June 16, 2008 Select Board Meeting

Monday, June 16, 2008, 6:30 p.m., Town Room, Town Hall

Present:  Select Board members: Gerry, Weiss, Anne Awad, Alisa Brewer, Diana Stein and Stephanie O’Keeffe; Town Manager Larry Shaffer


Mr. Weiss offered condolences to the family of Amherst Police Officer Ricky Arocho for the recent death of his two-year old daughter. 

I announced the Zoning Forum being held by the Planning Board’s Zoning Subcommittee on Wednesday, June 18th from 5:0 to 6:30 p.m. in the Town Room at Town Hall to review zoning priorities and solicit citizen input; and the Human Rights Commission’s annual community potluck picnic at Mill River on Saturday, June 21.

Ms. Awad announced that the PVTA Board had voted to raise fares to cover increases in fuel costs, and that there would be no service cuts.  She said that fares would increase from $1 to $1.25 per bus ride, and that paratransit service rides would increase from $1.50 to $2.50.  She said that the last fare increase was five years ago.   

Mr. Weiss announced a call for donations to support the flower pots downtown, which are being provided by Andrew’s Greenhouse and for which the business group Promoting Downtown Amherst has contributed $500. 

Approval of Minutes  (6:35)

The minutes of the June 11th Select Board meeting were approved without amendment, in a vote of 3 in favor, 1 abstaining and 1 absent.  Mr. Weiss noted that he abstained because he had not been at the June 11th meeting, and Ms. Brewer had not yet arrived at this meeting.

Committee Appointments  (6:36)

Ms Awad recommended that Vince O’Connor be reappointed to the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC.) The vote to approve the reappointment was 4 in favor, 1 absent.

Ms. Awad recommended the reappointment of Peter Jessop to CPAC, and noted that it would be for a third term.  She said that the other committee members are relatively new, and that there is a significant learning curve in CPAC’s work, and that Mr.  Jessop’s experience and historical knowledge would be valuable.  The vote to approve the reappointment was 4 in favor, 1 absent.

Ms. Awad recommended the reappointment of Frank Wells to the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee.  The vote to approve the appointment was 4 in favor, 1 absent. 

Additional Announcements  (6:41)

Ms. Brewer arrived and offered additional announcements, as we needed to wait until the posted time of 6:45 to begin discussion of water and sewer rates.   She announced the beginning of construction on a section of North Pleasant Street between Triangle Street and Massachusetts Avenue scheduled for Wednesday, June 18th, and Mr. Shaffer explained the detour and said the work is expected to last two to four weeks, depending on weather.  Ms. Brewer also talked about a web site called RealClout.org as a reference for groups organizing to oppose the November ballot question seeking to abolish the State income tax.

Mr. Weiss noted that the Taste of Amherst begins Thursday and runs through Sunday on the Town Common.

New Water and Sewer Rates  (6:45)

Robert Pariseau, Water Resources Director, asked the Select Board to approve an increase in the water rate from $3.00 per 100 cubic feet to $3.20, and an increase in the sewer rate from $3.00 per 100 cubic feet to $3.10, effective July 1st.  He noted that 100 cubic feet is about 750 gallons, and said that Amherst’s water and sewer rates were still lower than most towns in the area.  Continuing conservation efforts at UMass were credited with the reduction in sewer usage, including their use of about 60 million gallons of effluent water in FY08.  Mr. Shaffer said the value of the amount of effluent water used by UMass was projected to be very close to the $37,000 projected in last year’s Strategic Partnership Agreement.

Ms. Awad noted that the average sewer bill had increased by almost $100 in the last three fiscal years.  Mr. Pariseau said that water and sewer utilities require a lot of energy use, and that the cost for fuel and electricity had increased, and that those are among the rising expenses.  Mr. Pariseau said that the dramatic decreases in water usage by UMass kept the Town from needing to seek expensive new water resources to meet local needs, and Mr. Shaffer said that freeing up that capacity enables the pursuit of economic development.

Mr. Weiss and Mr. Shaffer talked about the Town agreeing to read the water meters on June 30th for residents who are concerned about being charged the new rate for a billing cycle that may include days or weeks prior to the July 1st changeover, depending on the precise day when the meter was last read.  Mr. Pariseau said that the different meter reading dates could result in a billing difference of zero to nine dollars for the average water bill.  The decision to read meters by request at the time of the rate change was made in response to concerns expressed last year by Paul Koss.  Mr. Shaffer said that the town had researched automated systems like those used by WMECO that allow meters to be read from a vehicle as it drives by the home or building, allowing efficient reading of all meters in town on the same day, but at more than a million dollars, the cost was considered to be out of proportion to the benefit.  Mr. Koss reiterated his concerns about fairness and “taxation without representation” at this meeting, and suggested a delay in implementing the rate increase to give the public more time to learn about it. 

Ms. Awad asked if Town Counsel had been consulted about any liability to the Town in charging the higher rate for usage that occurs before the official date of the increase.  Mr. Shaffer said he had not done so, and that this was standard practice for water and sewer billing, but that he would check with Town Counsel.  He noted that the new rates were projected in the FY09 budget proposal available since January and recently approved by Town Meeting, and had been discussed in different venues, so the public ought not be surprised by the rate increase. 

The Select Board voted unanimously to set the water rate at $3.20 per 100 cubic feet and the sewer rate at $3.10 per 100 cubic feet, effective July 1, 2008.

Signing Borrowing Notes  (7:12)

Finance Director and Treasurer John Musante presented two sets of paperwork each requiring five signatures per Select Board member for two short-term borrowing notes:  a one-year Bond Anticipation Note with a net interest rate of 2.34% for $855,000 covering the rollover of $340,000 of debt for the Plum Brook Recreation Area and $515,000 of the $575,000 for the Town Hall renovation project; and a 60-day State Aid Anticipation Note for $427,000 with a net interest rate of 2.29% for the Cushman Brook/Haskins View acquisition, in anticipation of the State self-help grant, which has been approved. 

I asked about the additional $60,000 of Town Hall debt, and Mr. Musante said that will be for the clock tower, some electrical work and the south staircase work, and will be billed separately later in the year as part of a separate borrowing package. 

Ms. Awad said she supports the Town Hall project, but does not support the Plum Brook borrowing, and hence would not sign that note.  Mr. Musante said that only a majority of Select Board members’ signatures was needed.  It was decided that no vote regarding the signing was necessary. 

Town Manager’s Report  (7:20)

Mr. Shaffer reported on a meeting he had attended in Hartford of ICLEI, a group promoting sustainability among local governments, which focused on enhancing railroad corridor between New Haven and Montreal.  He talked about the need to advocate for the necessity of the Amherst Amtrak stop, and for being part of future discussions to ensure that Amherst’s interests are represented. 

He gave an update on two feasibility studies discussed in recent months:  one for finding new space for the Amherst Survival Center and another to look at a single-room occupancy (SRO) residence for Amherst.  Regarding the Survival Center, he said that a request for proposals (RFP) had been issued and responses had been received, and that he had met with people from the Survival Center and Community Development Director Roy Rosenblatt to discuss interviews.  Per the SRO, he said that the Committee on Homelessness is looking into agencies with whom the Town might partner on such an endeavor.  Mr. Weiss said he had just been to a meeting of that committee, and that they were indeed considering four agencies for a possible partnership, and hoped to have a recommendation in four to six weeks.  Mr. Shaffer said that funding for both studies had been arranged but not spent in FY08, and would be encumbered to fund those studies in FY09.

Mr. Shaffer said that various issues of traffic calming and safety – including issues on Lincoln Avenue, Sunset Avenue, Cottage Street, Taylor Street and Strong Street – were being vetted by the Public Transportation and Public Works Committees, and in some cases, the Parking Task Force, for recommendations to be brought to the Select Board.  Regarding the speed cushions not having been re-installed on Lincoln, Mr. Shaffer said that the report on that project was late but would soon be complete, and its results would be shared with that neighborhood to determine the next step.  He said the cushions had reduced speed on the road but not volume, and that banning commercial traffic from the road and eliminating left-hand turns from Route 9 eastbound on to Blue Hills Road, Dana Street and Lincoln Avenue were both being considered.  Ms. Brewer noted the difficulty of getting committees to meet in the summer and how soon the school year would begin again, and her desire that some action be taken before the students return.

Mr. Shaffer said he had not had the opportunity to check with the Police Chief regarding enforcement policies and procedures related to bicycles on downtown sidewalks.  I suggested that this might be a good issue for the Public Transportation and Bicycle Committee to consider, in order to make recommendations and perhaps to engage in a public education campaign.  Ms. Awad suggested that skateboards on the sidewalk be addressed as well, and said that such sidewalk efforts were formerly handled by community service officers who walked around downtown, but said that those positions no longer existed.  Mr. Weiss said he wondered if the Parking Enforcement Officers might have a role in policing the sidewalks.  Ms. Brewer said she is noticing an increase in bicycles riding down the wrong side of the road, often paired with a rider on the opposite side traveling in the same direction, and expressed concern about the danger of that situation, suggesting it be addressed as well.  

I asked about the status of the implementing the software system for increasing the efficiency, visibility and tracking of the Town’s permitting system; and if closing the Inspections Office to the public on Thursdays had led to improvements in the permitting process. 

Mr. Shaffer said the software system would be in place July 1st and that training has been going well.  He said that moving Inspections to the third floor would occur this summer, and that closing the office on Thursdays had been very successful.  He said the Thursday time allows all the inspectors to review pending projects and consolidate their efforts for each one.  He said that new fire codes have caused challenges because of their complexity, and emphasized that those challenges are due to the codes rather than any of the “personalities” involved in the process. 

I asked if feedback had been or should be sought from entities such as the business community or people with completed or pending permits, to get their sense of how the new process is working.  Mr. Shaffer said that he does get feedback, and said that progress is being made but that there is still more work to do in this area.

Ms. Brewer asked about the mileage reimbursement rate for Town employees and volunteers using their own vehicles in service to the Town. 

Mr. Shaffer said that the issue is being looked at, and that the amount will be increased.  He said it is currently 36 cents per mile and that it will probably end up at around 45 to 50 cents per mile, after the Federal rate and the rates in other local communities are considered.  He said he hopes to make the change for July 1st.

FY09 Ambulance Rates  (7:43)

Mr. Shaffer talked about Fire Chief Keith Hoyle’s recommendation to raise ambulance rates by $35, from $420 to $455 for Basic Life Support for Amherst citizens and from $455 to $490 for out-of-town people; and from $520 to $555 for Advanced Life Support for Amherst citizens and $555 to $590 for out-of-town people.  He said that the Amherst citizen rate would apply regardless of what town the Amherst person was picked up in, and that out-of-town people would pay the out-of-town rate in Amherst or in other towns, and that the mileage charge would rise from $13 to $15.  He said that the previous rate increase occurred in 2006.

Mr. Shaffer said that he anticipates this increase to add about $90,000 to General Fund revenue.   He said that FY07 ambulance receipts totaled approximately $1.96 million,  and that about $1.57 million was paid by insurance companies.  He called the rate increase “fair and appropriate,” and said it helps to further the goal of raising revenue in non-tax areas.

Ms. Brewer asked if the previous increase had a significant impact on collections, either by reducing the collection rate or increasing the time spent pursuing payment.  Mr. Shaffer said no, but that more time was spent analyzing the write-offs, which he said primarily came from Medicare cases.  He said that about 75% to 80 % of total billings are collected, and said that percentage has stayed roughly the same.  

Ms. Brewer said that she would like to see data comparing Amherst’s ambulance and collection rates with other communities.  She also recommended that the “citizen” language be replaced with “resident,” and Ms. Awad concurred. 

Ms. Brewer asked about the logic behind charging Amherst residents lower rates no matter where they are picked up, and suggested it “muddies the waters” in negotiations of higher rates with other communities.  Mr. Shaffer said he was unsure of the origin, and assumed it was an accepted practice by the community.  He said that the larger issue is that with the rate increase and with the negotiations with Amherst College, UMass and the other towns, that fire and ambulance revenue is nearing the goal of accounting for 60% to 65% of expenses, up from 40%.

Ms. Brewer suggested that raising the rates even higher would achieve that goal more quickly, and voiced strong support for the idea of charging the maximum practical rate.  She said that collecting as much as possible from insurance companies, who account for the majority of the bill paying, is worth pursuing as long as the current health care system operates in its current manner. 

Mr. Shaffer said he would like to see annual increases to keep pace with rising expenses.  He said that he would like to see the revenues stay steady with the budget, or gain, and said that increasing rates too much would increase the amounts being written off.  Ms. Brewer disagreed, reiterating her points about charging the insurance companies as much as possible, and saying that fewer individuals lack insurance.  Ms. Stein said that there are about 62,000 people in Massachusetts who aren’t covered by insurance, and are exempt from the State penalty for being uninsured. 

Mr. Shaffer said he was happy to look into the concept of “ceiling” for rates.

The Select Board voted unanimously to approve the new ambulance fee schedule, effective July 1, 2008.

Town Meeting Wrap-Up Discussion  (8:03)

I had proposed a discussion of how the Select Board handled its process and responsibilities during Town Meeting, so that we might identify improvements for the future. 

I asked about Town Counsel’s role in reviewing articles – if he has already determined that they are legal and solid, does that mean we shouldn’t bother suggesting changes; does he “trouble-shoot” articles, and so forth.  Mr. Shaffer said that Town Counsel considers the structure and legality of articles, and whether or not they will pass muster with the Attorney General’s office.  He said that Town Counsel does not trouble-shoot articles from all perspectives, but looks primarily at legality and format.  

I said I felt that some articles didn’t get adequate time and consideration because of time constraints of pre-Town Meeting Select Board meetings, citing the “Right to Farm” and “Nuisance House” bylaws as examples, and suggested that such complex articles might have benefited from more public input, such as occurs with the public hearings required for proposed zoning bylaw amendments.  I said that when such articles are not time-sensitive, the Select Board might suggest that they be brought back for the next Town Meeting, to allow for more time in their crafting and vetting.  Ms. Awad said that it’s a fluid process with much input along the way, and said that last-minute pressure helps to move articles along in a way that postponing them to the following Town Meeting season might not. 

Ms. Brewer said that the Select Board sometimes didn’t know any more about an article than Town Meeting does, because we have such limited time to deal with some of them.  She said that Town Meeting members believe our recommendations are based on a very thorough process for each article, and that that isn’t always the case. 

Mr. Weiss said he felt that we had had enough information and that if we hadn’t felt comfortable recommending articles to Town Meeting, we wouldn’t have done so.  He said he felt that our process had worked well.  I said that I agreed, but that improvements won’t be found without looking more critically at the process.

Ms. Stein suggested that the false alarm bylaw might be more effective with higher fees, and suggested that data be analyzed to see if significant reductions occur.  Mr. Weiss said that when the proposal first came to the Select Board several months ago, similar concerns were expressed about the fines being too low, and that the idea was to track the effectiveness and increases the fees if necessary.

I said that we might be able to streamline our handling of articles for which the motion will be to refer – either by the article sponsor, or with the sponsor’s agreement – by determining at the outset if referral will be sought, and then not discussing it further, much as how articles to be dismissed are handled. 

I requested that the final approved budget be put on the Town web site so that one need not attempt to reconstruct the budget proposed by the Town Manager in January with the changes approved by Town Meeting.  Ms. Awad agreed and said she would like the Select Board to receive a quarterly budget update.  Mr. Shaffer said he would be happy to do that, and could provide updates on operating philosophies such as when to make new hires, how to build surpluses and so forth.  Ms. Brewer said that such a report is also a good way to keep the budget and its on-going issues in front of the public. 

Ms. Stein requested that the Select Board receive the Town Meeting script prior to arriving in the auditorium, and said that would provide the opportunity to fix errors such as the wrong person being identified as the speaker for an article.  Mr. Weiss said it should be no problem to have the scripts sent by e-mail earlier in the day.

Per the budget process, Mr. Weiss said that he would like to look at that over the summer to assess how it is working and how it might be improved. 

Summer Agenda Process  (8:26)

It was decided that short lists of four or five summer agenda priorities would be created by each Select Board member and submitted to the office by noon Thursday, and that at the next meeting, we would determine how to prioritize and move forward with them.

Liaison Reports  (8:31)

Ms. Awad said that she is liaison to the Human Rights Commission, and said that that group would be presenting “Young Hero” awards to more than a dozen Kindergarten through 12th graders at the Community Picnic at Mill River on Saturday, June 21st.  She said the awards would honor students who exhibited qualities such as exceptional kindness, bravery and willingness to confront bad behavior.

Ms. Stein said she has been attending Energy Task Force meetings, and hoped to serve as unofficial liaison to that group, which is not an official Town committee.  She said that they would be having another energy fair this summer on the Common, promoting “green” initiatives and the Town’s progress in implementing the Climate Action Plan.   

Mr. Weiss said that the Committee on Homelessness is seeking agencies to partner with on an SRO plan, and needs two more members to fill vacancies.  He also talked about attending Promoting Downtown Amherst meetings, and suggesting that businesses create lists for him of the contributions they make to the community which the public might not recognize.  He said he would read such lists at Select Board meetings, and did so with a letter from PeoplesBank, which described donating $277,000 to Amherst organizations in the five years since the bank branch opened, and said that the bank has long-term commitments for an additional $110,000, and that more than 60 organizations have received support to date. 

Ms. Brewer said that the 250th Anniversary Celebration Committee would be raising money by selling items including t-shirts and tote bags at the Taste of Amherst.  She also said the Chamber of Commerce would be having its new member welcome reception on Wednesday, June 18, and that the Town might find something informational to provide to those new members.

Liaison Assignments  (8:37)

There was discussion about how projecting documents on the wall would be handy in situations such as this – going through the list of committees to make liaison assignments.  This led to discussion about materials on the web site, and how boards and committees will have more ability to post their own minutes and other information, on the new Town web site, the importance of committee minutes getting posted, and that Select Board liaisons should emphasize the importance of doing so.  Mr. Shaffer said the launch of the new site is behind schedule and is now expected for mid-summer, possibly August, and said that its capabilities will be far greater than the current site.

We went through a list of committees, and chose the assignments that most interested each of us.  Results were:

Weiss:  Budget Coordinating Group, Committee on Homelessness, Community Development Committee, Council on Aging, Disability Access Advisory Committee, Economic Development Working Group, Personnel Board, Promoting Downtown Amherst

Awad:  Cherry Hill Advisory Committee, Human Rights Commission, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee, LaPaz Centro Sister City Committee, Nyeri Sister City Committee, PVTA, Public Art Commission

Brewer:  250th Anniversary Celebration Committee, Comprehensive Planning Committee, Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee, LSSE Commission

O’Keeffe:  Campus Community Coalition, Conservation Commission, Economic Development Working Group, Joint Capital Planning Committee, Public Transportation Committee, Public Works Committee, Town Commercial Relations Committee

Stein:  Agricultural Commission, Board of Health, Community Preservation Act Committee, Design Review Board

Additionally, I chose Amherst Housing Authority and Ms. Stein chose Amherst Redevelopment Authority, but because both are elected bodies, it was recommended that we check with them first to see if they would want to have Select Board liaisons.  

The longer-serving Select Board members mostly retained their previous assignments and Ms. Stein and I chose among the others.  Some committees went un-assigned, but may be revisited if necessary.  Some of those are dormant; others require further discussion as to the need for a liaison (such as Planning Board/Zoning Subcommittee, ZBA,) and the role of the committee (such as Parking Task Force.)  It was suggested that there only be one liaison/rep to each in order to not spread ourselves too thin, but that that would not be a rule.  And it was suggested that we only opt for assignments that were generally interesting to us, and that no one could hope to attend all the meetings of all their chosen committees but that minutes and agendas could help keep us apprised of relevant info. 

Closing Discussion

There was brief discussion about a scheduled ZBA hearing for Mercy House, and what the intentions are for making the parish into a community residence.  Mr. Shaffer said he was not sure, but would check into it.

The meeting adjourned at 9:34.  The next Select Board meeting will be held Monday, June 23rd at 6:30 p.m. in the Town Room at Town Hall. 


Eva Schiffer said:

One cool minute to APPROVE YOUR MINUTES?!!!!

I think doing a post-Town Meeting wrap-up is an excellent idea.



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