Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Man to Remember

Slobody Farm Conservation Area, Station Road

Anyone who has ever shared a fox hole -- literally or metaphorically -- understands the bonds created after surviving a particularly combative situation where you both had to work together almost as one.  And those bonds grow even stronger if you were fast friends prior to taking fire.

Rich Slobody, who passed away suddenly on Monday after a six month battle with pancreatic cancer, was just such a friend ... and the town is ever so diminished by his loss.

If you drive down University Drive you will see his handiwork, a large office building next to the Post Office and a smaller new building in the final stages of construction next door that will perhaps someday be a highly profitable medical marijuana dispensary.

 101 University Drive, Slobody Technology Park Building

 85 University Drive.  1st to get SB approval  for pot dispensary but still needs Special Permit from ZBA


But if you look at it closely you will see a hallmark of my ever so savvy friend and consummate businessman:  a drive up window, making it perfect for distribution of legal medicinal marijuana or turning it into a bank should the pot deal fall through.

Richie was one of my first karate students when the Karate Health Fitness Center opened in 1982 at the "dead mall." He had studied martial arts before but unlike most of those types he did not have a chip on his shoulder about his original discipline being the best in the world.

At the time he owned two bars and my fiance had secretly colluded with him to throw me a "bachelor party" at Jason's Pub in Easthampton.  He later sold that just before the state increased the drinking age to 21 and it went out of business soon thereafter.

But he kept Charlie's in Amherst for another 20+ years, only selling it a few years ago to a long time employee.  He was broken hearted when it went out of business, becoming what is now Old Towne Tavern.

In 1999 we endured together the "Smoking Ban in Bars War".   He as a barowner and me as a crusading columnist for the Amherst Bulletin, which later named it the top issue of the year.

Amherst was first in Massachusetts to ban smoking in bars since they are a "workplace."  Yes, the ban in restaurants had been around for a while, but nobody wanted to mess with the bar culture.

The Northampton Board of Health tried it first but buckled after a heated challenge from Packard's and a few others.

And after a year of the constant strife generated in Amherst by the ban, I kind of understood why state or local officials didn't want to deal with flack from barowners.

Rich was shunned by his fellow downtown compatriots because he instantly conformed to the smoking ban, and that first summer he told me Charlie's lost $10,000 vs the $10,000 in profit it had made the previous summer.

One of the last times I had a chance to talk with him and fondly reminisce about old times was at a memorial service for another Amherst icon, former barowner Chick Delano, who had pretty much put Richie on a blacklist all those years earlier.

Even more tellingly he was most proud of the deal he negotiated with the town to sell his family horse farm on Station Road to our Conservation Department, not because of the $900,000 or so it generated in revenues but because the town forever designated it, "Slobody Farm Conservation Area."

He wanted the family surname to live on, as should he.

Monday, January 16, 2017

2nd Time The Charm?

Town Meeting revotes $67 million Wildwood Building Project end of this month

Twenty years ago the $22 million Amherst Regional High School expansion easily passed Town Meeting but was defeated by the voters at the ballot box, although it did pass months later in the second attempt.

Around that same time the $4 million Town Hall renovation twice passed overwhelmingly in Town Meeting but was twice defeated by the voters at the ballot box.

So what are the odds Town Meeting will pass the $67 million Mega School bond issue on January 30th in this second attempt to get the required two-thirds vote?

About as likely as Donald Trump getting a rousing ovation from Democrats at his inauguration on Friday.

While theoretically Town Meeting is only voting on the financing of the project it's impossible not to be influenced by the education plan which restructures our entire elementary school system.

Maria's Folly of two co-located grades 2-6 under one roof will simply never have the appeal of the current system of three K-6 neighborhood schools.

A professional survey of parents and teachers taken a week before the School Committee approved the Mega School showed overwhelming support for two co-located grades K-6 under one roof allowing Crocker Farm to remain K-6.

Survey results

Of course now Town Meeting will be told that teachers have changed their minds and overwhelmingly support the current education plan represented by the $67 million Mega School.

Really?  Or is it simply this expensive plan is now better than nothing?

What about the obvious pressure employees must feel when someone asks them to sign a petition endorsing the wishes of your boss?  Especially when they come up to you with a clipboard and mention that you are "on the list."  Which is fine I suppose, if the person asking is named Schindler.

 Click to enlarge/read

The other pressure tactic used is to suggest Town Meeting will face retaliation for not upholding "the will of the voters." Except the will demonstrated by voters on November 8 was about as wishy washy as will gets:

Out of the 15,089 votes cast 1,571 (10.4%) left the Mega School question blank.  So the overall vote carried by only 45.21% in favor to 44.38% against or less than a majority.  So yes, it won by 122 votes, or less than 1%, which is light years away from a two-thirds majority.

And even then you have to wonder about the in-house audit of two precincts that showed 29 ballots double counted.

If/when Town Meeting fails to muster a two-thirds vote for the Mega School on January 30, town officials need to admit defeat and return to the drawing board with a hard learned lesson about what the people really want. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Replacing Maria

Maria Geryk at 3/31 Finance Committee meeting with Mike Morris, Sean Mangano (just before the fall)

A joint meeting of the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee and Union 26 voted unanimously to hire Ray & Associates as a head hunter search consultant to have a new Superintendent in place by July 1st, the start of the FY 18 fiscal year.

The winning bid was $17,000 but it was not the lowest one as the only other bidder (at $14,000) could not handle the ambitious timeline of the Request For Proposals.

Ray & Associates was founded in 1975 and currently has 170 "associates" who make up the firm.  Dr. Michael Rush put on a masterful homespun performance at the January 10th meeting  and assured committee members his company's final short list of candidates would not embarrass his firm or the Region.

Dr. Michael Rush presents to Region-Union 26 on January 10th

Which of course is a good thing considering how embarrassing the demise of Maria Geryk played out before a w-i-d-e audience, which of course will be available to potential candidates via a simple Google search.

So at least they will know full well what they are getting themselves into.

Dr. Rush will interview by phone all school committee members in the next few days and he will return to Amherst on January 23rd and 24th to hold stakeholder interviews with teacher, PTOs, Lions/Rotary Clubs, etc and his firm will also provide an online survey available for any member of the general public.

The deadline for potential candidates is March 3 and based on his firm's 40 year experience he initially expects 70 respondents, which they will whittle down to 8-12 for presentation to the School Committee via one way video and then narrowed down to two or three for a final in-person interview.

He suggested the School Committees choose a new Superintendent by March 27 so they can give plenty of notice to their current District before relocating to Amherst for July 1st.

Salary is of course a major carrot so the Committee will have to quickly decide a range to be included in the nationwide search which is expected to cost an additional $10,000 to $15,000 in advertising.

Safe bet the proposed salary will continue to keep the Superintendent's position as the highest paid in town, even though they "do it for the kids."

Friday, January 13, 2017

Electric First

The new bus looks pretty much like its diesel counterparts

The cool new electric bus has been inspected and registered so it can go into service next week carting Amherst elementary school children back and forth with less noise, pollution and annual maintenance costs.

The bus is owned by Amherst since the state grant was given to the Elementary  schools -- not the Region -- although it is stored at the Amherst Regional Middle School.

But Amherst does make up roughly 80% of the Region.  Since the bus is limited to about 70 miles per charge it would not be overly practical for the Region which is spread out over four towns (some of them pretty hilly).

The state awarded us a $400,000 grant to acquire the bus which of course is four times more than the internal combustion counterparts, so not a great bet the town or Region will be buying a fleet of them in the near future.

Town Meeting approved spending $93,000 for a traditional diesel bus last Spring which is now unnecessary, so maybe when the "independent analysis" of AFD staffing comes back later this month suggesting a much needed increase, that $93K could help make it happen sooner rather than later.

A Question Of Priorities

 Town Manager submits dog bites man budget

All you need to know about rookie Town Manager Paul Bockelman's FY18 budget is the underlined statement in his letter of transmittal:  No additional staff positions are proposed.

In other words AFD will continue to run pretty much full time on "brown out" relying on surrounding full time professional departments to assist with their routine life and death duties.

Of course Mr. Bockelman does state, "Any decisions regarding staffing changes in Fire and EMS await results of an independent analysis, due in February."

But if/when that study reveals the need for more staffing we have to wait until next year to make it happn. Thus leaving the town open to a negligence lawsuit if a tragic incident like what happened recently in Holyoke should occur.

 Employee Benefits and Capital are hidden costs of the White Elephant golf course

Yet his budget does show continued tax support for the Cherry Hill Golf Course of $68,749 and $392,143 for Leisure Services and Supplemental Education or a total tax expenditure of $460,892 on recreation.

 LSSE budget.  Click to enlarge/read

Maybe at the next major structure fire, when Engine 1 arrives with only one firefighter aboard as happened on June 4th, we can call in a caddie or yoga instructor to assist.

UPDATE 10:00 AM 

Coincidentally enough the town announced the retirement this morning of long time LSSE Director Linda Chalfant.  Rather than replacing her they should simple nix the entire department and use about half of the $400K projected in tax support next year to supply vouchers to town residents good at area private recreation/sports operations. 

Engine 1 (top left) was first on scene but with only the driver
Northampton FD ambulance on scene The Arbors yesterday to assist AFD

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Down The Drain

Town Manager Paul Bockelman is proposing a 4.1% hike in water rates which will have to be approved by the Select Board, our illustrious water commissioners.

In his proposal/memo to the SB he points out that Amherst -- even with this price hike -- will have lower than state average costs for water/sewer.  He also compares us directly with our neighbors Hadley, Northampton and Belchertown.

Fair enough I suppose, but in order to get a true comparison with those nearby communities why not compare our overall property taxes to them as well?

For instance Hadley is $11.15/$1,000 or half of Amherst's $21.22/$1,000 while Belchertown is $17.97/$1,000 and Northampton $16.16/$1,000.

Thus the average single family home in Amherst pays $7,078 in taxes this year,  a Hadley homeowner only $3,477, in Northampton $4,865 and Belchertown $4,512.

Statewide, Amherst is in the top 3% for property taxes.  Yikes!

And let's not forget Amherst has never not increased property taxes the full 2.5% allowed by law so when Mr. Bockelman debuts his budget today to the Select Board/Finance Committee just that simple amount will cost the average homeowner another $175 next year.

So I'm really not impressed with the average water bill going up "only" $18 per year.  Why not take that out of the extra $2,500 or so we already pay per year (compared to our neighbors)?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Public Safety Fair Share

Hampshire College from on high
Click to enlarge/read

Amherst Fire Department had it's busiest year ever in 2016, and with a budget of $6.3 million (plus $500,000 for Dispatch Center operations) it's one of the more expensive public services the town supplies.

But considering their professional expertise can oftentimes be the difference between life and death, not too many people who benefit by those skills will complain.

Whether your a homeless person passed out drunk in the center of town on a freezing morning or a high ranking town official suffering from heart failure their response is the same:  quick, courteous and professional.

Although fire calls are less than 25% of total responses battling The Beast is still a priority.  Anyone who has ever been a major structure fire knows all too well the devastation that results.

Amherst is half owned by tax exempt entities which shifts a huge burden on homeowners, apartments and our tiny commercial base to fund vital services. 

UMass, Amherst and Hampshire College all pay their fair share for water/sewer services provided by the town and all three have their own security/police force, but how about Fire/Emergency Medical Services?

UMass paid us $500,000 in 2016 for AFD ambulance services while Amherst College chipped in $120,000.  Hampshire College paid us not a dime.  Nothing.  Zilch.

Yes, Hampshire College was only responsible for 3% of total AFD calls but on a $6.8 million total overhead that still comes to $188,000.  And Amherst College got off cheap, since their 4% share would come to $251,712.

As did UMass, where a 15% share comes to $943,920.  In other words both UMass and Amherst College are only paying us about half their fair share.  Although a Hell of a lot better than Hampshire College who does nothing.

If Amherst College and UMass paid us those extra amounts owed and Hampshire STARTED paying us $188,000 annually, that money would allow for a desperately needed staff increase and provide funds to help cover the $12 million new Fire Station.