collected and recommended that committee’s “structured involvement” in the process.

Ms. Greeney referred to the 1992 Downtown Action Plan, and noted that many of its goals had been or were being accomplished:  the garage was built, sidewalks have been improved, there has been some addition of streetscape furniture and flowerpots, and some better signage. She noted elements that haven’t been accomplished:  zoning changes, improved permitting.  She said that she agreed that a staff position charged with economic development and downtown coordination could help, and encouraged TCRC to think more about what that person would do and how to find the money to fund the position.

Mr. Hubley said he feels the Select Board has been pro-business for his whole tenure and noted his involvement with TCRC.  He said that business development know-how was a key reason for choosing Mr. Shaffer as Town Manager.

Mr. Weiss praised the Downtown Action Plan and a new memo from Mr. Tucker addressing visions for downtown Amherst.  He encouraged TCRC to read both documents and prioritize the goals.

Mr. Roberts noted the role of both TCRC and PDA in focusing specifically on downtown issues.  He talked of initiatives PDA has taken or is considering related to such things as trolleys for bringing students downtown from UMass.

John Coull, Executive Director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce (Note: and this reporter’s father) said it was “a little over the top” to take much credit for things that have happened.  He pointed to the struggle for the parking garage, how much money it cost and how little extra capacity it yielded.  He spoke of how he would like to see leadership from the Select Board in not succumbing to “the tyranny of the minority;” recognizing that what is beneficial will be objectionable to some, but must be pursued despite those objections because there are “greater benefits.”  He praised Mr. Tucker’s suggestions for mixed-use development and encouraged the Select Board to let that kind of development happen.  He said he is grateful for assistance with the permit problems but fears that it is ad-hoc, and doesn’t want efforts related to individual permit issues to delay or prevent the creation of a better overall permit process. He said that personnel are key and hoped that the Inspections Department could be imbued with some of the “can-do” attitude of the DPW Superintendent, with an attitude of how to make something work rather than how to prevent it.

Mr. Kusner said he was largely in agreement with Mr. Coull’s comments, particularly regarding mixed-use development.  He cited the mostly-underground Tan Brook as an amenity on the north end of downtown that might be improved for commercial and general benefit.  He encouraged TCRC to be in touch with the Conservation Commission about such possibilities.

Mr. Weiss disagreed with Mr. Coull’s characterization of dealing with permit problems as “ad-hoc” and said it is being dealt with systematically and has been a priority of Mr. Shaffer’s since he began as Town Manager.  He mentioned that not all business issues need government solutions, suggesting that TCRC might have a role to play in dealing with something like the long-closed Via Via restaurant space.

Ms. Greeney reiterated the suggestion of TCRC prioritizing its desires and the ideas put forth in the Downtown Action Plan and Mr. Tucker’s memo.  Mr. Parent said he would return with more information after TCRC meets again.  He emphasized the need for Select Board leadership and encouraged Mr. Shaffer to come to a TCRC meeting and to get their input on permit issues.

There was some discussion about the need for an economic development staff person who wouldn’t be part of the Planning staff, and how the Town can’t rely only on business people who know how the system works.  Mr. Shaffer said that the Town has good staff but the process has not seemed to be logical or synchronized or easy to understand.  They intend to acquire software that will better track and communicate the process, including what has been done at each step and what to expect next.  It will assist with coordination and will be accessible on the Internet.  Mr. Shaffer said that another problem in the process is the “mountain of paperwork” it requires and how much time is spent finding and managing each layer of the paperwork for each project plan.  That is being addressed as well.  He encouraged people to “remain impatient” and “continue to kick us along to a solution.”

Mr. Weiss requested that until the new system is in place, that Mr. Shaffer designate someone to be a point person for businesses dealing with the current system.  Mr. Parent said that TCRC could help too, using their member’s knowledge to help people through the process.  Mr. Coull reminded the Board that the Chamber had advocated strongly for a new Planning Staff position in the past that was supposed to help shepherd businesses through the process, but the position did not end up filling that role.

Renew Annual Licenses

Mr. Weiss restated his earlier concern that not all businesses able to stay open until 2:00 a.m. were required to hire a police officer if the Police Chief deemed it necessary.  Mr. Kusner suggested that it might be in the language of their ZBA special permits.  Mr. Weiss asked Mr. Shaffer to check into that.

Mr. Shaffer said the businesses up for renewal were all in good standing and without violations.  They were:  J. Austin Antiques, Rafter’s, Rao’s, Subway and the VFW.  The Board voted 4-0, one absent to renew the licenses.

Select Board Meeting Schedule

There was much discussion about dates that had been identified for possible meetings and how they deviated from the normal schedule and how they affected members’ personal planning and schedules.  Ultimately, they voted 4-0, one absent to schedule the following dates for Select Board meetings:  January 8, 24 and 29; February 5, 12, 21 (optional) and 26; March 5, 12, 19 and 26; and April 2, 9 and 23.  That takes care of all the meeting dates before Town Meeting starts on April 30.

FY08 Budget Information Session

Ms. Greeney said the group had voted to hold a Budget Information Session on January 29th, but because they scheduled a Select Board meeting for that night, they should move it to January 30th. She said the space is available and has been arranged for 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. 

There was much discussion about which member expected to be available for that and whether it would or should be posted as a Select Board meeting.  There was also much discussion about whether the Select Board was the appropriate body to host such a meeting, and whether the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG), the Finance Committee, or Town staff might be better.  There was additional discussion about who it would be aimed at, who would participate, and whether or not there would be enough budget information and understanding of the proposed budget to address it at that time.  Ms. Greeney stressed that the meeting was intended to educate the public about the budget and let them ask questions.  She said that a second session later in the spring might be helpful also.  Because the meeting is intended to include representatives speaking on the school and library budgets as well as the municipal budget, the Board determined that the BCG would be the best host.  Ms. Greeney said that she would propose that to the BCG at that committee’s next meeting, December 20th.

Long-Term Revenue Enhancement

Ms. Greeney wanted to know what ideas Mr. Shaffer was considering for long-term revenue enhancement.  Because of the late hour, the group agreed to postpone that discussion until January 24th, making it a timed item for 7:00 that evening.

Consent Calendar

The only Consent Calendar issue was approval of the December 4th minutes.  Mr. Kusner noted that the Human Rights Proclamation was not part of the Consent Calendar at that meeting, while approval of the November 27th minutes was.  The minutes were approved with those changes, 4-0, one absent.

Committee Appointments

Ms. Greeney recommended Donald George and Charles Moran for appointment to the Public Works Committee.

Mr. Hubley explained that because the next appointment was of a representative from one committee to another, it didn’t go through the usual process of the committee appointment clerk interviewing the person, etc.  He then proposed David Yaukey as the representative from the Council on Aging to the 250th Anniversary Committee.

Mr. Shaffer recommended Elizabeth Sharpe for appointment to the Historical Commission. 

All nominations were approved 4-0, one absent.

Mr. Weiss then encouraged people to apply for spots on the Disability Access Advisory Committee.  Ms. Greeney encouraged applicants for the final vacancy on the Public Works Committee and for the Solid Waste Committee.  Mr. Kusner encouraged applicants for the Planning Board and said that two Planning Board representatives were needed for the Flood Prone Conservancy Task Force, and noted that the next meeting of that Task Force would be December 27th at 5:00 p.m.

Mr. Weiss then mentioned an important zoning subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, December 20th at 5:00 p.m. that he would be unable to attend and hoped someone else might.  Mr. Kusner said he planned to attend.

Town Manager’s Report

Mr. Shaffer referenced the petitioners from the last meeting who mentioned concerns about water issues related to proposed development on East Leverett Road.  He checked with the Chair of the Leverett Select Board for more information about that town’s capped landfill and how it might affect that property and Amherst in general.  That person supplied all their studies related to the landfill, which Mr. Shaffer said will be scanned in and made available on the Internet.  He also said he sent two studies that seemed particularly relevant to Mr. Mooring for review by Amherst’s landfill closure consultants. 

Mr. Shaffer said he has also had conversations with the Town’s Health Director about whether the Leverett landfill situation was affecting Amherst water quality at all, not related to the proposed development.  He also asked the Health Director to consider whether the proposed development might impact the quantity of water for new residents and existing residents in the area who already have well problems.   

Mr. Shaffer thanked Mr. Weiss, Mr. Hubley and UMass Chancellor John Lombardi for their efforts on the new Mutual Aid Agreement, and said he hoped to have it ready for the first January meeting.

The meeting adjourned about 9:45 p.m.

-- Stephanie O’Keeffe

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