Town Council Regular Meeting, 2/11/19

The big issue was: capital expenditure needs!

I was surprised at the big turnout for this meeting when the previous meeting, focusing on the elementary schools, was largely empty. As usual, by the end, just myself and one other person was there.

Two important and inter-related things happened since the last meeting. The first was that the Council corrected course on when general public comment would happen. It was originally at the start of the regular Council meetings, then was moved to the end, ostensibly to allow people who worked late to be there. But the last meeting ran so late that general public comment didn’t take place until after midnight! The one person left in the audience, Peter Tripp, took the Council to task for making it even more difficult for the public to speak. The Council has now returned to holding general public comment at the start of meetings, which is better for citizen participation.

More significantly, the Council voted to approve the temporary Station Road Bridge and I missed it! Why couldn’t the vote have waited for the next regular meeting (this meeting) and why wasn’t the public made more aware that it was coming? Apparently, the Council had originally intended to vote at the previous regular meeting but realized that they need to hold an official public forum before they could approve spending outside the regular budget cycle. The previous meeting’s agenda had called for an announcement about the public forum after general public comment, although it didn’t mention a vote. Given how late that meeting ran, just before adjourning Chair Lynn Griesemer mentioned in passing that the agenda listed “a couple of additional meetings.” Even if I had stayed, I wouldn’t have heard about either the forum or the vote.

After speaking to long-time North Amherst residents, I learned that no temporary bridge had been built on several occasion in North Amherst where one might have been useful, most recently on Mill Street near Puffers Pond. Given the lack of a priority list for such projects and that it wasn’t an emergency, I wondered why the temporary bridge was approved. The $200,000 spent on it might have been better been used for long-term solutions to transportation issues in town. I went back and watched the vote on Amherst Media (hurray for their coverage!) and saw Councilor Sarah Swartz raise these issues before casting the sole “no” vote.

This meeting focused on capital expenditures, aka “capital improvements,” which are made for physical things that the town purchases that cost more than $10,000 and have a lifespan of ten years or more, including buildings. Since I was a Town Meeting representative, Town Manager Paul Bockelman has been promoting his “One Town, One Plan” for four big building projects: a new elementary school; a major overhaul of the Jones Library; a new fire station in South Amherst; and a new building for the Department of Public Works. Since the school project was presented at the last regular Council meeting, the other three were presented tonight. The cost of these project as they relate to the larger town budget was left for the next regular meeting.

Sharon Sharry, Director of the Jones Library, presented first. She began with the history of the Jones. I was surprised to learn that the building originally contained an auditorium that held public performances and that after a renovation in the 1960s the building contained art studios for weaving and pottery. Although I’m a member of the Amherst Public Art Commission, I had no idea that the town had supported the arts so strongly its past!

Unlike the discussion about the new school project, Sharry was upfront with numbers. The total cost for the project is $35.6 million. She is asking for $15.9 million from the town, is planning on $13.7 million from a Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners construction grant, and is hoping to fundraise and get tax credits for the rest. For that amount, the town will get a renovated library that retains the character of the original building; consolidates and improves places for children and teens; expands spaces for ESL and other programs; and makes the library more accessible for people with disabilities and a better place to work. The question is, as with all big capital expenditures: Are these improvements necessary and could we make some or all of them for less?

The Chief of Amherst’s Fire Department, W. Tim Nelson, presented next. He wants to build a new South Amherst Fire Station for a cost of $22.8 million and close the Central Fire Station. The North Amherst Fire Station quickly serves the upper portion of town. A South Amherst Fire Station would increase response time for the lower part of town.

As currently planned by Guilford Mooring, Superintendent of the Department of Public Works, a new fire station would depend on the construction of a new DPW building. The DPW is one of the most important agencies in town. It maintains many of the crucial physical part of the town’s infrastructure, from roads and sidewalks to water and sewage to parks and shade trees. Mooring’s plan involves building the South Amherst Fire Station on the DPW’s current location and moving the DPW to a new location.

The DPW is currently housed in a 100-year old trolley barn, which, while charming, is rough around edges if not completely outdated. Although he hesitated to relay the cost of the proposed new DPW building, Mooring finally admitted it would be $35 million—or higher! He then quickly added that he expects that this number will be reduced as the council and town decides what it needs to spend money on as opposed to what the heads of these agencies want.

The total cost of these three projects, without the elementary school, is approximately $100 million, some of which will come from grants and other sources besides property taxes. Although a deeper discussion of how the town might finance these projects was on hold until the next Town Council meeting, I wondered if we can afford to keep the fire station and the DPW projects coupled together. What if the town decides that a new fire station is its top priority? Could we find a way to build one for a reasonable price without building a new DPW at the same time? The Council has the difficult job of prioritizing these projects or even of taking some of them off the table for now.

Another topic discussed later in the meeting was the formation of the second council committee, tentatively called the “Committee on Economic Development.” The committee’s charge was developed by Councilors Stephen Schreiber and Dorothy Pam. There were a host of questions from other Councilors about the committee’s purview. I wondered the same given that the town already employs Geoff Kravits as its Economic Development Director.

In response, Schreiber and Pam suggested that the committee could deal with issues related to public art, which perked up my ears. As a member of the Amherst Public Art Commission, I was pleased to hear members of the council discussing public art but was unsure if the committee would be duplicating our work and how they would work with us. Maybe the town will be making publicly supported art a priority again?

Things to watch out for: how to finance “One Town, One Plan”; the charge of the new economic committee!