- Public Comment
- Special Liquor Licenses (6:39)
- Committee Appointments
- Select Board Representation at Zoning Sub Committee Meetings (6:41)
- Taxi License (6:45)
- Approval of Meeting Minutes (6:46)
- Police Fees for Common Use (6:50)
- Town Manager’s Report – Pelham Road Mail Boxes (6:52)
- Town Manager’s Report – Budget Update (6:53)
- Draft Article – Rights of Non-U.S. Citizens (7:41)
- Committees and Liaison Assignments (7:50)
- Reaffirmation of Election Calendar (8:14)
- Reminder about Town Meeting Family Care Stipend (8:17)
- Draft Letter Supporting Atkins Corner Project (8:19)
- Approval of Meeting Minutes (8:20)
(3/4/08) The Select Board met Monday, March 3rd at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall. Gerry Weiss, Anne Awad, Alisa Brewer and Hwei-Ling Greeney were present, and Rob Kusner was absent. Town Manager Larry Shaffer was absent and Assistant Town Manager John Musante was present, and Gail Weston took the minutes of the meeting.
Mr. Weiss announced that construction would begin in mid-March on a bridge on East Leverett Road, and would last 15-21 months, and he said that the bridge would not be open for travel during construction. He said that this is a State project, and that updates from the State were expected.
David Clooney, President of the Amherst Firefighters local 1764, said that many union members had been troubled by discussion at last week’s meeting about emergency services revenue from other towns. He said that he would like to be recognized at a future meeting along with Fire Chief Keith Hoyle to present alternate models of ambulance call costs. He said that it is important for the Select Board, the Town Manager and the public to understand that any decrease in minimum staffing levels compromises the department’s ability to provide firefighting service to Amherst.
Mr. Weiss said that this would be made a scheduled agenda item, probably for the March 17th meeting.
John Root asked that the Select Board consider supporting and promoting “Earth Hour,” at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 29th, when cities and towns across the world will voluntarily turn off lights, to highlight the need for reducing energy use and to think creatively about how to do that. Assured that participation was not mandatory, that street lights could stay on, and that it was up to individual residents and businesses to determine how many if any lights to turn off, the Select Board voted 4 in favor, 1 absent to support the event.
The Select Board voted 4 in favor, 1 absent to approve special liquor licenses for a Hitchcock Center event in March to be held at Amherst College, and a UMass event in April.
Ms. Brewer recommended the appointment of Michaela DeAngelis to the Committee on Homelessness. Her appointment was approved in a vote of 4 in favor, 1 absent.
There was discussion about the possibility of other Select Board members attending the next couple of Zoning Subcommittee meetings, due to Mr. Kusner being away in March and Ms. Awad not being available for the next couple of weeks. No one volunteered, and Ms. Awad requested that she receive a packet of the subcommittee’s work, as has occurred in the past when she has not been able to be present. Mr. Musante said he would follow up on her request.
The Select Board approved a taxi driver and chauffeur license for John Howard Rae, who will drive for Celebrity Cab Company. The vote approving the license was 4 in favor, 1 absent.
With some corrections and amendments, the Select Board approved the minutes of the December 10th, 2007 meeting, in a vote of 3 in favor, 1 absent and 1 abstention, with Ms. Brewer choosing to abstain.
Mr. Weiss explained that there had been concern about a new policy to charge groups for police details for events on the Town Common that are determined to warrant that protection. He said that the policy and the concerns had been relayed to Town Counsel, who had determined that such fees may be considered unconstitutional, and restraining free speech. Town Counsel indicated that more information was needed before a formal decision could be reached, and Mr. Weiss said that the Town Manager expects to instead just end the policy. There was brief discussion as to whether or not the policy needs to be removed from the books or whether it was not to be in effect unless and until it was found to have legal backing anyway.
Mr. Musante said that Mr. Shaffer had been in touch with the Post Master regarding the issue of people on Pelham Road needing to cross the street to get to their mail boxes, and the Post Master said that a petition was needed from residents seeking a change in mail box location. Mr. Musante said that staff is gathering information and will survey the neighborhood to determine if residents desire such a change, before forwarding the request to the Post Master.
Mr. Musante said that there is consensus among the members of the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG,) made up of representatives from the Select Board, Finance Committee, School Committee and Library Trustees, to develop a multi-year financial plan and to engage the community to determine desired service levels and how those would be funded. He said that the focus is two-part: on FY09 in the short term, and on FY10 and beyond in the longer term.
He said that elements of the long-term plan include: establishing financial policies; finding efficiencies across the Town, School and Library budgets; pursuing economic development; strengthening partnerships with UMass and the colleges; being aggressive with legislative strategy in pursuit of revenue-sharing and local option taxes; staying current with the capital plan; developing a strategy regarding use of reserves; aidentifying desired services level and determining how to fund any gap that might exist.
For FY09, he said that once all the local taxes and receipts, new revenues from UMass and Amherst College for emergency services, and State aid projections are considered and compared to the current draft budgets from the Town, Schools and Libraries, the initial gap is $1.45 million. He said that the Schools would be presenting a budget on March 4th with revised projections, lowering their rate of spending increase for FY09 from 8.4% to less than 5%. He said that with the Town and Library budgets coming in “at or near” the Finance Committee’s 2% guideline, and with capital plan investment remaining at the FY08 level of 7% of the tax levy, that would reduce the gap to less than half a million dollars.
He said that amount might decrease further. He said that recent trends related to the Health Insurance Trust Fund showed decreased claim levels, and that he expected to soon recommend that the projected expense increase be reduced from 12% to 6% or 8%.
Mr. Musante said that a consideration could be to use a small amount of reserves to fund the gap, while still allowing overall growth in reserve levels. He said that the Finance Committee is evaluating that possibility, and might reluctantly consider it, if it were to be a bridge to a longer-term financial plan.
Mr. Musante said that next steps for looking at FY10 and beyond include more assessing of community priorities and community preferences for different options such as: maintaining or reducing service levels, or seeking new services and restorations for the future.
Regarding the long-term plan, he noted:
- That much progress had been made in developing a comprehensive set of financial policies with input from the Select Board and other bodies, and that the community now needs to be educated about them and what they mean.
- That an area he would be looking at for increasing revenues and decreasing costs would be user fees, and where they can be implemented and at what levels.
- That a “blue ribbon panel” was analyzing where efficiencies might be found and consolidations might occur among the Town, School and Library management structure, and that benchmarking Amherst’s performance to that of peer communities would be sought.
- That appropriate economic development opportunities are being pursued in the near-term for the North Amherst Professional Research Park parcels; on University Drive; with the Lord Jeff renovation and the expansion of the downtown business district on Spring Street; with the Veridian Village project at Hampshire College; with the Atkins Corner redevelopment project; and through other opportunities that might be brought forward. He said that it makes sense to establish specific targets and goals for these efforts, and said that Mr. Shaffer has talked about aiming to increase the tax base by 10% or $200 million over the next ten years.
- That progress was made through the Strategic Partnership Agreement with UMass and emergency services discussions with Amherst College, and its gift of $120,000; that discussions are on-going regarding partnering with UMass on economic development, and with engaging all the schools about opportunities to collaborate via college-owned lands.
- That legislative opportunities include pursuit of establishing a local-option meals tax and increasing the lodging tax; acquiring the ability to charge property taxes to utility companies for their utility poles; expanding the senior “circuit breaker” tax credit; and assessing how Amherst is working with legislative colleagues to increase State educational and non-educational aid.
Regarding the capital plan, he said there is a long list of capital needs relating to infrastructure, facilities, equipment and technology. He said that capital investment as a percentage of the levy had been reduced in the last few years, and that that category had the biggest reduction when the override was defeated last year, and that more than $400,000 was taken from capital to balance the budget.
Regarding reserves, he said the total is just under $4 million, and is 7% of operating revenue. He said that the Finance Committee recommends increasing that to 8% for FY10. He said that reserves are needed to create a buffer against significant reductions in State and local revenue during an economic downturn; to provide emergency funds, and to protect a strong bond rating which affects the cost of borrowing.
Mr. Musante said that the process of community engagement was beginning in order to help determine priorities and desired service levels over the next few years. He said a plan would not presume an override was necessary to fund those service levels, and that a multi-year plan would be developed with a number of funding options, depending whether desires were for maintaining the status quo, enhancing or reducing services. He said that citizen input would help to create models representing different options, from which recommendations would be developed.
Mr. Musante said there were several areas to focus on to address the FY09 budget, and that in the meantime, a longer-term process would begin for creating a multi-year plan.
Ms. Greeney asked how the schools would be lowering their budget gap in their new proposal and where that money would come from. Mr. Musante said he expected that reducing the rate of the health insurance increase would help the Schools as well as the Town and Libraries, but that otherwise, he did not know because the new School budget proposal hadn’t been presented yet. Mr. Weiss said that the School Committee Chair had indicated that the Schools were reducing the health insurance increase from 12% to 8%.
Mr. Musante said that with many budget factors still in flux, it was hard to be more specific with figures, but that the different concepts were what were important to understand now.
Ms. Greeney referenced a document she had provided to the Select Board outlining her proposal to close the half-million dollar Elementary School budget gap by reducing the Town budget increase from 3.1% to 2% and using that savings, along with the $140,000 from the Strategic Partnership Agreement with UMass and the $120,000 of the Amherst College gift, for that purpose. She said she was concerned about using one-time funds from reducing capital spending and use of reserves to pay for on-going Elementary School costs. She reiterated her frequent points about reducing LSSE tax support, and the Town subsidizing belly dancing at the expense of school funding.
Per the extra revenues that the Town Manager has calculated to justify increasing the Town budget by 3.1%, she said those revenues should be made equally available to the Libraries and Schools, and not set aside for Town use. In addition to recommending LSSE cuts, she suggested cuts be made in the Planning and Information Technology departments, and said that the specifics of those could be at the Town Manager’s discretion. She spoke to the importance of not deferring capital spending and not using reserves.
Ms. Brewer said that she wanted to clarify that the belly dancing and tango classes often cited in such discussions are not subsidized by taxpayers, and rather that the full-fees paid for those classes provide the subsidies for children’s art classes and the like. She said that that needs to be made clear in the LSSE budget so that people understand that better. Ms. Brewer said that she was also not happy about the 3.1% Town budget increase, but cautioned against separating the new revenues from the emergency services for which reimbursement had been sought.
Ms. Awad said that while Ms. Greeney had offered some good ideas, Ms. Awad didn’t want to deal with such specific recommendations when so much of the budget process remained fluid, and discussions would be ongoing among the Town, Schools and Libraries regarding “ways to share.” She said she didn’t believe the emergency services money from UMass and Amherst College was ever explicitly intended to support those services, and noted that no reductions to public safety are being sought.
Mr. Weiss said he had spoken with LSSE Director Linda Chalfant about LSSE programs, and categorized the adult enrichment classes as “esoteric.” He had asked about the effect of eliminating all of them, and said it could result in the reduction of one Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) staff position, because that much labor is needed to arrange those programs. He said that there would be a corresponding loss of revenue from those classes, resulting in some savings, but he said it would not be a large amount. He said more information was needed about the funding of the different LSSE programs and how they impact each other.
Ms. Greeney said that her specific example may have distracted the Select Board from her larger point, which she said was that the “supplemental education” of LSSE was being funded at the expense of the “obligatory” education through the schools.
Mr. Musante said that the discussion had not referenced restoration of funds to the two programs the Select Board had previously identified as its priority: funding the human service agencies and the War Memorial Pool. He also noted that LSSE had made significant changes resulting in elimination of one full-time position, and had increased fees, such that tax support was reduced by 17% for FY09, and he said that tax support to the department was reduced by about 25% over the last couple of years. He said that there needs to be consideration of a broader goal, and whether that really is to eliminate all tax support, and said that considering the low-income subsidies and special needs programs, that might not be wise. He said that the LSSE department and commission were asked to provide more information about the philosophy of each program to help inform a larger discussion about what the town should offer through LSSE and how to pay for that.
Mr. Weiss said the War Memorial Pool costs were commonly referred to as $55,000, but said that once its revenues are considered, the net costs are closer to $24,000. He said that uses last year’s figures, which he said had lower revenue due to the late opening of the pool, so the net costs in a full season could be less.
Diana Stein said that she had spoken with Ms. Chalfant and learned that the pool fees had not been increased in a long time, and could be, further reducing the net cost.
Ms. Brewer reiterated her past request for better information about the LSSE fee increases so Town Meeting and the public will understand what programs are affected. Mr. Weiss said that the LSSE budget is “mysterious” to people and requires more explanation.
There was more discussion about LSSE: Mr. Musante said the department was analyzing all its programs and considering if subsidies are appropriate. Ms. Greeney suggested cutting LSSE staffing in half and concentrating on “basics” like baseball, soccer and basketball. Mr. Musante said he thought that was the wrong approach and said the first question is to determine what the community wants and is willing to pay to have. Ms. Greeney said she didn’t believe there was currently public input on the LSSE offerings.
Mr. Weiss spoke of a draft article in the Select Board packets that he had created regarding a bylaw change proposing that Amherst Police not participate with enforcement of Federal immigration law. He talked about a recent deportation of a mother who was in this country illegally, and how that occurred shortly after her daughter had recently been smuggled into the country to join her here. He said there are many local undocumented workers and said that it creates a dangerous situation if they need to be afraid of cooperating and complying with local laws. Mr. Weiss and Ms. Awad talked about the dangers and difficulties of such lives. Mr. Weiss said they would discuss whether the Select Board would support or sponsor the article at another time, but that he wanted them to have the draft now.
Ms. Greeney said that she was trying to complete the work she and Mr. Kusner had begun regarding the removal of dormant committees from the Town web site and the Citizen Activity Form. A lengthy discussion about this resulted in deletion from the list of: the Emergency Homelessness task force, because its charge had expired; the Community Dialogue Task Force, also for an expired charge; the Community Problem Solving Partnership, whose charge has been incorporated into the Campus Community Coalition; and the Town Committee Evaluation Task Force, because its charge had expired. Others were determined to need additional information, were worth maintaining even in a dormant state, or couldn’t be deleted because they were the creation of Town Meeting, and hence need Town Meeting approval to disband them.
There was brief discussion about whether the listed liaison assignments were correct and who might cover Mr. Kusner’s assignments in March.
There was some confusion as to whether or not the Select Board had approved the full election calendar at a previous meeting, including the deadline for citizen petition articles. It was determined that all dates had been approved, and that the calendar stands.
Mr. Weiss read the press release that was sent out regarding last week’s action to provide a family care stipend to Town Meeting members who need it in order to attend Town Meeting, up to $20 per session.
The Select Board had a draft letter in its packet to be sent to Mass Highway expressing support for the Atkins Corner project. Once the Select Board reviews the letter and makes and revisions, a new draft will be prepared for members to sign.
With discussion, revision and amendments, the Select Board approved the minutes of the following meetings: December 17, January 7, January 14, February 4 and February 11. All were approved with votes of 3 in favor, 1 absent, and 1 abstention, with Ms. Brewer opting to abstain.
The meeting adjourned at 8:37 p.m. The next Select Board meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 10th at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.
-- Stephanie O’Keeffe