Saturday at Town Hall

Saturday morning we met with Department Heads to hear presentations on each portion of the municipal budget.  I hadn’t known quite what to expect from this.  It turned out to be incredibly valuable and informative.  Perhaps even more so were the documents each Department Head prepared ahead of time, answering questions supplied by the Select Board, and accompanied by budget info. 

Here are those materials (they will be up on the Town site soon as well,) with individual reports from each department within each budget area:

Public Safety

Public Works

General Government

Planning, Conservation and Inspections

Community Services

And here are some post-meeting random thoughts and impressions:

  Kris Pacunas and the rest of the Information Technology staff are among the unsung heroes of Town government.  Actually, the “unsung” part may no longer be accurate, as nearly every Department Head profusely praised that crew.  (Kris was there, providing A/V support for the presentations, and the Town Manager joked that such obeisance must be paid, lest IT disconnect one’s e-mail.)  Each cited the efficiencies made possible by technology and connectivity in enabling them to meet ever-increasing demands with decreased staff and other resources.  People might assume that the IT department is all about “buying new computers” and creating the new Town web site, but it is SO MUCH more than that:  providing remote access to data and the ability to file reports from the field, software integrating information among departments, electronic form-filing, on-line bill payment, managing property and land use information through the GIS, an amazing new VoIP phone system (I can’t explain it; look it up if you dare) that will soon result in $35,000 a year in savings compared to the old low-tech system.  Et cetera.  Kris also made two great points in his own budget presentation:  one humble and one procedural, and both absolutely vital for the uninitiated.  The former was that it is the state of technology and its role in every aspect of life that has enabled the efficiencies that were so highly praised and appreciated – the IT Department just helps implement them.  And the latter – that the Town now routes every hardware and software purchase through the IT Department, for expertise, coordination and compatibility within the Town technology system.  The result is that the capital expenditures are all attributed to the IT budget – even though the purchase is for a different department, such as the new communication system for the Public Safety dispatch.  This illustrates the point I’ve made often – most recently when Keith McCormic addressed the SB in support of Question 1 (to repeal the State income tax) and talked about waste and excess in the State budget – that a line item with its big number and brief description is just the beginning of the story; you have to delve much deeper for details and context.

  In case you were wondering, there is more than enough year-round work to keep the DPW staff busy.  Guilford Mooring explained the myriad ways that the different divisions do different kinds of work each season, and get moved around to fill specific labor-intensive needs – like snow plowing – as needed. 

  Guilford also made a great point, echoed by others, such as Town Clerk Sandra Burgess:  that we Amherst folks expect service-on-demand.  If we have an idea, we expect it to be implemented.  If we have a request, we expect it to be fulfilled.  If we have a complaint, we expect it to be addressed.  Now.  Not surprisingly, this creates some headaches.  Either the response is less immediate than we want, and we complain.  Or for whatever reason (noise, pressure, the genuine desire by staff to be accommodating) the response is immediate, which means that regular departmental work flow, plans and priorities suffer.  Fascinating.  How do the collective “we” find the right balance?  As “consumers” of government services, how do we keep perspective on “us” rather than “me?”  How should staff respond to our individual needs without sacrificing larger community needs?  How can staff be insulated from undue pressure – either from “above” or from simple relentlessness?  In short, how do we avoid “government by squeaky wheel?”  Lots of questions, few answers. 

  Another important point made by several:  staff service to committees takes a lot of time.  No one was complaining.  They were just letting us know.  This is something I have wondered about – how significant this is, and what kinds of impacts it has.  This was a great forum for bringing that kind of information forward.  It warrants a big discussion. 

  A recurring theme was that there’s nothing left to cut except people, and cutting people means cutting services.  This is our budget situation in a nutshell, and the big dilemma facing Amherst as we go forward.  (Have I plugged the Community Choices effort lately?  Go to the site.  Click on the presentation.  Then fill out the survey.  Please!)  We all have our sense of “essential.”  Personally, I find most current Town functions to be important, but even I had a few instances of “We do what?  Why?”  during today’s presentations.  But not enough to fix a $2.6 million budget shortfall, that’s for sure.

  The materials the Department Heads provided ahead of time are fantastic.  I implore you to read them.  Also, I strongly encourage you to watch rebroadcasts of today’s meeting.  (I warn you: it is five and a half hours long, but really important.  And if you think I’m going to recap it in copious detail on this site, you will be sorely disappointed.)  Check the ACTV broadcast schedule for Channel 17.  (It isn’t accurate as I write this – check back for updates.)  The order of the budget info links listed at the top of this post is the order that the meeting followed, though the order the departments presented within each budget varied from those materials a bit.

  Note:  despite five and a half hours (did I mention that this was a long meeting?) we didn’t get to all the departments.  Community Development, Senior Center, LSSE and Cherry Hill will all be rescheduled, probably for the pre-Town Meeting SB meetings.  We were supposed to wrap-up the presentations by 12:30, but we fell behind.  And Larry had to leave at 1:00.  And the ACTV guy had to leave at 1:30.  And it wasn’t fair to have anyone do a non-broadcast presentation.  And we were spent.  (Did I mention the whole long meeting thing?  And that it began early?  On a Saturday morning?)  So we’re not quite done. 

  Many thanks to the Department Heads and John Musante for providing truly excellent info in the written materials, and for coming in to do this on a Saturday.  And for all you do.  I wish we had better and more positive opportunities for all of you to tell the stories of your departments.  People really have no idea – not just about what you do, but how you do it, the circumstances under which you do it and, really, how interesting and important it all is. 

 A couple of other notes: 

  Alisa picked up breakfast for us at the SAFE program pancake breakfast at North Fire Station.  Thank you Alisa and thank you to the firefighters who made the yummy pancakes!

  Walter Wolnik deserves great kudos for being the most tuned-in citizen in town.  He attends an unbelievable number of public meetings, including this one.  He must be the person with the broadest and most current knowledge about the state of Amherst government.  If only he could be persuaded to blog about it all!

  Yes, I’m behind again, and I apologize.  I actually finished last week’s meeting minutes in record time, but haven’t yet had a chance to format them for the web site, or do the Post-Mortem part.  I have a big packet for Monday’s meeting that I haven’t written up the contents of yet.  I’m almost done with the long 10/6 meeting's minutes and summary.  But there are so many meetings to prep for and attend, and only so much time… (UPDATE 10/26:  10/27 packet and 10/20 meeting summary are now posted.)


Alison said:

Thank you so much for posting all of this vital information so quickly! The departmental reports are must-reads for anyone concerned about our current (and future) budget situation. Reading candid comments about potential budget cuts from the people who provide our services is very illuminating.

And thank you for continuing to mention our committee's work. We desperately need public input! As I write, we have received only about 300 responses from members of our community. Shocking when you think of what a huge issue this is and what a huge potential budget shortfall ($10.5M by FY14) we have projected! So if you have not yet logged in to share your thoughts, please do so now. We are listening.

Alison Donta-Venman, member FCCC

YourAdmirer said:

Hear, hear, to the kudos for Kris and the folks at IT: their cooperation and initiative on the community wireless project (done with the support of UMass faculty - and their research grants) is yet one more tune in the unsung-heroes song book, providing us all a service that the community benefits from (even those entertaining bloggers blogging about their entertaining town officials ;-).

And thanks for having the "sitting-flesh" for this.... It reminds me of the good old days when the SB was
dealing with the final days of Town Manager's predecessor: a few meetings ran past 1 o'clock... AM!!!

Anonymous said:

From the public safety report, "The number of ambulance calls that were delayed due to lack of on-duty staffing increased to 99 – an all-time high." That is just plain scary!

Curious said:

Why does the Council on Aging book reservations and collect money for rentals of the Munson Library?! That doesn't make sense at all!

Eva Schiffer said:


The Munson building (which houses the library) belongs to the Town, which rents out space to community groups. Somebody has to schedule the events and collect the fees. Miscellaneous, time-consuming jobs get parceled out among members of the staff. At the moment, a staff person in the Senior Center is responsible for this one. Does that answer your question? Stephanie, does that about cover it?

Still Curious said:

Eva, you categorize the renting out of the Munson Library as a "miscellaneous, time-consuming job." While I have no doubt that it is time-consuming, rather than seeing it as some job that needs to get parcelled out to already-overworked employees, why aren't the costs of renting Munson PAYING for the time of the people required to coordinate those rentals? Could there be one person in town in charge of ALL renting out of ALL town buildings/space? That seems more efficient. And fees charged to users should not only pay for this person's salary but should also ADD REVENUE to the town. Is that being considered? Doesn't seem that the Council on Aging staff have the time to do this.

Eva Schiffer said:

Hi, Still CURIOUS:

These are all perfectly reasonable questions, but I think you should address them to the Town Manager and to the Select Board to consider in the upcoming budget discussions.

For example, I don't know how much community groups are currently charged for using space in Munson, or whether that could cover someone's salary. If charges are too high, there's always the chance that people will be discouraged from using the space, with the result that revenues decrease, making salary coverage even iffier.

I've lost track of what other spaces in Town buildings the Town charges rent for, but not many. The constant and most time-consuming part is scheduling meetings of boards and committees, as well as community groups, everywhere. That used to be done mostly by the Select Board office. Now it's done by someone in the Senior Center (not Council on Aging, which is an appointed volunteer committee). (The Select Board office still schedules events on the Common, and the banner across S. Pleasant St.) It's up to the Town Manager, in consultation with the affected departments, to decide which departments most urgently need relief and where such inter-departmental chores can most reasonably be added. Unfortunately, you'd find it pretty hard these days to identify a department whose staff is not overworked.



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