Only 16 people showed up Thursday to learn about how Amherst will spend $80 million in public money next year, and only six of them had anything to say about it.
For a simplified summary of what the town manager said, and comments from the six people, keep reading. But first, let me set the scene for you.
This public forum took place in the same place where Town Meeting used to meet. To see rows of empty seats where an average of 180 citizens used to meet was, well, eerie. But it got eerier. The forum was required to spend half its time on public comments, but when the six were done commenting, there were still two minutes left before reaching the amount of time spent on the town manager’s explanation. So there were two minutes of dead air, where everyone sat and waited and looked at each other.
“It was regrettable,” said Town Council President Lynn Griesemer afterwards. She attributed the low turnout to the “new rhythm” of the budget-making process. “I’m sorry more people didn’t come,” she said.
As a member of the Charter Commission, I imagined these public forums (there will be three a year) would resemble Town Meeting, with town officials explaining the issues and citizens commenting on them, but open to all and without the voting. After the robust turnout at the District 2 meeting Sunday, I was particularly disappointed Thursday night. Where were all those people who spoke during the charter campaign about the importance of public participation?
OK, it was cold, and the process is still new. You could stay home and watch the hearing on Amherst Media or read about it here or in the Gazette. Notification could have been better. There will be other budget hearings (see end of this post for details). Maybe former Town Meeting members still feel sad about the change in government and couldn’t bear to come to the very place where they used to meet.
Eleven members of the Town Council were there, with Steve Schreiber and Sarah Swartz the only ones absent.
Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the budget proposal for the fiscal year starting in July will include another large increase in money for road and sidewalk repair. He said there’s a “crying need” for a new school, fire station and public works building, and Amherst has been “remiss” in infrastructure spending over the past 28 years. An increased amount of reserves (from $4 million in 2010 to $12 million now), plus a decrease in debt and a good bond rating, will make these projects financially possible, he said.
“There’s a full community engagement process coming up” to determine the order of these public building projects and their financing plans, he said.
Climate change will be “at the forefront” of Amherst’s budget planning, Bockelman said. “We have pivoted to embracing a sustainability mind-set in everything we do,” he said. Development has provided additional housing and expanded the tax base, but where it happens next “has yet to be addressed,” he said. “New growth” produced $830,000 in revenue that didn’t need to come from residential taxation this year.
There will be no tax override or use of reserves in the upcoming fiscal year, Bockelman said. There will be a steep drop in ambulance receipts because Hadley will no longer rely on the Amherst Fire Department, yet the number of firefighters and paramedics will not decline, he said.
In the public comments, Jeff Lee supported spending on public transportation and Clare Bertrand highlighted ranked-choice voting and capital spending for the schools. Amy Gates proposed a per-bedroom tax on landlords and expressed fear that property taxes will become “untenable.” “Residents are considered a credit card for the town,” she said. “Many feel squeezed and love the town and want to stay here.”
Barbara Pearson supported spending on sidewalk repair and said she was confused about the amount of property taxes paid by the two large new buildings in the northern part of downtown (it’s $586,060.30 this year). “If they are cash cows, that changes the discussion,” she said. Robert Pam backed spending on social services, saying we should “not punish people for being poor.” Bill Kaizen reminded the council that the charter has a provision about participatory budgeting.
Bockelman will submit his final budget proposal to the Town Council May 1, and there will be two months for review, with the Finance Committee holding a hearing May 21 and voting May 28. Because Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham still have Town Meetings that take place earlier, the School Committee will vote on the regional budget next Tuesday, and the Finance Committee will hold a hearing April 4. The Town Council will vote on the school budget April 22 or 29, and must vote on the final budget by June 30.