Town Council Budget Forum, 5/21/19

The big issue was: An affordable housing project (and not the budget)!

The budget forum was hi-jacked by a group of concerned residents! Town Manager Paul Bockelman has submitted his proposed budget to the council, which will debate its merits and potentially suggest changes before the final version is due at the end of July. The forum was the second where the public was invited to comment.

The first budget forum was nearly empty and the council struggled to fill the time given the lack of public comment. When this one began, there were nine people in the audience and eleven more arrived shortly thereafter. The more appropriately sized room in the Bang Center seemed much fuller than the middle school auditorium where the previous one was held and I was eager to hear what I imagined would be the many and varied issues my fellow residents would raise!

Bockelman began by giving an overview of the budget. He is asking for $83,446,786 which is a 3.2 percent increase from last year. Property taxes will rise to the maximum allowed by Proposition 2.5, which means 2.5 percent plus an additional allowance for new growth.

The ostensible subject of the meeting was the town’s general fund, which is mostly comprised of operating expenses. As Bockelman said, this money goes for “people,” meaning the many town employees in departments such as police, fire and the clerk’s office. There isn’t much room for savings in this part of the budget unless the town cuts staff.

The most conspicuous new staff-related expense is the $100,000 dollars that supports the town councilors. Of this $67,500 goes to pay councilors a modest salary—the chair gets $7,500 and the other councilors $5,000. The remaining $32,500 goes for their professional development. While this is a small amount of money relative to the budget as a whole (not to mention the amount of hours councilors work!), it might be better spent to encourage more diversity on the council.

I presume that there are members of the council who are wealthy enough not to need a salary and who can afford to pay for their own professional development. Why not give some of their money to current councilors with much lower income or set it aside for future low-income councilors? And why not allow councilors to use this money for childcare, as town meeting did? Additional money or other in-kind support like childcare would help encourage parents and low-income people to participate at the highest levels of town government.

When it came time for discussion, I was hoping similar ideas would be raised. Instead, the audience wanted to talk about one thing: the Valley Community Development Corporation’s plan to build a 28-room apartment building for people transitioning out of homelessness, people with disabilities and people under the care of the Department of Mental Health.

Audience members were extremely concerned about having such people living nearby. Over the course of the next hour, they raised various concerns and I sympathized with their distress. When my wife and I purchased our house in Amherst, we only found out afterwards that the house next door was a group home for women with intellectual disabilities. I too was concerned, less about the residents themselves than about the value of our property and the parade of passing nurses and aides.

My fears were unjustified. The women and the people who work with them are great neighbors. The value of our property has risen in line with the rest of the town. One reason the house next door works so well is that there is ample, around the clock support for the women who live there. The most pressing concern raised by neighbors of the proposed project is that the people there have the same kind of support.

Councilors Andy Steinberg and Lynn Griesemer were admirable moderators, allowing audience members to have their say despite the fact that they were speaking off topic. Griesemer acknowledged their concerns and said that she would organize a “public conversation” to better address the needs of the various stakeholders, which triggered applause from the audience.

Bockelman also discussed the proposed capital expenditures recommended by the Joint Capital Planning Committee, although it was also not technically on the agenda. One of the biggest of these is over $2 million dollars for the repair and maintenance of roads and sidewalks. He said a similar outlay will be necessary each year over the next six years to bring roads and sidewalks up to minimum standards. $50,000 is also included for a preliminary survey for building a new sidewalk on East Pleasant Street from Village Park to Pine Street. I have been lobbying for this project for the past several years, and am pleased to see the town starting it!

It is concerning that more people, including the council, aren’t raising public questions about details of the budget. There were always significant debates about budget minutiae during town meeting. Perhaps such discussions will be forthcoming in regards to capital expenditures? There is a meeting scheduled to address capital planning, which will include the Valley Community Development Corporation’s project, on June 10th.