Thursday, October 18, 2007

Moon River...wider than a mile.

For this conservative watchdog, Monday October 15 started out gloomy. Crossing a busy highway while reading a much-anticipated letter (with bright red “confidential” emblazoned on the envelope) is never a good idea, even if the letter is brief.

After nearly becoming road kill and getting back to my office I get a call from a high-ranking elected official who informs me the Town Attorney has opined that the Select board can refuse to place the Umass effluent waiver on the upcoming Town Meeting and will force the Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change to get 200 signatures to “call” a Special Town Meeting rather than the 100 required to “insert” on an existing Town Meeting.

And I’m virtually certain that the letter from the Ethics Commission dated October 10 was also sent to Alisa Brewer, Rob Kusner and probably the town manager. So when we show up at the Select board meeting that night to fight for insertion on the current town meeting, I’m expecting many copies (color laser printed no less) on the back table for all to see.

Plus his Lordship, Select board Chair Gerry Weiss had already whined from his bully pulpit at the October 1 meeting that I had a “chilling effect” on the operation of his illustrious Select board.

The town official also mentions a conversation with an Amherst DPW manager who seems to remember the “strategic agreement” only calls for free effluent in the new powerplant--but not the 4 new buildings coming on line or use by the athletic department to irrigate recreation fields.

So there goes our argument about an exponential escalation of revenue loss to the Sewer Fund over the five years of the agreement, well above the annual $38,000 advertised by Selectman Kusner at the 9/17 meeting.

Fortunately that fact was easy to check: The Strategic Agreement that town and Umass officials signed states, “The Town will allow the University to use, free of charge, effluent from the wastewater treatment plant.” That's pretty clearly a Blank Check!

The Press Release, however, issued by the spinmeisters at Umass Office of News and Information states: “UMass will be allowed to use, free of charge, effluent from the town’s wastewater treatment plant for its co-generation power plant that is located nearby.” Hmmmm.

Arriving late to the Select board meeting (after teaching a Spin Class and putting my daughter to bed) I was pleased but puzzled to see nothing on the back table except that night’s agenda, in boring black and white.

And in a brief huddle with Stan Gawle out in the hall I learned the Select board screwed up with procedures and would have to allow our petition on this upcoming Town Meeting. Things were starting to look up.

So why would I not want the Ethics Commission rejection news alongside an article on the Town Meeting advisory to overturn the effluent sweetheart deal (in this weeks Amherst Bulletin for instance)?

Because I see them as two completely separate issues. Although either one can accomplish my mission of nixing this outrageous aspect of the deal with Umass.

And Wednesday’s Gazette article, standing alone, on the Town Meeting petition article was perfect! Select man Brewer shot herself in the foot (or perhaps a more vital spot) by suggesting the Select board will not give a damn what Town Meeting thinks about the $500,000 effluent giveaway. I, of course, forwarded that article to the Town Meeting Yahoo listserve.

Even today’s Gazette article, standing alone, on my Ethics case complaint dismissal is fine--because it keeps the issue in the public eye and a jury of my peers (normal working folk) would agree with me.

But why didn’t the Select board distribute their letter and crow about the Ethics complaint dismissal at their Monday meeting or issue public statements on Tuesday?

Well, yesterday just as I was about to publish my post covering the ethics matter my (pro bono) attorney came in to work out. I handed him the dispatch with the bright red “confidential” stamped on it and asked if that meant I could get in trouble for making it public? He thought for a moment and said “yes”.

“Good” I replied, and then clicked the publish button.


O'Reilly said...

The basic construct of the strategic deal is that the town waves fees on services used by UMass in return for UMass waving fees on services used by the Town of Amherst. UMass uses water and sewer, fire and police; Amherst uses a UMass owned school building in North Amherst and whatever.

Isn't this deal fairly easy to analyze on a balance sheet? Is part of the problem that the terms of the deal are not so clear at to be able to value it?

If you could lay out the total value of the deal to each party over time, EVERYONE, all Town of Amherst tawpayers would understand what it means to them.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, that is precisely the problem. The Strategic Agreement doesn't take into consideration the removal of Frat Row (just last year) from the tax rolls at a cost of $32,000 per year plus 2.5% forever.

Or the Campus Center Hotel avoiding the local hotel/motel tax that even the Lord Jeff pays. And I've seen figures from a half-dozen years ago that estimated this amount between $50,000 and $75,000 per year.

Or the amount of time our Police Department (with a budget about the same as the Fire Dept) spends dealing with Umass students.

Or just the effluent portion of the deal where we know last year it was $38,000 but this year will be double that and the next year maybe triple that, and so on.

The only good thing about having the Town Meeting advisory article going last on the warrant is that it allows lots of time for the facts to get out (although you may not see them in the local media).

Larry O. said...

What reason(s) did two SB members give for voting against free effluent?

LarryK4 said...

Money--and that was when they still believed it to be $38,000 per year for five years rather than the two or three times that amount it is going to end up.

The deal was also rushed because Lombardi was leaving.

If you watch the youtube video "Only in Amherst: A smelly case of conflict of interest" you can clearly hear Ms. Awad (who voted NO) say "do you want to wait till next week?" immediately after Alisa Brewer (who voted yes) admits she doesn't have a pubic disclosure on file with the Town Clerk and probably should.

But no, they were in a hurry. My Irish Mom always said, "Haste makes waste" (no pun intended)

O'Reilly said...

Does the Strategic Agreement explicitly state that no taxes are due on the Campus Center Hotel or that UMass is repsonsible to the town for $0 for any issue not specifically addressed the SA?

And the name Strategic Agreement, what is the strategy? What is the objective?

LarryK4 said...

No, the Strategic Agreement is mute on Campus Center Hotel refusing to pay the local tax or the recent taking of a large swath of prime real estate off the tax rolls.

The Town Manager was still in his rookie season when this agreement was hastily negotiated, so he certainly had no institutional memory for the many sore spots created by having a giant tax-exempt sitting within your borders.

For instance in the late 1980’s when Umass had originally agreed to donate tens of thousands for the Ladder Truck so the upper floors of the dorms could be reached. Then Umass decided to add sprinklers (a good thing for sure) but also decided to renege on contributing to the Ladder Truck (Amherst and Hampshire both kicked in).

Or in 1999 when Chief Hoyle and I started the ‘Eyes Of Life Campaign’ to raise money for Thermal Imaging Cameras (over $35,000) for the Amherst Fire Department in the wake of the Worcester Fire Tragedy where the cameras could have made a difference.

Amherst and Hampshire Colleges kicked in $5,000. Umass gave us a coupon for “buy one get the second at half price” but they didn’t contribute a dime towards buying one.

The name “Strategic Agreement” is a strategic use of (sales) language. In this case Strangle is a better term.