How should Amherst prioritize new buildings for the elementary schools, the Jones Library and the Fire and Public Works Departments?
There was a plan to creatively finance all four projects, costing over $100 million, without significant tax increases. But that plan was disrupted by Town Meeting’s unwillingness to borrow money for a school project and the subsequent loss of $34 million in state assistance.
Now what? That was the question Tuesday night for six candidates for three at-large seats on the new Town Council in the Nov. 6 election.
Jim Pistrang said he rates a new fire station in South Amherst as about equal in priority to new schools. He called the emergency response time to that part of town “dangerous” and said the current public works building is “falling apart.”
Bob Greeney said the schools should come first, and public works second, adding, “I’m a fan of roads and sidewalks.” He said he is “comfortable with the risk” posed by the lack of a fire station in South Amherst.
Alisa Brewer said that while many residents say they favor this or that project, she also hears the question, “Why are my taxes so high?” Taxpayers can’t foot the bill for all the projects, and Amherst needs “some form of development” to provide more tax revenue. The schools should be the top priority “while we try to figure out everything else,” she said.
Rob Kusner said fire insurance rates are higher in South Amherst. He said he “likes the Jones Library the way it is.”
Mandi Jo Hanneke said the town can accommodate all four projects if we seek grants (and don’t turn them down) to help pay the costs, and create new tax revenues. The library “should be updated,” she said. “We should not be afraid to ask the public for an override” of the state law limiting tax increases, she said.
Andy Steinberg said all the projects are “doable and all need to be done.” One problem is that there is so little land that isn’t preserved for conservation use or owned privately or by educational institutions.
The candidates were also asked what to do about the deteriorating Fort River and Wildwood Schools.
Steinberg said it is “questionable” whether Fort River is practical as a school site, because of nearby wetlands. He said that the building wasn’t great when his children attended 30 years ago, and the demands on it are greater now. He said Amherst can’t afford to build new school buildings without state assistance.
Hanneke said the schools should be replaced, not renovated. She suggested some options to pay for new schools, such as devoting a higher percentage of the budget to capital projects and waiting longer to replace vehicles.
Kusner, who voted against the school project at Town Meeting, said it was “a good idea, but there are better ideas.” Fort River is a central location, and planning for renovation and new construction is “very promising-looking,” he said. The cost might be higher than under the defeated plan, but he’d support it if the design is “more suitable.” The defeated plan’s “conflation of co-location and grade reconfiguration” made the difference, he said.
Brewer said, “The last plan was good enough and we need a new plan that isn’t just fiddling around the edges.” The schools should be the top priority, she said, but added, “The days of two neighborhood schools with 600 students each are long gone.” She said some Town Meeting members didn’t attend meetings at which the planning for the new schools took place.
Greeney said that the schools are his top priority, and they can be built without state funding. “I’m not going to be told it can’t be done,” he said. He asserted that new schools could have been built 12 to 15 years ago at half the cost, but the town was “held hostage” by the application for state funding.
Pistrang said he was “frustrated” at Town Meeting’s school decision, which he presided over as moderator, and said there is still “a lot of anger” over it. The challenge for the Town Council will be to “reach out to segments of the population that are not usually heard from,” including going to churches and apartment complexes to get feedback from residents.
There was general agreement among the candidates that Town Council members should listen to residents at the beginning of the process.
Brewer said the Council should pursue “multiple avenues” to get input from underrepresented groups such as young families, retirees, 9-5 workers and the less wealthy. “We need to figure out who’s not at the table,” she said.
Hanneke said the Charter Commission, on which she served as vice chair, conducted public forums from the beginning to the end of the process. She said councilors should go to where people are meeting instead of waiting for them to come to Town Hall.
Greeney said that too often officials have sought public comment after they have already made a decision. Instead, they should do it “as soon as a concept is formed,” he said.
Kusner suggested that the candidates who aren’t elected to the Town Council be asked to reach out to citizens who are interested in joining volunteer boards and committees, and then “vet and mentor” them. The committees should then be “invested with respect for their expertise and diversity,” he said.
Pistrang said that neighborhood meetings conducted by the district councilors should be synchronized with Town Council meetings and should focus on items that will be on the agenda. They could be held once a month, not twice a year, as the new charter requires. He said the new community participation officer is “critically important.”
Steinberg said citizens should be aware of the issues at the beginning and agendas should be posted promptly.
The Amherst Education Foundation was the sponsor of Tuesday’s forum.