How much will the new system cost?

Nick Grabbe

While voters kick the tires of Amherst’s proposed Town Council system, it is natural that they want to know how much it will cost.

Working with Town Manager Paul Bockelman, members of the Charter Commission studied this question. While some of the numbers we came up with are certainties, there are some that can only be estimated.

But the bottom line is that while the new system will cost a little more than the current one, the difference will be inconsequential. The small increase will have little or no impact on property taxes, unlike many actions taken by Town Meeting.

This small extra cost will be worthwhile if it fosters greater resident involvement in government and more informed, year-round decision-making. It is hypocritical for any Town Meeting member who voted to give up $34 million in state money for new schools to complain about the small cost of the new system.

OK, you want some hard numbers, right?

Currently, Amherst pays stipends of $1,000 a year to the moderator and $1,500 a year to each of five Select Board members, plus $500 extra to the chair. That’s a total of $9,000.

Under the new system, 13 Town Council members will receive stipends of $5,000 a year, plus an additional $2,500 for the chair. The five School Committee members will receive stipends of $3,000 a year, plus an additional $1,000 for the chair. That’s a total annual cost of $83,500, or a net increase of $74,500 a year.

These are not “salaries.” They are reasonable compensation for real work. And the stipends will increase competition for seats and could offset the costs of child care and transportation for low-income councilors, making it more feasible for them to serve.

The stipends are not excessive. They are about halfway between the Greenfield’s council’s $2,000 a year and Northampton’s $9,000 a year, and far below Cambridge’s $80,000. And the councilors can’t simply increase their own stipends without facing the consequences, because no increase can take effect until after the councilors face voters in the next election. This provision creates a disincentive to raise the stipends.

There are cost savings in the new form of government that will offset some of that $74,500 in extra costs.

One measurable savings will come from holding elections every other year. Each election costs about $23,000, so the annual savings will be about $11,500 a year.

A more difficult-to-estimate savings will come from not having to pay Town employees and department heads to sit around at Town Meeting in case their expertise is called for. I have sat with some of these people in the gallery of the middle school, and one night I counted 13 town employees in the auditorium.

Bockelman has estimated that under the new charter, employees will see a net decrease of 90 nights when they need to sit around waiting to speak. This doesn’t directly save money, because the employees receive compensatory time off for sitting around waiting to be called on at Town Meeting. But is this really what we want to pay our employees to do?

Then there is the cost at Town Hall of getting ready for an average of 12 Town Meeting sessions a year, and not just the preparation, paper and postage for 254 thick packets of materials twice a year. (Why isn’t this done online?) Numerous staff members have told us that much Town business comes to a halt for a month or two, twice a year, in preparation for Town Meeting.

A more nimble Town Council will free up staff to do more of other types of work, including pursuing additional revenues from state, federal and nonprofit sources.The new Community Participation Officer and the clerk of the Town Council will probably be existing employees, not adding to the total costs.

It’s important to put the extra costs of the new system in perspective. Even if none of the new stipend costs were offset by other factors, they would increase our annual budget by less than one one-thousandth.

For us, it’s a no-brainer. That’s worth it for more responsive and accountable government.



Comments 4

  1. There are many “soft costs” to our current system that must be accounted for. The cost of shutting down our entire Town every Spring while Departments prepare for Town Meeting. And then there is the cost of having our Dept heads show up and sit, just in case they are asked to answer a question by one of our hyper-smart Town Meeting Members who didn’t think of that question before they got to Town Meeting and read their packet. And then there is the cost of failing to pass one article, costing the Town $34 million in state funding, leaving Amherst with two of the worst schools in the state until the 2030’s. How does one even account for that cost over the next fifty years?

  2. I think that a close inspection of the recent history of Town Meeting sessions going back more than a decade is that Town Meeting is relatively oblivious about costs. Finance Committee does its best, and the past leadership of that body has been absolutely crucial, keeping the body from going off the rails. And, as the respect for the boards at the front of the room continues to wane, Finance Committee is not immune from that trend.

  3. Here’s what I read in the Charter proposal:

    18 paid elected officials — 13 councilors and 5 school committee members. Section 2.4 “The members of the Town Council shall, subject to appropriation, receive compensation for their services as set by the Town Council.” (Also see Section 10.7(r) for initial school committee and council stipends totaling $83,500).

    Add to this in 2 more staff salaries in the budget: For the permanent position of Community Participation Officer, Section 3.3(d), and the Clerk of Town Council. Section 2.9(a) “The Town Council shall appoint a Clerk of the Town Council…to hold office at the Council’s pleasure….”

    And 10 more possible paid positions for elected officials: 6 for library trustees and 3 for housing authority members and 1 for the Oliver Smith elector. Section 4.1(d)

    Who sets the pay for elected officials? Town Council. Section 4.1(d) ‘Compensation for elected offices, if any, shall be set in the annual Town Budget. Once compensation is set for elected offices, no increase or reduction of compensation shall be effective unless it is adopted by a majority vote of the Full Council.”

    And more possible paid positions– for Council staff–staff separate from town staff and under the supervision of the president of council. Section 2.9(b) “Subject to appropriation, the Town Council may appoint additional staff to be under the supervision of the Council President as the Town Council deems necessary.”

    Who decides appropriates money for these salaries?

    Are there salaries for elected officials in Amherst’s current Charter. No. All Town Meeting members serves as volunteers, as do Library Trustees, School Committee members, Housing Authority Members, Amherst Redevelopment Authority members and the elector of the Oliver Smith will. Select Board members receive $1,500 (plus $500 extra for the Chair) to cover expenses.

    ***note: I use the word “salary” because the Charter proposal uses this word, as well as the term ‘compensation.” The common meaning of the word “compensation” is salary.

    1. Post

      The clerk and the Community Participation Officer will likely be existing staff members. And there is no provision in the charter for stipends for library trustees or Housing Authority members. There’s room of debate about exactly what the budget impact of the new charter will be. But I don’t think there should be a debate about the fact that it will be a tiny percentage of the budget, and well worth it if it makes for a more accountable and representative government.

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