Sunday, September 23, 2007

What are we arguing about again?

One of the most difficult challenges I face in my role as a member of the Select Board is to not become impatient with conversations I feel are both repetitive and endless.

One of the most earnest conversations is the hand-wringing around "economic development isn't going to save us, look how much more growth we would need to get to x %"

Note that I said "hand-wringing," not "argument."

I read the local listservs and the local newspapers. I talk to you on the street, online, on the phone, in the shops, and listen at meetings. I know that many of you desperately want to come up with a set of numbers we can all agree are "the" numbers, yet the more we revisit this topic, the clearer it becomes that we may not in fact be that far apart on "the" numbers. Really, truly, I don't feel the need to become convinced that any particular set of numbers represents the one true reality of Amherst's possible economic development.

I know part of the problem is the original "80/20" designation that some people used as shorthand for strengthening and increasing the revenue the town receives from other-than-residential-property tax. I was part of those conversations, and I apologize if that figure seemed like a hard and fast demand. It wasn't.

I know part of the problem is people hearing something along the lines of "three projects the size of Veridian Village and/or that JPI student housing project located somewhere less offensive than they proposed, and we're all set." Please don't assume that anyone mentioning that scale of project imagines that just doing three projects like that will solve our structural deficit from now until eternity. Everyone I know who's mentioned that scale of project knows that while doing three or so of those would make a big dent in the problem in comparison to many more small projects; they do not imagine it will solve our structural deficit.

So please try to be patient with me if you see my hair stand on end when some variation on the following gets repeated:

"we need to stop thinking we can simply grow our way out of the Town's financial mess"

"nevertheless, the simplistic mantra for more development goes on"

I have not yet met a single soul -- from the wealthy developer to the business operator to the academic to the sixth generation farmer to the online entrepreneur who could live anywhere to the single parent family to the retiree on a fixed income to the two-income 7,000-square-foot-home family -- who says "more development" or "growth" is the answer to our structural deficit. Again, no one believes development is the answer.

Many people believe it must be part of the answer. Part of the answer. So we really, truly, can stop arguing about exactly how many dollars some theoretical level of growth will produce, OK?

Here's what we need to be arguing about (if arguing is indeed necessary in such a genteel academic small-town environment):

1. Since more people want to live in Amherst than currently live here, and more people want to work in Amherst than currently work here, what types of homes are we willing to let them live in, and what types of businesses are we willing to let them work in?

2. Since a lot of the people who already live here are a couple of paychecks, or an accident, or a medical problem away from not meeting their daily living expenses, they can't afford regular property tax overrides of the state 2 1/2 limit. So what do we do?

Sure, some communities don't seem to mind passing override after override, but Amherst isn't one of them, and I don't know anyone who wants it to be one of them.

No matter how hard each and every one of us works, the people of Amherst are not going to stop the war in Iraq, or create universal health care. The people of Amherst are going to contribute a lot to both of those things happening, and I hope you'll share my pride in that, but it isn't going to happen in time to eliminate our town structural deficit. Same situation on a smaller scale with increasing education aid, closing state corporate tax loopholes (or as one legislator said recently, your loophole is my incentive), and/or allowing a meals tax. That doesn't mean we stop working on any of those issues and invite Walmart to the Town Common and a gas station to your neighborhood. It means we keep plugging away on the issues we know are important, work with our legislators, our neighboring communities, and our lobbying groups, and in the meantime, we do what we can to maintain the kind of community we choose to live in.

The community we choose to live in is safe, with shared green spaces and good schools.

And if we change nothing in our FY09 budget from what we're doing for FY08, the "normal" property tax increase many of us struggle with each year will not cover increased energy costs plus health insurance benefits costs. It's really that straightforward. We can't cover our fixed costs increase with the revenue coming in. So what's going to give?

My definition of core services is possibly not your definition of core services. That's why the Select Board continues to seek your input on our community's priorities. We all -- all of us in this community, not just a few elected officials who imagine we know better than the rest of you -- have a good idea what the people of Amherst want, and the Planning Amherst Together process of developing our Master Plan will provide some strategies to help us get there.

So let's move past arguing about the development dollars, and talk about the specifics of what our community is willing to do to:

1. Control Spending
2. Seek New Revenues
3. Preserve Vital Services

Let's stop hanging back and being afraid of what might change. Too late, folks -- things have already changed! This isn't the same Town it was 15 years ago, 30 years ago, or 250 years ago. The same strategies are not going to allow us to retain the same core values.

So what are we willing to embrace?


Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Well said.

It is perplexing that the point of these discussions is to emphasize that economic development is not a magic bullet, nor will it solve this year’s budget gap. There is not a soul suggesting otherwise, so who exactly is supposed to be persuaded by this?

But more perplexing still is the apparent or implied conclusion that because economic development is not a panacea, it is not worth doing at all.

What if we took that same attitude about recycling and reducing our personal carbon footprints? None of our individual efforts can solve global warming, so should we not even bother?

In protecting the planet and addressing Amherst’s structural deficit, even small efforts matter and have a significant cumulative benefit over time. Both require multi-faceted approaches and a willingness to do things differently than we’ve done them in the past.

Why is that so obvious for one but not the other?

Marcy Sala said...

Thank you for this Alisa. The clarity and common sense of your perspective is why I voted for you, and what gives me hope that we can move beyond the stagnated position we've been in on revenue enhancement. The "How can we possibly get there from here?", or worse yet, "Why should we even consider that course of action because it won't solve all of our problems, all of a sudden?" approaches to considering potential remedies to our budget problems have been frustrating to say the least, and counter productive to our ability to make any real strides in a coherent direction. I especially appreciate your efforts to assure folks that no one out there is spouting a "one size fits all" solution to our budgetary woes. It is a complex problem that needs to be tackled from multiple angles and perspectives. There is no need, in my opinion, for the polarizing of opinions on this. Let's get moving on preserving the Amherst we love, utilizing as many viable and sustainable options as possible.