Mandi Jo Hanneke
How do Cherry Hill Golf Course and public safety staffing relate to each other? At first glance, you might think they don’t. But, give it a closer look and one could argue that they do. We need a legislative body that can see the connection between them when making decisions.
We need a governmental body that can connect issues brought in front of it to all facets of government. We need a legislature that can see the forest for the trees.
Representative Town Meeting isn’t structured to do so. It is unable to consider individual proposals in the grand scheme of things.
A Town Council, by nature of its structure, will be able to. It’s one of the core reasons I support a Town Council form of government and why I believe Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting no longer works.
So how are the golf course and public safety staffing levels connected?
The purchase of the golf course was authorized by Town Meeting. Yes, the Town received a state grant, but the Town laid out a lot of its own money, too. Why did Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting authorize the purchase? To prevent a condominium development from being built. But that’s not what connects the golf course to public safety staffing levels.
Did you know that the Town loses over $50,000 a year operating the golf course? That’s $50,000 above and beyond the fees the Town charges to golfers to use it. And that’s a conservative number. It doesn’t include costs like specialized lawnmowers, which come out of the capital budget. Nor does that amount include the costs of employee benefits.1
That’s $50,000 a year that the Town can’t spend on other items like hiring more public safety officers. Is the presence of the golf course more of a benefit to residents than the hiring of an additional firefighter or police officer? Maybe, but maybe not. It’s a discussion that needs had.2
The problem is that the cost to operate the golf course doesn’t get connected to lost opportunities in the rest of the budget. Not when authorizing the purchase of the golf course, and not when approving the yearly budget.
Simply, Representative Town Meeting is structurally defective in this regard. Without being immersed in Town matters year-round, and with the requirement to discuss only the proposal at hand, Representative Town Meeting loses sight of the forest for the trees.
On the surface, a proposal to purchase land for a passive recreation (a golf course) sounds like a good idea, especially when members are told it will be fully self-supporting. But, the cons of that decision need to be addressed, questioned, and discussed.
And they need to be revisited, especially when it becomes clear that the budget projections are inaccurate. We need a legislative body that will keep on top of those projections, notice when they’re not being met, and act. Doing the same thing for 30+ years when it became clear two decades ago that the projections were wrong doesn’t help us.
This example may not be perfect, but it demonstrates that Amherst’s Representative Town Meeting is unable to keep in touch with decisions made long ago, make sure they continue to be the right ones, and correct itself if they aren’t.
Maybe if it could, we’d have more public safety officers today.
1 Last year the loss was over $61,000. See the Gazette Article at http://www.gazettenet.com/Golf-course-in-Amherst-ends-year-in-deficit-12324727 for more information.
2 I am not necessarily advocating for the elimination of the course. Whatever your opinion on the golf course, I believe we need to be having a discussion about whether cost of operating the golf course is a better use of that $60,000 than hiring another public safety officer, reducing the cost of summer camps for residents, or maintaining full time staffing for library paraprofessionals in the elementary schools.