Friday, March 6, 2015

Encouraging Budget News

Budget Coordinating Group meets in Town Hall this morning

The Budget Coordinating Group, made up of key players from the town, schools and library, had their first and last meeting of the year this morning to go over the proposed FY16 budget, and came away with good news.

After all was said and done concerning the Governor's recently released state budget the likely scenario is Amherst will get only $45,000 less than what town officials projected back in the fall.   Town Manager John Musante described that as "not much more than a rounding error" considering the proposed total budget is $71 million.

Although the town manger did also mention that a state economic development program lost funding so that will cost the town another $75,000, two-thirds of which he had earmarked to help fund a newly proposed "Economic Development Director."

But the Town Manager made it quite clear he still supported adding the position saying, "I continue to believe strongly this is the year to act on it."  And that he would, "Figure out how to fund that  initiative" by reallocating money within the municipal budget.

Costs for the Elementary Schools losing students to Charter Schools was off by a whopping $443,000 over original town estimates, but School Finance Director Sean Mangano said the Governor was using the wrong figures: 94 students vs the correct number of 77.

By April firmer state aid figures will be forthcoming.

The Library Budget generated the most interesting discussion.  Director Sharon Sharry was a tad unhappy about using state aid money for routine operational overhead rather than library materials.

She requested clarification because a news story seemed to indicate the $9,000 new cost of providing sick leave benefits to part-time staff would be partially covered by town funding and not all from her budget?

The Town Manager, in a forthright but Mr. Rogers sort of way said, "Find it" (meaning within the Library budget).

Perhaps the most interesting information presented at the meeting was the broader acknowledgment that the Jones Library and their immediate neighbor the Strong House (home to Amherst Historical Society) is indeed working towards a merger.

$145,591 in red ink is offset by Elementary Schools coming in $100K under budget

Blarney Blowover?

A sagacious Fade user (Anon of course)

After spending serious amounts of tax dollars for a free Mullins Center concert, beefed up public safety staffing and countless hours of input from the UMass PR department, will it all come together tomorrow for a, comparatively, positive outcome?

Well yes, of course it will. Mainly because you can't get much worse than what happened last year.

But the #1 reason, once again, will not be so much all the measure taken by Amherst and UMass officials and the excellent work of the Student Government Association. Or even all the breathless press attention this past week (the Gazette set a record for front page stories).

Environmental conditions, aka THE WEATHER, will play the major role in keeping a lid on rowdiness. The Townhouse quad just isn't the same if you have to wear snowshoes. 

And the #2 reason will be a major police presence. I also notice on social media how students would prefer to deal with UMass PD over Amherst PD. And as long as they stay on campus that is all but guaranteed.

Although the LEOs they really don't want to mess with is Massachusetts State Police, who were out in force for Superbowl Sunday and like General MacArthur they "shall return."

Just for fun, in response to a silly "secret plan" hatched on BlarneyChat to party at Lot 25 near the busiest road on campus, I started a rumor it was going to be a landing zone for the MSP helicopter.

About an hour later a Fade user came up with a great graphic.  Behold the power of social media, which cuts both ways.

 Townhouse Apartments 9:30 this morning 

Hitler had his Atlantic Wall, which failed to keep out the Allied invasion. Townhouse has a chest high concrete-like wall of snow completely encircling the quads, ground zero for Blarney bad behavior over the past three years.

Kids would need a backhoe to clear it now.

Fade users with no sense of humor

Downtown bars taking delivery 11:30 am, meanwhile just around the corner:
APD having Mass Emergency Management communications equipment installed

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Cost Of Doing Business

321 Lincoln Avenue, For Sale signed partially buried

After running up $15,500 in legal expenses to the taxpayers of Amherst (presumably as much to his lawyer) in a losing effort to throw out the "owner occupied" requirement of one house in his Amherst empire, You-Pan Tzeng has put the property up for sale.

Litigation Report to Amherst Select Board

The house at 321 Lincoln Avenue was granted a Special Permit almost 20 years ago by the Zoning Board of Appeals to expand from a single family to a two-family (8 unrelated tenants) but with the provision that one of the two units be "owner occupied."

When Mr. Tzeng bought the house in June, 2012 and started renting it out to a gaggle of students, he told town officials that he was living there as opposed to his Longmeadow address that appears on all legal documents concerning GP Amherst, LLC.

Since that was not overly convincing, he filed suit against the town to remove the residency requirement and lost via "summary judgement," meaning blown out of the water. 

When the Building Commissioner recently contacted Mr. Tzeng to ask when he would come into compliance, he was informed that Tzeng's daughter, a UMass student, was now living there.  She was also gifted part ownership of GP Amherst, LLC. 

Of course a UMass education isn't a very long-term thing (at least for most students) so as soon as she graduates and moves out, the building will go back into non-compliance.

Since it is now for sale, perhaps a moot point. 

Inclusionary Zoning: The Other 10%

Amherst Planning Board December, 2014

Last night after more than a year of public discussion the Amherst Planning Board voted unanimously to support an Inclusionary Zoning article to replace the current ineffective one by relying on simple math (the 10% solution), offset bonuses (extra market rate units) and some easing of regulatory requirements in the business district for building height, coverage and set backs.

The hope is this will be an incentive for housing developers to pitch projects that will increase overall housing supply with at least 10% of that, "affordable."

The Planning Board had originally produced a draft article for Town Meeting last year but ran into stiff opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement District over concerns about downtown property, which is more expensive to develop.

In addition to the zoning article, Town Manager John Musante told the PB last night that he is seeking other remedies such as tax breaks to work hand-in-hand with this new Inclusionary Zoning article.

Although Planning Board Chair David Webber expressed disappointment that Musante did not bring along a firm proposal.

Later in the meeting Senior Planner Chris Brestrup did assure the PB that town officials are working diligently to come up with a financial proposal for the upcoming annual Town Meeting to work in tandem with this zoning article.

Amherst, like many college towns, has an across-the-board housing shortage which drives up prices.  Absentee landlords buy up single family homes, convert them to 2 family homes, and rent out to 8 unrelated tenants, aka students. 

Regulatory hurdles combined with well organized BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) effectively strangles new supply -- especially affordable units. 

To be enacted the Inclusionary Zoning article will require a hard to achieve two-thirds vote of Amherst Town Meeting and be approved by the Attorney General.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Can We Chat?

Click to enlarge/read.  Or follow @BlarneyChat (he could use the help)

Fade and Yik Yak are pretty easy to join -- even for folks well beyond their "college aged youth" -- thus giving easy access to the best laid plans of that small minority of party hardy types still reveling in the recent past.

So BlarneyChat, a semi-private chat room, is a pretty good idea.  Only allow like minded Nitwits who can prove they are a UMass student.

Although I'm sure UMass can find some of their "Team Positive" types to act as infiltrators.

And since my friend "BlarneyChat" only has under 10 followers on Twitter, I do have to wonder how many kids have joined his chat room. 

I do have to admit Fade is pretty funny

Regionalization Round Up

Andy Steinberg, Katherine Appy, Alisa Brewer

Maybe it was the snow squall that hit about an hour before the scheduled 6:00 pm start or maybe parents were busy getting dinner on the table, but last night's turnout for the 1st public forum on school regionalization since the Regional Agreement Working Group issued their three-years-in-the-making final report was less than encouraging.  Way less.

In fact Amherst School Committee and wanna be candidates for same and Select Board members outnumbered parents or Amherst Town Meeting members, the main target demographic for the forum.

 Empty chairs outnumbered spectators

Amherst School Committee Chair Katherine Appy extolled the virtue of an "aligned" curriculum.  Currently when the elementary students from Leverett and Shutesbury hit the Regional Middle School at 7th grade it reportedly takes months "to get them on the same page".

Although Ms. Appy was careful to say they were not less fit as students.

Currently Superintendent Maria Geryk has to prepare reports/budgets for three different school districts:  Amherst and Pelham elementary grades and the Region grades 7-12.

Each district requires 110 reports or 330 total.  Blending them all into one region would reduce those state mandated reports by two-thirds.

The 7-12 Region is comprised of four independent towns -- Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, Shutesbury -- all of them proud of their non-aligned elementary schools.  Thus they are like Greek city states prior to the Persian invasion.  Happy with their ethnocentric independence.

Andy Steinberg presented the economic argument which he described as "A lot harder to explain."  The first year of full regionalization would only see a 2% savings and that's probably a best case scenario.

Savings come from state regional transportation reimbursement and two towns -- Leverett and Shutesbury -- breaking free of their current Union alliances with other districts.  But those savings are pretty much offset by teacher pay increases for bringing their elementary teachers up to the current pay scale of the Amherst Region.

Steinberg worries that with revenues not keeping pace with expenditures, two of the partner towns may someday vote down their assessment for the Regional 7-12 budget in order to help fund their elementary operations.  The Regional Agreement requires 3 of 4 towns approval to pass the budget.  

The Regional Agreement also requires unanimous approval in order to amend it.  All four Town Meetings would need to approve the newly expanded Region, after the Regional School Committee has supported the idea with a two-thirds vote.

Shutesbury has already all but declared a "NO" vote, which alone kills the idea.  Since they could vote yes to allowing the region but then vote no to joining it, why would they spoil the parade for other three towns?

Probably because they fear the newly expanded Region would not be as cost effective as advertised and would lead to an increase in their grades 7-12 assessment, which is hard enough to pay under current conditions.

Last night Katherine Appy was vague as to whether the Regional School Committee would even come to an official vote at their upcoming March 10 meeting.

And with their next scheduled meeting after that not until April 14 -- too late to get the issue on  Town Meeting warrants in all four towns -- March 10 is pretty much do or die.

Or I should say, do or delay.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Stop! In The Name of NIMBY

Only eastbound traffic has a stop sign at Pine/Henry Street intersection

The same folks who cost Amherst taxpayers $32,000 in land court legal fees to protect their "historic" North Amherst neighborhood from a housing development that would have generated $400,000 in annual taxes, now wants to turn their little slice of paradise into a slow go zone for evil automobiles.

A three-way stop, speed bumps, and the closing off of the most northern end of Henry where it intersects with Market Hill Road would definitely scare off traffic.  But both the DPW and Public Works Committee gave the self-serving idea a resounding "NO".

The Select Board has final authority.  They are, however, awaiting a major transportation study report coming out soon from Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates and may use this as a test case for how to handle traffic mitigation requests town wide.

For the time being they accepted the recommendation of the DPW and Public Works Committee.

Let's hope the petitioners don't file suit against the town.  Again.  

 Pine/Henry Street intersection looking east