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.