Town Council Regular Meeting, 2/25/19

The big issue was: “One Town, One Plan,” aka the four big capital projects!

The room was filled by what looked like an undergraduate journalism class, which was a nice change. Not many people were in the audience otherwise.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman reintroduced his “One Town, One Plan” proposal for four big capital expenditures: a new elementary school; a renovated Jones Library, a South Amherst Fire Station and a new headquarters for the Department of Public Works. Sean Mangano, the town’s long-standing School Finance Director who was recently appointed Capital Projects Manager, did most of the talking.

Mangano put together a detailed spreadsheet capturing multiple scenarios for financing Bockelman’s plan. The spreadsheet included project costs, inflation, current town debt, available funds, debt exclusions and other relevant data distributed over a changeable time scale. Mangano said that whatever numbers we use at this point are only an approximation, given that the existing project specs are incomplete or several years old.

The spreadsheet had lines for the town’s Zero Net Energy and Percent for Art bylaws, which will be figured into the projects’ costs. As a member of the Amherst Public Art Commission, I was especially glad to see the latter. When asked by the Council to include a spot for on-going capital needs like road repair, Mangano said that he would add it. Also missing was the cost of temporary “swing space” needed while these projects are being built. It only included an option for building one new elementary school, and might better include options for keeping three by way of comparison. And, although no one asked, it also seemed like it would be impossible to exclude any of the four projects if the town decides not to build one. It did include the average impact on property taxes.

Just as I was thinking, “How can I play with this cool new budget tool?”, Mangano said that it would be made available to the public on the town’s website! I hope that it will be available for download and not just online, so people can modify it as they see fit.

The big, two-part question confronting the Council and the town is: Do we need all four of these projects and can we afford them? The first part would best be addressed by a priority list developed by the Council in consultation with the public, which would order these projects as they relate to existing infrastructure and on-going expenses as well other potential new capital projects—for example: sidewalks or a band shell/performance space on the common. Regarding the second part, as Bockelman presented to Town Meeting when I was a representative, the town has paid down a significant amount of its debt service and hasn’t undertaken a major building-related project in decades, so the time is ripe for some, if not all, of his big four projects.

Bockelman said to the Council that the ultimate goal of the budget process is for its members to agree on a plan that the community at large finds acceptable but it was unclear if he meant agreeing on One Town, One Plan, or simply having next year’s budget in order.

The charter mandates that there will need to be a number of public events held regarding the town’s budget. The first of these is a “public forum” that will be held on Thursday March 7 in the Middle School Auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 and is supposed to be a big public event. Given the lack of publicity and the low turnout at regular Council meetings, I’m curious to see how many people will attend.

The other big issue that came up was “the public way.” The Town Council is the “keeper of the public way,” which means that they oversee the use of Amherst’s roads and commons and some of the parks. When someone requests use of the public way, the Council needs to approve it. There were three groups making requests: the Amherst Farmer’s Market, the Hartford Marathon Foundation and the Amherst Garden Club. The Farmer’s Market and Garden Club each use part of the common and take up parking spaces when they do. The Hartford Marathon Foundation organizes the Amherst Half Marathon and 5K, which uses the roads.

While all three uses were approved, Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke asked whether or not these organizations pay a fee to the town. Bockelman responded that they do not, although there are rental fees for pavilions in town parks, and individuals and businesses that want to block parking spaces (say, to move) are charged for the money that the town would have collected in parking fees. Hanneke indicated that the Council might want to impose fees for use of the public way and Bockelman said they could, which was left for future discussion. The Council will have to weigh how much money new fees would raise versus how much additional business various uses of the public way generates.

The Resident’s Advisory Committee was also discussed by the Council. The Committee is mandated by the charter to operate in conjunction with the Town Manager to make sure that positions on town committees and commissions are equitably filled with people with various skills from diverse backgrounds. Rather than make this a proper committee, which would have public meetings, Bockelman has chosen to make its members advisors, who will consult with him on a less formal basis, which mean that the public won’t see how this committee works or what role it is playing in town governance. Why isn’t the Resident’s Advisory Committee a real committee and subject to Open Meeting Law like other committees and commissions in town?

Things to watch out for: getting access to the town finance spreadsheet and the announcement of the members of the Resident’s Advisory Committee!