Weighing Golf Courses and Public Safety

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.

Comments 4

  1. I hope that you understand, as a Town Meeting member and Charter Commissioner, that the town budget is put together by the Town Manager and the Select Board.–not Town Meeting. The Select Board are the elected leaders of the Executive Branch of Amherst’s government, put together budgets and run town government. So the criticism of Town Meeting is misplaced and you are saying the Select Board is failing to consider the issue of public safety versus the golf course. Town Meeting authorizes the funding of the town budget, but does not control how that money is spent. Again, budgets and actuall spending is under the power and control of the Select Board and Town Manager. Mandi Jo Hannake, Andy Churchill, Irv Rhodes are all Town Meeting members and Charter Commissioner and easily have raised these issues–or voted against allocating the section of the budget that includes Cherry Hill or simply. But they haven’t.

    1. Post

      Yes, I do understand how the budget is drawn up, Janet. My point is that the legislative body is unable to connect the dots between the opportunity costs of a budget item in one section (LSSE) with the opportunity costs of not having a budget item in another section (public safety, DPW, schools). When talking about the LSSE budget on the floor, it would be “out of scope” to actually discuss the proposed budget in another department. Further, one cannot propose to amend two department budgets at the same time (one can only amend the LSSE budget before the vote, then had to wait until the DPW budget comes up for discussion before amending it, thereby never truly being able to link the two amendments into one vote). In addition, the legislature, as a whole, is not set up to be able to truly exert pressure on the executive to reevaluate portions of the budget–doing it piecemeal after the budget is drafted is not the way to get exact structural changes to the budget such as eliminating a program. We need a legislative body that has the ability to discuss comprehensively the programs in town, which are worth the opportunity costs and which are not; and they must be bale to have those discussions during the drafting of the budget, not just at the end of the process. Representative Town Meeting, as a body, is unable to do that. A Town Council will be able to.

  2. I’d like to thank you for your explanation about weighing golf courses and public safety. I agree when you mentioned that we need a legislative body that can see its connection in dealing with them. I will be looking for more information about this matter, it might help me understand the entire scenario.

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