- Public Comment (6:36)
- Public Hearing – New WMECO Electrical Pole (6:45)
- Untimed Item: Budget Survey Results (6:53)
- Campus Community Coalition Update (6:57)
- Continuation of CDBG Discussion from Previous Meeting (7:22)
- Taxi License (8:12)
- Proposed Bylaw Change Regarding False Alarms (8:19)
- Implementing and Retaining Speeding Fines (8:44)
- Special Liquor License – Winterfest (9:00)
- Agenda Review (9:15)
- Licenses (9:41)
- Political Signs (9:43)
- Committee Appointments (9:50)
(2/27/08) The Select Board met at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, February 4th, at Town Hall. Gerry Weiss, Hwei-Ling Greeney, Anne Awad, Alisa Brewer and Rob Kusner were present, as was Town Manager Larry Shaffer.
Announcements were made about the February 11th Budget Forum, the February 9th Winterfest event, the February 9th Not Bread Alone fundraising event, and a February 14th kick-off event for the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) at 1:00 p.m. at the Grand Staircase of the Massachusetts State House.
Nancy Gordon talked about a budget priority survey she had conducted last year at her own expense, sent to 293 people chosen systematically and without bias from a list of residents who had voted in the 2006 Annual Town Election. She said she received more than 150 responses, and she said the results were contained in the Select Board packets. She talked about the changes in the economic climate since that survey was conducted, and said she hoped to do another this year.
Ms. Greeney talked about a survey conducted by the Select Board last October, and asked to have a few minutes to discuss that later in the evening.
Mr. Weiss said that an agreement had been reached between PVTA and the Town regarding snow clearing at bus stops. He said that the Town would clear the downtown stops, and that UMass would handle Amity Street to University Drive and outward from town. He said that Al Byam, General Manager of UMass Transit, would send to PVTA a prioritized list of locations needing bus shelters.
No one from WMECO was present, but the public hearing was opened on the proposed new pole to provide service to the new house at 575 North East Street, behind the historic Kimball House.
Mr. Kusner and Ms. Awad both expressed concerns about the precise location of the pole and its potential negative consequences for bicycle safety and general aesthetics.
It was determined that the public hearing would be continued to the following meeting when a WMECO representative might be present, and that in the meantime, the company would be asked to put a flag at the location so that people would know the exact placement.
Ms. Greeney talked about the budget priority survey conducted by the Select Board last fall. She said that the results from the more than 90 responses had been compiled by Town Staff, and said that she had personally typed up 13 pages of comments. She made a motion requesting that both sets of results be distributed to staff department heads and to members of the Budget Coordinating Group, and that they be made available to the public on the Town web site. The vote to approve the motion was unanimous.
Sally Linowski from the UMass Campus Community Coalition provided an update on its activities. She talked about collaborating with the Town to reduce underage and high-risk drinking. She talked about UMass having a binge drinking rate higher than the State or National averages, and said that rate has been slowly decreasing since 1997. She said that there has been an increase in large party environments, which she said led to destructive patterns. She said that data was collected and efforts were made to address areas with potential for maximum impact, and she said that meant a review of UMass and Town alcohol policies and code violations, and she thanked Amherst Police Chief Charles Scherpa, Officer Mike Kent and the Select Board for their assistance.
Ms. Linowski talked about how UMass’ BASICS program (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students) had helped to reduce problem drinking and to identify and assist high-risk drinkers, whom she said in the past may have gone unnoticed and unhelped. She said a review of Town bylaws dealing with alcohol policies has prompted the Coalition to propose updates and additions that she said will soon be brought to the Select Board and Town Meeting for consideration. She said there is a new committee looking at best practices among bars and liquor stores to address fake ID issues. She said the Coalition’s efforts have led to quality of life improvements on campus, and she said she thinks there have been improvements for Amherst community as well.
Mr. Kusner expressed concern about some innocent students being unfairly caught up in the criminal justice system, and said that so much sharing of information between the University and the police could infringe on students’ civil rights.
Ms. Linowski said that efforts are made to inform families when they come to campus for tours and orientations that because of the nature of the community and its potential for high-risk drinking, that stricter policies exist to hold individuals accountable. She gave the example of open container violations, which she said many are not used to in their home communities. She said the strict policies and the sharing of information are intended to help protect the health and safety of all.
There was discussion about student perceptions and misperceptions about the drinking habits and attitudes of their peers, and about the need to educate a new large freshman class each year about rules, dangers and expectations.
Ms. Greeney is on the Coalition’s bylaw committee and talked about the keg and open container violation changes to be proposed for Town Meeting, and a new proposed bylaw regarding “nuisance houses.” Mr. Kusner requested that the Select Board get to see drafts of those articles soon.
This was a continuation of a discussion about what was proposed to be funded in the new Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application.
Paulette Brooks of the Community Development Committee (CDC) gave an update of that committee’s recommendations for the application. She said that the committee decided not to recommend the suggested feasibility study for a single-room occupancy (SRO) facility to house the homeless, due to concerns about such a dwelling stigmatizing residents and not addressing affordable housing in the broader community. She said that $85,000 for supportive services to the homeless to be conducted by the Center for Human Development was chosen instead. She said that through the services, feedback would be collected regarding the numbers served, and the types of housing needs they have. She said that with that information, larger solutions beyond just SROs could be considered.
Mr. Kusner mentioned concerns about the CDC’s choice raised in a letter sent to the Select Board by Bob Ackermann. Mr. Kusner said the concerns were about the money not being applied directly to help people and address issues within Amherst.
Community Services Director Roy Rosenblatt said that most small local agencies operate under the umbrella of a larger agency, and said that among those operated by Center for Human Development are Not Bread Alone, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Jessie’s House. He said that the outreach worker funded by the money would have an office at Jessie’s House.
Ms. Greeney noted that she is an employee of Center for Human Development through her work at Not Bread Alone. She praised the services to be offered to the homeless, but said that “housing first” is the model being endorsed by the State and in the region as the key step in addressing homelessness. She said that once people have a one-room apartment and a safe environment, then “wrap-around services” could be provided to address issues like alcohol abuse and mental illness. She said that she is “really appalled” that the CDC was “not willing” to offer housing.
Vernon Francisco, who said he is homeless and a member of the Committee on Homelessness, talked about the need for an SRO or small apartments for families, and the need to have a safe, warm place to be.
Reikka Simula, Chair of the Committee on Homelessness, said that many shelter and housing programs are aimed at women with children, but said that the large majority of the homeless population is single men, and said that was a reason an SRO feasibility is needed.
Jonathan Nelms said that he understands that the overall budget situation is bad, and said that Amherst is not doing its “fair share” to address homelessness, in relation he said to the size and scale of the local homelessness problem. He said he hoped the “housing-first” model would be pursued locally.
Discussion turned to specifics of the Center for Human Development’s proposal, and Ms. Greeney recused herself and left the room. Ms. Brooks said the funding would provide for comprehensive outreach services to the homeless and those at risk for homelessness, and connect them with other services and programs. She reiterated the CDC’s concerns about wanting to look at the SRO option as part of a larger housing model context, and the concern about stigmatizing residents by putting them all together in one building. She said the funding would address immediate needs.
There was more discussion about how the CDC came to its recommendation, and the trade-offs of it versus the SRO feasibility study option, and the need to bring the CDC together the other Town committees dealing with homelessness and affordable housing. Ms. Awad suggested that the outreach worker could aggressively collect information about the attractiveness of an SRO option among those being served.
Ms. Greeney returned to the discussion and provided data from the Regional Plan to End Homelessness. She said that 520 individuals and 100 families in the region are chronically homeless, which she defined as being homeless for more than a year, or three times in four years. She said that Springfield has committed to providing 50 units for families and 250 units for individuals who are chronically homeless, and said that they are looking to the rest of the region to provide the balance with an equal number of units. She expressed frustration that the SRO study was not being pursued.
Stan Gawle said his background was in human services, and he suggested getting the Amherst Housing Authority involved, because they would have valuable information on current housing stock. He also suggested using Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds as a possible source of funding for an SRO.
Mr. Shaffer said the issue had been discussed with housing advocates and Town Council, and that an SRO was not considered an eligible use of CPA funds.
Ms. Greeney talked about the supply of SROs in Amherst and surrounding towns, how much those numbers have decreased in recent years, and the expense of rental apartments. Mr. Weiss emphasized a desire to address homelessness by providing housing.
Mr. Rosenblatt talked about having analyzed the available land in town and identified areas on bus routes near Village Centers, and found few options. He said there is a trade-off between the expense of renovating an existing building, and the fact that CDBG does not favor new construction. He said that he hopes the State will fund the vouchers necessary to support the housing-first model, and said that a comprehensive regional solution is needed.
The Select Board granted a taxi business license and two taxi drivers’ licenses to a pair of college students operating Chip’s Whip Taxi from an apartment in Puffton Village. The votes to approve the three licenses were unanimous.
Mr. Gawle spoke to his proposal to change the Town’s bylaws to levy a fine for the second and subsequent false alarm calls to the same address. He said that he requested information about alarm calls from the Police Department and found: in FY07 there were 404 commercial alarm calls, and all were false alarms; 160 residential alarm calls, and 159 were false alarms; that police responded to 224 different addresses for alarm calls, and that 71 of those addresses had three or more alarm calls. He talked about the dangers associated with such calls: that they represent potentially violent situations, stress the police force and may leave the town with inadequate police coverage while officers respond. He suggested that fines that take into account the cost of the police response be levied for the second and subsequent false alarms, and said that the $25 fine levied by neighboring communities is too low. He said that an adequate fine could reduce the quantity of such calls.
Mr. Kusner talked about a book he read recently that he said relates to the subject, called Free Lunch, by David Cay Johnston.
Police Chief Charles Scherpa said that his concern was not revenue, but safety. He said the safety issues was not so much the officers confronting a violent situation, but rather, traveling through the community to the alarm sites in an emergency fashion. He said that he prefers a system of verbal warning, followed by written warning followed by a fine, and said that sometimes false alarms are legitimate. He said that no one wants the nuisance or embarrassment of being in that situation, but he said that when the issue is one of laziness, that is the time to take further action.
Chief Scherpa said that the average false alarm call takes 15 to 20 minutes, and involves securing the site, notifying the alarm company and waiting for a key holder. He said that at night it can be longer to wait for the key holder.
Ms. Greeney asked Fire Chief Keith Hoyle about false fire alarms. He said those represent similar safety issues as far as moving through traffic, but said they are much less frequent. He said that after The Station night club fire, State laws were created to allow for writing citations to those with problem alarms. He said most of those he has written have been to the UMass Greek system.
Ms. Greeney offered some figures related to her determination of approximate costs for false alarms, which she put at about $60,000 for FY07. She said that that amount combined with the safety danger supported the levying of fines.
Chief Scherpa said he didn’t want to discourage people from using their alarms, and said that fines often end up taking much-needed money away from families. He suggested warnings be given first, followed by reasonable fines.
Ms. Awad commended Mr. Gawle for proposing the idea. She suggested that Mr. Shaffer work with Chief Scherpa too create a warrant article for the spring, and suggested that if the Chief recommends warnings first, that his recommendation be followed.
With a little more discussion, the Select Board agreed to let the Town Manager and Police Chief address the issue.
Mr. Gawle proposed that Amherst propose a bylaw change at the spring Town Meeting to allow the Town to keep fines collected from speeding violations, and said a similar bylaw exists in Northampton. Using proposed budget figures relating to court costs, he said that could bring in around $135,000 in new revenue and suggested that could pay for reinstating two police officer positions.
Chief Scherpa talked about the current fine structure for speeding and how quickly a ticket can become very expensive. He said that because of the concern about taking that money away from families, many warnings are given. He said that a $50 municipal fine might get speeder’s attention and would often be considered more reasonable by police officers, who have discretion in such matters, than inflicting a much larger financial penalty. He said that such a fine would be a fair tool for deterring speeding, and would bring the Town some revenue.
With some questions about implementation and discussion about traffic calming, the Select Board expressed support for the proposal. No vote or action was taken.
Barbara Bilz of LSSE and Patty Brandts of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce requested a change in the hours of the special liquor license that had been approved the previous week for the February 9th Winterfest event. The Select Board had reduced the hours from those that had been listed on the application, amid concerns that having wine and beer available all day would detract from the event being “family friendly.” Ms. Bilz and Ms. Brandts assured the Select Board that that was not the case, and Ms. Bilz spoke to the training and certification she and her employees obtained to prevent potential overindulgence. Chief Scherpa said he had required the training, and would be assigning a police officer to the event to ensure public safety.
With some discussion about current Town policy for police details – that they are at the Chief’s discretion and event organizers are not charged for them – the Select Board voted unanimously to increase the license hours to noon to 8:00 p.m.
There was a five minute break in the meeting.
There was discussion about which remaining agenda items needed to be addressed and which could be postponed.
Ms. Greeney wanted to discuss the ambulance service agreements with neighboring towns, but said she was willing to put that discussion off if signing of the agreements was not imminent.
Mr. Shaffer said that he was not waiting for or seeking the Select Board’s input on the agreements, and said that he would sign the contracts when he feels the terms are in the Town’s best interest. He said he was happy to have the Select Board’s input but that he had not sought it and he said that the Select Board had no official role in issue.
Ms. Greeney said she recognizes the that the Town Government Act authorizes the Town Manager too sign contracts, and asked that he seek Select Board input before signing so that the effort would be collaborative and she could feel comfortable supporting it.
Mr. Shaffer talked about the origins of the cost analysis for providing emergency services and how that has informed his discussions with the neighboring towns. He said he would be happy to schedule a full discussion about all of those details, but warned against the Select Board trying to isolate any one contract because he said they are all tied together. He said it would be problematic if other towns got the sense that the Select Board might compel him to walk away from a contract or negotiations, and said that the revenue from these contracts is counted in this year’s budget and beyond, and that he needs that predictability and stability. He said that he needs to adhere to discipline in the process and asked the Select Board to do the same.
Ms. Brewer suggested that there be a detailed update on the subject scheduled for an upcoming agenda.
In response to questions, Mr. Shaffer said that he has obtained “agreements in principle” with three of the four towns, but that they have not yet been formalized and signed. He said he is currently in conversations with Hadley that represent $300,000 to $400,000 in revenue. He said that that revenue is important, and said “anyone who tells you that there is more money to be had out there really hasn’t spent the kind of time on this that I have,” and recommended that the Select Board “not shake the tree too much on this.”
Mr. Gawle cited numbers that had been in the newspaper regarding the agreements and said that the totals left taxpayers subsidizing emergency service to the other towns.
Ms. Awad praised Mr. Shaffer for aggressively pursuing and improving revenue areas that she said had been regarded with “a great deal of passivity for several decades,” citing Cherry Hill Golf Course and the emergency services to neighboring towns.
Mr. Shaffer said that his and Mr. Gawle’s outlooks on the issue are closer than Mr. Gawle might expect. Mr. Shaffer said that if eliminating service to the neighboring communities would eliminate the full expense, he said that would be an easy decision, but said the situation is not that simple. He said that expenses can’t be cut in the same amount as the decrease in revenues, and said that it would require cutting six or seven out of 44 firefighters to make up for the loss of $440,000 in revenue, and said that would leave Amherst inadequately protected. He said the best option is to increase the amount of revenue coming in.
Mr. Weiss asked if it affordable to continue to have all of our firefighter also be EMTs. Mr. Shaffer said that that is an important discussion to have, and that he would want the Fire Chief participating and to have all the numbers available.
Mr. Kusner said that the situation with the other Towns involves marginal costs and explained it as being analogous to driving across the country and seeking to get other riders to share the costs. He said to charge each one half the cost would not be reasonable, but that to collect some amount from each one would be mutually beneficial because it would off-set the driver’s costs and would be cheaper for the riders than driving themselves individually.
The Select Board voted unanimously to approve the corporate name change for Amherst Coffee. Its business name remains the same.
The Select Board voted unanimously to approve two special wine and malt licenses for UMass events.
There was discussion about the placement of political signs and what is allowed by custom and what the Town bylaw says, and how they may differ. It was determined that the bylaw should probably be looked at by Town Counsel, and that traditional practices would prevail in the meantime. Mr. Kusner suggested the Town Counsel consult with ACLU on the bylaw.
Ms. Brewer said that the previous week’s meeting had gone very late, and that she was sorry she had not limited herself to her original comment that concerns about one of the ZBA’s associate members prevented her from recommending that member for full status, and said she regretted not tabling the appointment discussion when that had first been suggested. She then recommended that Jane Ashby be appointed as a full ZBA member, to complete the term vacated by Russ Frank.
Ms. Awad said that she felt badly about her role in the previous week’s discussion which she said led to the public criticism of Hilda Greenebaum, whom Ms. Awad said she greatly respects, and whom she praised for her long public service to the community. Ms. Awad said that Ms. Greenebaum does not wish to pursue becoming a full member, which Ms. Awad said that precedent would have allowed Ms. Greenebaum to do. Ms. Awad said she supports the recommendation to appoint Ms. Ashby.
The vote to approve Ms. Ashby’s appointment as a full member of the ZBA was unanimous.
Ms. Brewer recommended the appointment of Walter Wolnik to the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee. The vote to approve his appointment was unanimous.
Ms. Brewer recommended the appointment of Craig Holmes to the Committee on Homelessness. The vote to approve his recommendation was unanimous.
Ms. Brewer recommended the appointment of Paul and Carol Baker to the La Paz Centro Sister City Committee. The vote to approve their appointments was unanimous.
The meeting adjourned at 9:59 p.m. The next Select Board meeting was scheduled for Monday, February 11th, at 6:00 p.m. in the Middle School music room, preceding the Community Budget Forum.
-- Stephanie O’Keeffe