April 7, 2008 Select Board Meeting

Monday, April 7th 2008, 6:30 p.m., Town Room at Town Hall

Present:  Select Board members Gerry Weiss, Anne Awad, Alisa Brewer, Diana Stein, Stephanie O’Keeffe; Town Manager Larry Shaffer; Gail Weston, recording minutes.

Opening Remarks and Agenda Review  (6:30)

Mr. Weiss opened the meeting, welcomed the new Select Board members, and said that the first order of business was Select Board reorganization.

Select Board Reorganization

Ms. Awad nominated Mr. Weiss for Chair.  Ms. Stein seconded.  There were no other nominations, and Mr. Weiss was elected as Chair in a vote of 4 to 0, 1 abstention, with Mr. Weiss abstaining.

The responsibilities of the Clerk position were explained as having only to sign an occasional document.  I suggested that the Clerk might also do a preliminary edit of the minutes after they are prepared by staff but before they are distributed to the Select Board, and said that I would be willing to do that if the Select Board thought that was a good idea.  Ms. Awad nominated me as Clerk.  The vote in favor was unanimous.

There was discussion about the Appointments Clerk, and how the position had been yearly, and now rotates every four months.  Ms. Brewer expressed concern that whoever ends up with the position in June and July gets to make a disproportionate number of appointments, because that is when terms expire.  She also noted that she would like to extend her current term for April, because she has appointments lined up for the coming weeks.  Ms. Awad said she was ready to start her term in April, and also had begun lining up appointments. 

A system of overlapping the first and fourth months of each term was suggested as a way to share the June appointments, bring the new members up to speed on the process their first time through, and accommodate Ms. Brewer’s planned appointments for April.  The Appointments Clerk schedule will be as follows:  April – Awad and Brewer; May – Awad; June – Awad and Stein; July and August – Stein; September – Stein and O’Keeffe; October through December – O’Keeffe; January though March 2009 – Brewer.    

Mr. Weiss then thanked Hwei-Ling Greeney and Rob Kusner for their service on the Select Board, and there was a round of applause.


Mr. Weiss announced upcoming events sponsored by the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee (TMCC):  Wednesday, April 9th – an informational forum on the history and work of the Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC) and the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC), 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the ACTV studios on College Street; the Town Meeting Bus Tour of warrant sites, Sunday, April 13th, 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., meeting in the Middle School parking lot; and the Warrant Review, Thursday, April 17th, 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in the Middle School auditorium, with the first half hour being an orientation for new members, and article summary presentations beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Mr. Weiss said that the Appellate Tax Board had ruled that utility companies must pay property taxes on poles and wires on public ways, which he said is expected to be worth about $50 million in new revenue State-wide.  He said that because the decision is expected to be appealed by the utility companies, cities and towns are allowed to collect the tax money but can’t spend it until the situation has been resolved.  Ms. Stein said that this was expected to mean about $200,000 for Amherst, and said that the legislature is considering codifying the poles and wires taxation into law, which would be expected to render moot any appeal. 

Mr. Weiss announced a training session for new Select Board members on June 21st in Worcester, conducted by the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA,) and suggested that Ms. Stein and I try to attend. 

There was discussion of the deadline for applications to the Budget Coordinating Group’s (BCG’s) citizen facilitation team, which will be compiling different five-year budget scenarios from department heads, engaging the public discussions of multi-year financial planning and community priorities, and making recommendations in October based on that work.  The original deadline for Citizen Activity Forms (CAFs) was Friday, April 11; it was now moved up to Thursday, April 10; and later in the meeting would be moved up further to Wednesday, April 9.

Public Comment  (7:02)

Isaac Ben Ezra thanked Ms. Greeney and Mr. Kusner, asked if the BCG’s facilitation team will be charged with identifying new revenue sources; and talked about the cost-saving success of the CanaRX program of Town employees buying prescription drugs from Canada.  He said that significant savings could be realized if such a program were implemented at the State level, and said that grass-roots support was necessary to try to make that happen. 

Hazel Avenue  (7:07)

Mr. Shaffer updated the Select Board on the request for creating No Parking areas on this street, as has been brought before the Select Board last month, and last October.  After conferring with the owner of the other non-Amherst College properties, Mr. Shaffer was recommending creating a No Parking area from the final telephone pole on the street to the entrance of the bike path.  The Select Board unanimously approved that recommendation.

Article 1 – Reports of Boards and Committees  (7:13)

This is the annual article that asks Town Meeting to hear the reports that aren’t available in written form of Town boards and committees.  The Select Board voted unanimously to recommend the article, and Ms. Stein agreed to speak to that recommendation at Town Meeting.   

Article 3 – Optional Tax Exemptions  (7:15)

This is an annual article allowing Town Meeting to increase by up to 100% the optional property tax exemptions allowed by the State for qualifying elderly, surviving spouses or minor children, veterans and blind people.  There are currently about 120 such exemptions granted in Amherst.  The Select Board voted unanimously to recommend this article to Town Meeting.  I will speak to it at Town Meeting.

Article 4 – Personal Property Exemptions   (7:20)

This is a new recommendation by the Board of Assessors to exempt personal property with a value under $10,000.  Principal Assessor David Burgess explained that the intent of the article is: a) to eliminate the administrative work and expense if sending out very small tax bills, which can in some cases cost more to process and mail than the amount to be collected; b) to be a small gesture of good will to small businesses such as beauty shops or therapist offices who have a very small amount of taxable property, as well as to small rental property owners who are taxed on a few stoves and refrigerators.  He explained that exemptions don’t mean that the amount of tax is not collected at all, but rather, it is not collected from the exempted party and is instead spread among the other tax payers.  He said that the effect of the proposed $10,000 exemption would be about 1 cent per thousand dollars of property value, or about $3.30 on the average property.  He said that the values of the property would continue to be tracked, but that bills would not be sent.  A document he provided showed that there are 679 accounts valued at $10,000 or less, with a combined taxation amount of just over $27,000, and an average annual tax bill of just under $40, and that these represent 3.37% of the personal property tax base.  By comparison, the 218 personal property tax accounts valued at over $10,000 represent a combined taxation amount of more than $777,000, with an average annual tax bill of more than $3,500. 

Mr. Shaffer said that this is a reasonable way to provide administrative relief, particularly with reduced staff.  He emphasized that it has no effect on the overall amount of taxes collected, and instead reapportions those taxes. 

Mr. Weiss said that he preferred to make the cut-off at $5,000 of value, rather than $10,000, noting that would still save administration on 568 accounts, rather than 679.  Mr. Burgess and Connie Kruger from the Board of Assessors said that they had considered any amount up to $10,000 to be satisfactory and while they had determined $10,000 to be a reasonable cut-off, they were not averse to $5,000.

Mr. Weiss noted that his office would fall under this threshold, and wondered if he should recuse himself.  Mr. Shaffer said that he thought Mr. Weiss could vote because he would not benefit differently from the many other effected by this decision, but said that due to political considerations, he suggested not voting. 

Ms. Brewer noted that other communities had similar exemptions, and pegged their cut-offs at various points from $1,000 to $10,000.

It was determined that the Select Board could change the amount listed in the warrant article from $10,000 to $5,000 because the article is sponsored by the Select Board.  We then voted 4 in favor, 1 abstention (Mr. Weiss) to recommend the article seeking a tax exemption for personal property valued at $5,000 or less.  Ms. Awad will speak to this article at Town Meeting.

Article 5 – Compensating Balances  (7:37)

This is an annual article authorizing the Treasurer to enter into banking agreements that require minimum account balances in exchange for banking services.  Assistant Town Manager and Finance Director John Musante said that the Town doesn’t have any such accounts currently, but that this provides flexibility in case one is needed.

There was some discussion about how conservatively the Town’s money is invested and that its strategy is to avoid risk.  We then voted unanimously to recommend the article.

Article 13 – Reserve Fund 

This is an annual article appropriating a small amount of money to be controlled by the Finance Committee and used to meet unforeseen or extraordinary expenses, typically late in the fiscal year.  Mr. Musante said that covering overages in the snow and ice account would be a typical way to use such funds.   We voted unanimously to recommend this article, and Ms. Stein will speak to the article at Town Meeting.

Town Manager’s Report – Proclamation for Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer Day  (7:45)

Wanting to wait five minutes to start the discussion of the budget article, Mr. Shaffer introduced the proclamation to make April 13, 2008 Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer Day.  Mr. Weiss spoke of Dr. Boyer’s accomplishments and worldwide renown, and read the proclamation.  I spoke of working with Dr. Boyer when he put on a benefit concert for the Survival Center’s 25th Anniversary celebration in 2001.  The vote in favor of proclaiming Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer Day was unanimous.

Committee Appointments  (7:47)

Ms. Brewer recommended the appointment of Nora Maroulis to the Public Art Commission, and the recommendation was approved by unanimous vote.

Ms. Brewer recommended the appointment of Reikka Simula for the Committee on Homelessness.  Ms. Brewer explained that Ms. Simula had previously been appointed to this committee, had needed to resign due to other time constraints but then reconsidered, and Ms. Brewer said the committee strongly desired Ms. Simula’s return.  The vote to approve the appointment was unanimous.

Special Liquor Licenses  (7:48)

Three special liquor licenses were approved, each by unanimous vote:  an April 26th spring fair at Hampshire College; an April 17th fundraising event for Jessie’s House at Amherst College; and an April 12th event at Hampshire College.

Article 12 – FY09 Budget  (7:50)

Mr. Shaffer spoke about the budget process to date and how the current proposal meets Finance Committee and Select Board parameters.  He said that the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) had endorsed the proposal, and that the Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC) supported the plan for capital spending. 

Mr. Musante said that the BCG has had constructive dialogue on the budget and that the municipal portion was part of a town-wide plan for FY09.  He explained that the budget gap, which had been reduced to $720,000, was proposed to be bridged by the following means and adjustments:  a decrease in the projected rate of increase for the Health Insurance Trust Fund from 12% to 6% resulted in $65,000 in savings for the Town and $100,000 for the Elementary Schools; the Select Board’s restoration of $66,000 in funding for human service agencies, and $55,000 to fund the War Memorial Pool (which he said was expected to bring in $31,000 in revenue;) the re-inclusion of a part-time inspector in the Health Department, which was inadvertently omitted from the January budget proposal; and a place holder of $25,000 for the 250th Anniversary Committee toward funding those festivities in 2009; reducing the percentage of the levy put toward capital spending to 7.25%, which reduces the gap by $255,000; and taking the remaining $425,000 from reserves.  He said that use of reserves was a “reluctant” recommendation, and that it was an amount equal to the reserve fund growth for the year, saying that its use would not make the reserve total drop lower than current levels, but would keep them from increasing this year.  He said that the 250th Anniversary Committee was still trying to get private money to cover its $25,000 request.  He said that if approved, this was a budget balanced with the use of not more than $425,000 of reserve money.

Ms. Awad asked Finance Committee Chair Brian Morton about the anguish the Finance Committee had gone through in making a recommendation to use reserves.  Mr. Morton said there had not actually been a formal vote yet on the recommendation, but that the sense of the discussions was that the Finance Committee supported this. 

Mr. Weiss mentioned the possibility of adding the revenue from the poles and wires tax, if that either survives the appeal process or is facilitated through new legislation.  Mr. Musante said the money is not expected to be available for FY09. 

Mr. Weiss asked Mr. Shaffer to address the public safety budget.  Mr. Shaffer said that there is legitimate concern about the public safety budget, and said that it is essentially level-service funded for FY09, without the increases sought by the Police and Fire Chiefs.  He said that the 3.4% increase to public safety was more favorable than the budget situation for any other department.  He said that because there is not money for additional officers, Police Chief Charles Scherpa has sought assistance from State Police for the weekends between now and graduation to help with the increased public safety demands, and Mr. Shaffer praised the Chief and the Police Department for this effort.

I asked Mr. Musante about defending the recommendation to use reserves to Town Meeting, when that goes against the standard Finance Committee recommendations and policies, and might create a sense that reserve use is acceptable if the FinCom wants it, but not when it is requested by Town Meeting or other groups.

Mr. Musante said that the recommendation is not being made lightly, and that it is only being considered because of the context of the multi-year financial plan underway.  He said that a citizen committee would be implementing a BCG plan to collect information on different service levels possible under different funding scenarios, and seeking public feedback on priorities for those service and funding levels, with the intent of distilling that information and presenting a recommendation for FY10 and beyond.  The charge for the citizen committee would be approved later in the meeting.  Mr. Musante said that the recommendation needed to be considered in the context of recent reserve use:  FY05 $3.4 million, FY06 $2 million; FY07 $1 million; FY08 – the recommendation was for no reserve use, but some was required to meet the Regional School agreement.  He said the $425,000 requested for FY09 was intended to be a bridge to next year’s multi-year plan, and would not be ongoing.

Brief return to Dr. Boyer Proclamation  (8:15)

Judy Brooks arrived expecting the Dr. Boyer proclamation to occur as scheduled on the agenda, but because it had been dealt with earlier, Mr. Weiss showed her a copy of the document we had signed and invited her to speak briefly about the plans to celebrate Dr. Boyer.  She talked about a gospel concert with three choirs, including the reunion of his former choir students, and said it would be held Sunday, April 13 at 2:30 at the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Maple Street in Hadley.   She thanked the Select Board for the proclamation.

Return to the Budget Discussion

Ms. Brewer asked about the continued use of the retired Human Resources Director as a consultant assisting the current person whose responsibilities combine both human resources and human rights.  Mr. Shaffer said that human resources is a very complex area and that the consulting services would continue to be necessary, but may decrease in the future.  Ms. Awad asked if it might be possible to get the same consulting service from someone with a lower pay level than the retired Director.  Mr. Shaffer said that might be possible, but that this individual’s expertise would be required during t \his transition. 

Mr. Weiss asked about what makes up the General Services budget.  Mr. Musante said it was things like risk management and some kinds of insurance (property, liability, casualty,) group purchasing, postage, phone system costs and the like.  Mr. Shaffer said that improvements have been made in insurance billing cycles and rates to aid in budget planning.

Ms. Brewer asked about a Facilities Coordinator position.  Mr. Shaffer said this person was needed because much facilities management has been neglected, resulting in expense and inefficiency.  Mr. Musante said that a retirement in the department allowed for the redefinition of the position.  Ms. Brewer said that while she believes that the Town will not be able to maintain all the employees it has currently as budgets get worse in the future, people shouldn’t assume that every retirement or other manner of job vacancy means that such positions would go unfilled.   

I asked about the status of the “Blue Ribbon” panel that was established to seek efficiencies between Town and School operations.  Mr. Shaffer said that he has been so busy with the budget that he has not convened that panel in about two months, but that the panel was given a great deal of information to study.  He said he hopes to reconvene the panel this summer.  Mr. Musante said that seeking such efficiencies will be a significant element of the citizen committee working to create the multi-year financial plan.  I said that I thought it was important to talk about such things so that the public knows that efficiencies are being actively pursued and implemented, so that people recognize that the Town is making serious efforts to address the financial problems.  Mr. Weiss agreed and said that the BCG’s work should be talked about more, so that people understand its efforts and progress.   Mr. Weiss said that it should be noted that the Town budget had no real cuts, thanks to savings and efficiencies and new revenue collections, and that people need to know that the Town was able to achieve level services with a balanced budget.  He said the Schools were not able to do that, which he said necessitates the use of reserves.  Mr. Shaffer said that there has been progress on many of the elements put forth by the Finance Committee in its proposed multi-year plan from last year, and that the Town has moved forward in many areas but still has work to do.

I said I would have liked to have seen more discussion in recent months about the Town Manager’s prioritized restoration list, which had an Economic Development Director as the top priority, and which was replaced by the Select Board’s priority to restore funding for the human service agencies and War Memorial Pool.  I said that the discussions happened at different times, so they did not seem like a choice between the two, but amounted to as much.  I said I was concerned that this decision eliminated the option of funding the human service agencies from a source other than taxation – via Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money, as proposed by the Town Manager – and eliminated the ability to invest in increasing Amherst’s affordability by seeking new revenues, which amounted to a status-quo situation instead of an opportunity to try something different in order to seek a different result.  I asked Mr. Shaffer if it was true that the possibility to pursue those two opportunities was now eliminated for FY09.

Mr. Shaffer said that he is pursuing potential development opportunities and will want to bring in an Economic Development Director when a project has some status, with a plan and goals, so that success for that individual can be assured, because he said that people would be looking for productivity quickly.  Per the human services funding model, he said that taxation as a funding source will continue to be in jeopardy in the future; that there are more local agencies than the couple we fund; that giving small amounts of money to multiple agencies is based on an old model and that he would prefer to prioritize, and focus resources on specific issues, such as his efforts to help the Survival Center assess and address its facility needs.  He said he respects the Select Board and realizes that its members’ recommendations reflect not just personal desires, but those of people who helped to elect them.

I said I agreed that funding the agencies is important to the Select Board and to the community, but that the question is how best to do that, and said I would have liked to have seen more discussion on that facet of the issue.  Per the prioritized restorations, I asked if Mr. Shaffer’s priorities were different today than they had been in January when he put forth his budget proposal, and he said yes. 

Mr. Weiss said there is State aid available to assist with economic development through grants.  Mr. Shaffer said he has met with State representatives to talk about the Chapter 43-B grant money, and said it is available once a site has been identified as a priority development site, and that up to $100,000 in grants can be accessed to help with the project.  Mr. Shaffer said that once efforts are further along, pursuit of such grants will be considered as part of a funding package. 

Mr. Weiss said he also wishes there had been more discussion on the human service funding issue.  He said that he had had discussions with Community Services Director Roy Rosenblatt about the issue, and said he (Mr. Weiss) was concerned about:  the lack of a transition plan for funding the agencies in the interim year between Town funding and CDBG funding; that using the CDBG funding for the agencies meant not having that funding available for the kinds of projects the Town currently uses it for; and the instability and unpredictability of Amherst qualifying for CDBG money at all.

Mr. Weiss brought up the possibility of filling a vacancy in the Planning Department and having that person be the “point person” for shepherding business and development projects through the regulatory maze.  He said he thought that was that position’s original intent, and asked if Mr. Shaffer was considering filling that position in that way.  Mr. Shaffer said he wouldn’t want to put an economic development position in the Planning Department, because the former would be an advocate, and the latter would be regulatory, and that those two functions were in conflict.  He said the Planning Department is being reorganized, and will incorporate the Inspections Department, which might allow for opportunities for doing some things differently, including assisting with and improving navigation of the regulatory process.  He said that the first phase of the reorganization is getting the Inspections Department on to the MUNIS software system, and then physically moving the department to the Planning and Conservation office suite.

Ms. Awad said that CDBG money has not been a reliable funding source for Amherst and said that the Federal Government is now looking to eliminate the CDBG program.  She said that it has been difficult to fit Amherst’s funding needs into the programs model for how it provides funding.

Ms. Brewer talked about the ambulance fees, and asked why Amherst isn’t charging patients and their insurance companies a higher rate.  She said that some believe Amherst is charging less than it could be charging, and that raising that rate would seem like an easy way to increase revenues.  Mr. Shaffer said he was open to charging more, and believed a proposed increase would put Amherst at the top of the rate structure, but that he would be happy to look into the issue.

Bike Commute Week  (9:20)

To save Town Engineer Jason Skeels from waiting until we were done with budget motions, at Ms. Brewer’s suggestion, we addressed the proclamation for Bike Commute Week.  Ms. Awad moved that May 11-17, 2008, be proclaimed “Bike Commute Week,” and that May 16 be proclaimed “Bike Commute Day,” and read the proclamation for such. 

Mr. Skeels said that Pioneer Valley Planning Commission had invited State Representative Ellen Story to read the proclamation on Bike Commute Day, and said that food would be served 7:00 a.m. to noon.  He said that food, coffee and gift certificates are donated by local stores and restaurants.

The vote to support the bike proclamations was unanimous

Return to the Budget

The Select Board then went quickly through each of the following budget area motions under Article 12 and voted unanimously to recommend each one, and assigned speakers: 

General Government $6,152,525 -- Weiss
Public Safety $8,160,644 – O’Keeffe
Public Works $1,726,974 – Awad
Planning, Conservation & Inspections $851,853 – Brewer
Community Services $1,699,567 – Awad
Debt Service $1,446,361 – Stein
Water Fund $4,224,006 – Weiss
Sewer Fund $3,670,647 – Weiss
Solid Waste Fund $625,524 – Weiss
Transportation Fund $1,010,754 – Weiss

Signing the Warrant

We signed the Annual Town Meeting Warrant.

Approving the Committee Charge for the BCG Facilitation Team

We voted unanimously to approve the charge of the Facilitation of the Community Choices Committee.  It is more than three paragraphs long, and it was not read aloud, because it had been discussed previously, and it was getting late.

There was discussion about the deadline for submitting the Citizen Activity Forms (CAFs) to serve on this committee, and it was determined that logistics required that the deadline be moved up from Friday, April 11 to Wednesday, April 9.  Plans were made to publicize that change on the Town Web site.

Town Manager’s Report

Mr. Shaffer said that two student groups of 25-50 people would spend a few hours doing a general clean up of the Fearing Street area on a Sunday in late April or early May.  He said that the Town is also conducting a weekly inspection of dumpsters in that area to see if they are overflowing, in response to concerns about that issue, brought to the Select Board by Sue and Mike Bonis.

Mr. Shaffer said that there are 10 property owners on Pelham Road with mailboxes on the opposite side of the street from their houses, and that they were all asked by mail if they would prefer to have their mailboxes moved.  He said that five said yes, one said no and four did not respond, and he said he would send a request to the Post Master requesting the change for those five.  This was in response to concerns brought to the Select Board by Vince O’Connor, regarding safety issues of crossing the busy road to retrieve mail. 

The meeting adjourned at 9:48.  The next Select Board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, April 14th, at Town Hall.


Eva Schiffer said:

This is MORE than enough for official minutes!! If you are able and willing to continue in such detail, I still hope that, sooner rather than later, the new Board will let the new SB Clerk take over from the staff person. If not, I think you should continue to look for ways to shorten your "summary" -- in your own interest.




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