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?

FY09 Priorities

Select Board Meeting for Citizen Comment on FY09 Budget Priorities
September 20, 2007

Comments from Elaine B
Woodside Ave, Amherst. – 28 year resident

Inherent in this list of budget priorities is my belief that the town must strongly support increased economic development, must establish a multi-year fiscal plan including planned increases in revenue, and must make fiscally responsible choices which are based on identified priorities. Building and maintaining a strong Reserve Fund is a required responsibility of the town government in order to ensure the economic health and survival of Amherst.

No real set of priorities is going to be strictly linear, but a list is convenient way to order priorities for discussion. I hope that the Select Board will make FY09 budget decisions based on the following priority list:

1) A primary town government responsibility is to ensure the availability and safety of Water, the Sewer systems, and to protect against potential dangers to the town population’s health.

2) The second priority is providing the necessary safety for the town. The Fire Department and the Police have to have sufficient funding to serve the town well. The police budget particularly has been cut too far and must have a much higher priority than last year.

3) The third level of priority for me is the Education of the town’s children. Strong financial support of the Amherst Schools and Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools has to be one of the town’s very highest priorities not only because of its importance for the children and families in Amherst, but also for the economic health of the town.

Obviously, the Select Board does not make School budget decisions, but the Select Board needs to place education and the public schools at the top of their list of priorities because every financial choice that the Select Board makes can affect the schools and the school budgets both directly and indirectly. The Select Board’s decisions affect the town funds available for a school budget and affect the availability of other town services needed by the children and by the schools.

Every year for the past few years, all of the boards have agreed that real budget prioritizing must be done across all departments and across all budgets, not just within a single budget. Cutting every budget by the same amount each year doesn’t result necessarily in funding decisions based on the town’s actual priorities.

4) Fourth in my priority list is funding the Town services that assist the poor, the disabled, and the elderly who need assistance. This priority is different from the line item for Human Service Agency funding. This priority includes a wide range of items in a variety of budgets: some of the bus/van transportation, Bangs Center activities and services, sidewalk curb cuts and other ADA access changes, providing sufficient recreation opportunities for low socio-economic families, etc.
5)The jobs done by the Public Works Department are the set of basic services a town has to provide that individuals cannot do, or cannot do as effectively for the town. town government has the obligation of providing and maintaining roads, sidewalks, pipes, plowing, etc etc

6) Town buildings must be maintained, repaired, and renovated. Some buildings must be replaced as well for reasons of safety and efficiency.

7) Town employees must be sufficient in number to accomplish the needed work that is highest priority, and they must be paid well enough to retain valued employees. Any departments dealing with finances and town planning must have adequate staffing to do their jobs really well.

There are many more items and services to prioritize, of course, libraries, conservation dept, etc; however, the top priorities are the most critical to identify and fund, especially when money is so tight that many lower priorities will not be funded at all.

Thank you for your consideration of my list of priorities

Elaine B

Vote when to Vote!

Here's the reason I'm collecting purely anecdotal data from the new poll, above:

We normally hold the Annual Town Election (i.e., Moderator, Select Board, School Committee, Jones Library Trustee, Oliver Smith Will Elector, Redevelopment Authority (ARA), Housing Authority, Representative Town Meeting) the last Tuesday of March or first Tuesday of April. Since Easter is the second last weekend in March 2008, it appears Tuesday April 1st would be chosen for 2008 (the Annual Town Election fell on April 1st in 2003).

Here's the sticky part: the Presidential Primary in Massachusetts is Tuesday March 4, 2008. At first glance, it seems most sensible to hold both elections on that same date, rather than expecting people to show up at the polls twice within a month, and it would save roughly $12,000 in the General Fund to not have to hold separate elections. Holding separate elections only three to four weeks apart is challenging for the Town Clerk & Board of Registrars, as well. When Ms Awad brought up holding both elections on the same date at our September 10 Select Board meeting, I thought it was a terrific idea! As Mr Weiss pointed out, it would also be helpful to newly elected officials to formally participate in the budget process earlier in the budget/Town Meeting cycle (although I'll note here that there's some benefit to being able to say, I didn't vote on that budget:-). As it turns out -- of course -- it's all not as simple as we'd hoped.

A Presidential Primary already requires separate Democrat & Republican & Libertarian & Green-Rainbow ballots, and under state law we can't "add" our local questions to those ballots, so we'd need to have one separate ballot for our Annual Town Election. Each voter would cast two ballots -- if they were eligible to do so; apparently it's entirely possible someone would be entitled to a Presidential Primary ballot but not to an Annual Town Election ballot. Obviously this would all be a challenge for both the voter and the election workers!

Write-ins are likely on both the Annual Town Election ballot (especially for Representative Town Meeting) and the Presidential Primary ballot (for Hampshire & Franklin District State Committee Man and State Committee Woman, and Town Committee), and writing them on the wrong ballot would be very possible. Add in the processing of the various party absentee ballots and you'll see why this no longer seems like such a simple idea!

Most of the information I'm presenting here is from a sheet of "Talking Points for Election Timetable Analysis" that was provided in our September 24, 2007 Select Board Agenda packet (available from the Select Board office; sorry, no electronic copy at hand). It includes the fact that prior to 1996, turnout for Presidential Primaries was significantly higher than for the Annual Town Election. In 1996 the turnout was considerably higher for the Town Election than for the Presidential Primary (which was excruciatingly low). In 2000 the Presidential Primary turnout was 0.6% higher than the Annual Town Election; in 2004 the Annual Town Election turnout (28.30%) was 4.6% higher than the Presidential Primary turnout (23.70%). There is simply no guarantee that holding the Presidential Primary and the Annual Town Election at the same time will improve turnout...

...although I'm sure having an override on the 2004 Annual Town Election ballot had something to do with that year's turnout surpassing the Presidential Primary turnout.

As outlined in the "Talking Points," there are more details the Town Clerk and Board of Registrars will have to handle in terms of answering questions, publishing deadlines, how the machines will process the ballots, not tearing their hair out, etc., so feel free to refrain from sharing those details in any comments you make on this blog:-) Just make it simple: vote in the poll at the top of this blog before 6:00 pm Monday September 24. Thanks!

Note that these two images are each only the first page of the 2004 results:

Election dates in Presidential Primary years (from warrants and results:

2004: March 2, March 30 (override)
2000: March 7, March 28 (Boss/Awad race)

Last day to register to vote and/or change party enrollment for the March 4, 2008 Presidential Primary: Wednesday February 13, 2008
(likely) Last day to register to vote for a March 4, 2008 Annual Town Election: Wednesday February 13, 2008
(likely) Last day to register to vote for an April 1, 2008 Annual Town Election: Wednesday March 12, 2008