Friday, November 30, 2007

Buddy can you spare a dime (or 500-K)?

After years of debate at committee meetings and multiple Town Meeting approvals and a Referendum vote at the ballot box upholding Town Meeting's approval, construction snafus, and even a Department of Environmental Protection citation, the Plum Brook soccer fields may not be out of the woods yet.

According to a November 15 memorandum to municipal clients from our new town law firm Kopelman and Paige, “…one trial court judge has found that the language of the CPA intentionally prohibits municipalities from using CPA funds to rehabilitate or restore land for recreational use that was not acquired or created with CPA funds.”

Amherst acquired Plum Brook back in 1974, twenty-five years before creation of the Community Preservation Act. Town officials decided to use CPA money for soccer field construction, borrowing $500,000 and paying it off on the installment plan using CPA funds with the first $40,000 payment commencing in FY04.

It’s not an ‘Only In Amherst’ thing, town officials everywhere spend CPA money as though it were a gift from God. Jealously guard your General Fund dollars but treat water/sewer fund money, Chapter 90 (state road money) or CPA funds as somehow less valuable and therefore subject to less scrutiny.

Exactly why the Town Manager gave away over $200,000 in effluent to Umass over the next five years. He figured the “Strategic Agreement” would bring in a few more dollars to the General Fund and who cares about the Sewer Fund, except of course for the thousands of taxpayers in town who also pay sewer fees.

Wednesday night Town Meeting overwhelmingly voted not to ask the Select board to rethink their Umass water giveaway; now after this recent court decision, Town Meeting may have to rethink the financing of the Plum Brook Soccer fields.

And no, we can’t use Sewer funds.

UPDATE (early afternoon Saturday):
In a message dated 12/1/07 10:01:36 AM, krystyobolyte writes (and attached the court case PDF):

This is the trial court level case. Caution - this is not binding precedent; only cases from the Appeals Court or SJC are binding on the trial courts. So, this is not yet established as the "law of the land." It does indicate that there is at least one judge out there who holds this opinion, and it wasn't appealed.

In a message dated 12/1/07 10:15:05 AM, Amherst AC writes:

Yeah, I read it prior to posting yesterday; as well as Kopelman and Paige's take on it. And I believe it is under Appeal, so when the esteemed Appeals Court gets around to it then, I believe, it will become the law of the land.

And even if it were not under appeal, Kopelman and Paige state: "While the Seideman case, which is now under appeal, is a Superior Court case and creates no precedent for other courts considering similar facts, it may be persuasive to other trial court judges." Seemed pretty persuasive to me.

Whenever I push the envelope, I always ask myself what would a jury think? And after reading the CPA regulations it is quite clear both Newton and Amherst (and God knows how many other communities over the past few years) screwed up.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I owe my soul to...

So late last night Town Meeting, with almost no discussion, reaffirmed that Amherst is indeed a Company Town…with Umass minding the store.

Article #20, advising the Select board to reconsider its 3-2 vote gifting Umass $200,000 in water, was so overwhelming shouted down it would have been useless (although interesting) to call for a recorded Tally Vote.

Why am I surprised? As Finance Committee member Kay Moran observed when they--our supposed watchdogs--voted unanimously to oppose the article “Almost everybody in Town Meeting is connected to Umass” And unfortunately, Town Meeting members are exempt from 'Conflict of Interest' Law.

Mt. Holyoke College (and what have they contributed to South Hadley lately?) professor emeritus Diana Stein, corrected me on the figure I obtained from for Umass’s current Endowment: $348,100,000. She told Town Meeting the Amherst flagship was only in the hundred thousand range; I think she meant to say million, but on the floor of town meeting almost nothing ever gets corrected.

Ms. Stein, who claims to be running for Select board but will not announce till January, also pointed out on the Town Meeting listserve earlier in the day that almost all the esteemed institutes of higher education that pay impact fees to their home community are private schools.

So what! Fire protection costs the same for rich or poor, private or public, Republican or Democrat. What matters is call volume--and that is dependent on overall size.

That is why the comparison (and even Ms. Stein deemed it “surprising” that UVM is state funded) with the University of Vermont is so stunning. They are 2.5 times smaller in both land area and student population, but will pay Burlington twice as much as Umass pays Amherst in 2010. For fire protection only, as UVM has it’s own ambulance service that covers the campus and actually provides service to the city.

Since I believe UVM is not overpaying for fire protection, could Larry Shaffer and Umass have underestimated the cost of fire/ambulance service to the campus? Considering the Town Manager is math challenged over the ailing golf course, I’m not surprised.

This year’s Fire/EMS budget is $3.5 million and the emergency dispatch center is another $500,000. I always hear Chief Hoyle use 25% for Umass’s drain on the department, thus making their fair share $1 million--a tad over the $425,000 claimed in the ‘Strategic Agreement’.

His Lordship Select man Weiss told Town Meeting Umass would jettison the overall agreement if they nixed the $38,000 effluent waiver. Wouldn’t you love to play poker with this naive ninny? I pointed out that this represents only 10% of this overly one-sided deal, so Umass would never walk away from it.

And if they did, good riddance. Next time they call 911 tell them the number has been disconnected for non-payment.

In a message dated 11/28/07 6:55:34 AM, writes to Town Meeting Yahoo listserve (110 members):

BOSTON is the KING of PILOT’S (Cambridge the Queen):
Berklee Colllege of Music: $191,304

Boston College: $261,397

Boston University: $4,406,158

Emmerson College: $27,029

New England School of Law: $13,125

Harvard: $1,810,639

Northeastern University: $141,132

Suffolk University: $141,132

Tufts University: $135,582

Wentworth Institute: $35,867

Harvard: $2.4 million

MIT: $1.5 million

Harvard: $3.8 million

Providence, RI:
Brown University: $2 million

RI School of Design: $792,000

New Haven, Ct.
Yale: $2 million

Ithica, NY
Cornell: $1.1 million

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Trip the light fantastic

Yeah, yesterday's BIG old house move was as--Alan Root points out in this morning's crusty Gazette--probably the most photographed event in town history (although he failed to mention it was also the fastest dissemination of event photos via three local blogs). But over the course of the next three weeks, this modern house on Whippletree Lane will garner its share of shutter bugs. Kira loves it. And they donate money to a great cause: Shriners Childrens Hospital.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mission (mostly) Accomplished

So by noon it was done. The house and garage sat like beached whales on the slope of the hill to their new home. Tomorrow they will slog their way up the hill and the old house will be set on its new foundation.

Turning the corner in town center was the fun part. They sat there for a bit, probably for dramatic effect, then chugged down Main Street. The truck is military surplus having served in the 1'st Gulf War pulling tanks out of sand dunes. Fortunately nobody told Amherst Town Meeting that before the move.

The Dickinson Homestead was the only structure to lose power and telephones, sending it temporarily back in time to when Miss Emily whiled away the hours in her upstairs room.

Selectman Kusner risks life and limb to get the shot.

A combined effort of Police, DPW, power and phone companies came together to make it happen (Yes, the developer covered those costs)

Developer Barry Roberts is also a proud grandfather.

Gentlemen, start your engines

The garage is on the road and the house is starting to move.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Let's make a deal

When it comes to horse-trading those Vermonters surpass us country bumpkins. Take the new five-year Payment in Lieu of Taxes deal just signed between Burlington and the University of Vermont, as compared to our miserly “strategic agreement” with Umass, Amherst.

This year the University of Vermont will pay host city Burlington $456,000; next year $600,000 and $912,000 in 2010 simply for fire protection. The agreement also calls for a closer working relationship between the police forces of the city and University that may result in joint patrols of neighborhoods bordering the University.

The pact also generates additional payments of $180,000 for public works impacts.

Thus, in 2010 the University of Vermont (9,000 undergrads, 1,350 grad students) will pay Burlington (population 39,000 with one-third of all property tax exempt) $1,100,000 over TWICE what the University of Massachusetts (20,000 undergrads, 5,000 grad students) will pay Amherst (population 34,000, with one-half of all property tax exempt).

Of course Burlington, although not much bigger than the People’s Republic of Amherst, is a city with a more efficient Mayor/Council form of government. And when it comes to negotiations, a Mayor makes all the difference.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Million Here, A Million There.

So I go away for a day and look what happens. The crusty Gazette, finally, publishes the expose about how much superfluous money the Regional school had in last year’s $26 budget: ONE MILLION DOLLARS. Yikes! Naturally they hurriedly went Christmas shopping and spent half of it on “unanticipated spending.”

The highly paid director of finance Robert Detweiler gets the “duh!” award for his preemptive spin explaining that it doesn’t mean the schools are in any better shape going into this year’s budget season. Yeah, I guess you would say that whey your mantra mimics a five-year-old’s “gimme, gimme, gimme.”

Last May 1’st voters turned down 53% to 47% a $2.5 million Override where the diffident Finance Committee had come up with ‘The Amherst Plan’ (as opposed to the ‘Peoples Republic of China Plan’) that called for only $1 million used this fiscal year and the extra spread out over the next two years.

Thus, last year when town officials wanted taxpayers to dip into their savings accounts to give them an extra $2.5 million, the town municipal budget had $4 million in reserves, the Regional High School had $1.5 million and the Regional budget approved was $1 million too much. Hmmm...

And yet this year the Middle School Pool was closed to town folks because the town Manager did not want to pay the schools $40,000 upkeep.

If the Regional school alone (and the Regional AND Elementary schools are about 60% of Amherst’s total budget) had ONE MILLION DOLLARS left over in FY07 what does that say about the supposed extra one million they said we needed for the entire municipal/schools budget this fiscal year?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

11/22: That other awful day

The ornate condolence certificate, autographed by the President, arrived two months after the sudden death of my father—a combat veteran who helped overthrow the Japanese in the Philippines but never discussed it with any of his four inquisitive children.

That letter brought radiance into our home on an otherwise dreary late November day.

So, suddenly transformed into a proud 8-year-old, I pestered my mother for the honor of bringing the document to school the following day. My pragmatic Irish mother denied the request--worried I could lose or damage the precious parchment.

Friday began as unremarkable as a hundred before: Morning prayers chanted effortlessly, the Pledge of Allegiance parroted as we stood with our right hands over our hearts facing an American flag.

I was having trouble concentrating on the curriculum, typical for a Friday when the weekend beckoned. But this time all I could think about was a letter that had arrived just yesterday from a revered man who could have met my father less than a generation ago.

With only an hour of captivity remaining, a high-school boy suddenly entered from the right door bearing a message. Snatching the note from his hand the nun appeared almost angry at the interruption. I could, however, see her face suddenly turn white—matching the mask-like habit all ‘Sisters of St. Joseph’ wore.

She crumpled the memo with one hand while reaching back to grab her desk with the other, slumping as though absorbing a blow from a heavyweight boxer. With a trembling voice she said, “Please stand.” Although puzzled, we responded immediately.

“Now extend your arms sideway, shoulder high, and hold them there,” she said still struggling to gain control. So there we stood, 26 of us, rooted near our desks like cemetery crosses wondering, as our shoulders started to ache, what could possible cause such a break in routine?

She regained the commanding voice of authority to announce, “President Kennedy has just been shot” Tears trickled down her cheeks as she concluded, “He needs our prayers.”

At St. Michael’s school in the year of our Lord 1963, President John F. Kennedy was fourth on the list of most beloved: just under the Holy Trinity and tied with Pope John. And in my home he was tied for second with St. Patrick just under my recently deceased father.

The big yellow bus rumbled back to Amherst with an interior as quiet as a crypt. The astonishing event blurred short-term memory like one too many drinks. I began to question whether the letter from the now martyred leader was actually real, or did I simply imagine it?

Bursting thru the front door I quickly spied the prized possession lying on a cluttered kitchen table. With relief and reverence I held it aloft, taking in the brilliant gold calligraphy etched on a pure white background: “It is with deepest sympathy…”

A feeling the entire nation now shared.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Thanksgiving Story

Only in Arlington would posing for the greatest illustrator in American history on assignment for media juggernaut The Saturday Evening Post pass for routine.

Richard (Dick) Hagelberg returned to the family dairy farm after surviving five years in the 9’th Army Air Corps, flying 65 treacherous daylight bombings missions over Europe, including D-Day.

One summer morning he sat beside his 51-year-old mother Saara (Finnish spelling) for an hour of modeling; and two generations later, the scene still resonates.

Rockwell desperately recruited the Hagelberg’s at deadline. Initially they refused, but acquiesced when he offered them each $15. After publication, as he often did with models, Rockwell offered to gift Dick the original painting. He respectfully refused.

Last year Rockwell’s ‘Homecoming Marine’ sold at auction for $9.2 million and ‘Breaking Home Ties’ (a farmer sitting on the running board of a pick up truck with his son dressed in Sunday best clothes heading off to college) brought an astonishing $15.4 million.

Rockwell’s 1943 ‘Freedom from Want’, an extended family gathering around a sumptuous turkey dinner, would prove more popular than the minimalist “Thanksgiving, 1945: A mother and son peeling potatoes.”

But the earlier Post cover had a distinct advantage.

Part of Rockwell’s public relations war effort, the epic series of illustrations based on FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech, ‘The Four Freedoms’ heartened a battered America still reeling from Pearl Harbor’s infamy.

The US Government originally rebuffed Rockwell’s sponsorship proposal so he settled on his regular employer, The Saturday Evening Post. The blockbuster results appeared over four consecutive weekly covers from February 20 to March 13, 1943.

‘Freedom From Want” hit the stands on March 6, 1943, so unlike ‘A mother and son peeling potatoes’ that appeared on November 24’th, 1945, it was not simply a seasonal Thanksgiving tribute.

The Office of War Information printed and distributed millions of full-color reproductions of the ‘The Four Freedoms’ and sponsored the originals on a War Bond Tour of major cities that raised $130 million.

Americans adored ‘Freedom from want’; but with Europe in ruins our struggling and beaten allies didn’t want a reminder that America’s heartland escaped war’s devastation.

For his Thanksgiving, 1945 cover Rockwell journeyed to Maine for a change in scenery, starting work in mid-August--the day Japan surrendered.

Rockwell drafted a 16-year-old boy for the veteran and a friend’s wife acted as his mother. When the illustrator returned to his Arlington studio he couldn’t make it work—the young man didn’t exude the stress of war.

Rockwell recruited two more locals but once again didn’t like the results, considering it too staged. Fortuitously, Dick, recently returned from battle, arrived to deliver milk fresh from the nearby Hagelberg farm. The illustrator had his subjects.

Rockwell originally posed Dick in a wheelchair striking a pensive pose imitating Rodan’s ‘The Thinker’, but decided it was too sad. The selected scene is still slightly incongruous, as Dick is performing one of the military’s more despised chores—KP duty—yet he radiates contentment.

Saara Hagelberg’s loving expression—the look only a mother can give—to a son who survived the ravages of a conflict that had claimed so many sons, personifies Thanksgiving.

Rockwell rejoiced: this time the handsome young man had weathered the misery of war; this time his real mother sits by his side.

So why refuse to accept the original painting? Rockwell, as he often did with models, took liberties with Saara adding twenty pounds and twenty years to her appearance. In fact, Hallmark later used her Thanksgiving image for an “I love you Grandma” card.

The dutiful son knew his mother—although proud of the overall result—was mad.

Saara Hagelberg died of cancer only two years later, a few months before the birth of her first grandchild. By then a priest had purchased the painting and he donated it to an American Legion Post in Winchendon, Massachusetts.

A Rockwell Museum expert rediscovered Thanksgiving, 1945 in the late 1970’s; aghast it hung in a smoke filled building with no fire suppression. The Museum borrowed it, where it remains to this day.

In 1988 the Hagelberg family returned from Stockbridge, Massachusetts disappointed the painting was not on display.

In an apology letter curator Maureen Hart Hennessey explained, “The museum has almost 500 paintings in its collection and can only exhibit 40-50 at one time. We also rotate paintings for conservation reasons to help preserve them for future generations.”

A few weeks later the Hagelberg’s enjoyed a private showing.

In 1993 Dick Hagelberg, after helping build a home for his daughter Nancy high on a hill overlooking the family farm that he also built, succumbed to cancer. His wife Olga, a proud WW2 Marine veteran, still lives in that home in Arlington, Vermont.

And lately, even around Thanksgiving, she briefly struggles…but then vividly recalls—keeping alive those magnificent memories.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two steps forward, one slide back.

Alas, my annual membership fee to The People’s Republic of Amherst is up 33 cents this year—that is 33 cents per $1,000 of valuation. Thus I will pay the Politburo $3,800…and it doesn’t even include a personal masseuse.

If a tornado uprooted my humble abode and plopped it down in Hadley, the membership fee there would be about half that ($2,095).

Last night, rather late, Town Meeting took baby steps towards economic development. We extended the business district a smidgeon to include the Lord Jeff Inn and some other Amherst College owned properties in the immediately vicinity thus paving the way for the stately Inn to expand by at least 33%.

Currently valued at $2 million the Lord Jeff membership fee to Amherst this year is $32,000 and they also pay the 4% hotel/motel room tax something the tax-exempt Umass Campus Center Hotel (with room sales last year of $919,382) ignores.

Thus the Lord Jeff expansion is a double win for Amherst: a significant increase in property tax valuation and increased sales subject to the local room tax.

But we narrowly failed to muster the two-thirds required (100-53) for a slight loosening of restrictions to allow hotel/motels in the downtown business district. A great night for Amherst College, as now there is little likelihood of increased lodging competition.

As long as Amherst’s tax base remains 90% housing and 10% commercial, the annual membership fees will remain entirely too steep; and the only one that benefits is Hadley.

JUST THOUGHT OF IT NOW UPDATE: Interestingly, both the Town Moderator Harrison Gregg and Chair of the Planning Board Aaron Hayden stepped down during the discussion last night to avoid Conflict of Interest as they are both employed by Amherst College. Too bad our Select board members, who are employed by Umass (or immediate family), don’t have the same high threshold for integrity.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Turn About Fair Play

Since Mr. Kusner elicits laughs from so many people, I’m only too happy to hear that this blog amuses him. And I think it’s great he can use the bully pulpit provided by his honorable Select board position to address items found only here.

Stephanie O’Keeffe reports on Inamherst's Recap of the 11/15 Select Board meeting that Rob Kusner explained he recused himself from the liquor license change for Umass Faculty Club last week because he’s good friends with the manager and he and his department (Math would definitely drive me to drink) have accounts at the club. Furthermore, he’s descended from Vulcans, not Klingons as I suggested.

Yeah with all his brainy expositions over the years, I should have figured that. Hopefully he will give advance warning before that once every seven years "Pon Farr" blood fever thing.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The road not taken.

A perfect metaphor for our current form of government...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

You scratch my back...

At a time when the People’s Republic is facing a $1.9 million deficit in the upcoming year and town officials desperately wished for a $2.5 million tax Override to make it thru this year, the Town Manager gifted Finance Director and Town Manager wanna-be John Musante with a new job description, ‘Assistant Town Manager’--including a retroactive raise from $90,000 to $96,000 this year and to $102,000 next year.

So how many other municipal employees will get a 7% raise next year? And where would we come up with the many millions needed to cover that?

Musante’s predecessor Nancy Maglione always acted as town Manger when Barry Del Castilho was on his frequent vacations or I-don’t-feel-like-coming-to-work days; and that was simply a part of her job description as Finance Director.

Musante collected an extra $10,000 last year (and an additional month of vacation) for acting as Town Manager when Del Castilho bailed out, with full pay of course, three months early.

At the Select board meeting of May 30 rookie Town Manager Larry Shaffer reported the Finance Committee’s Reserve Fund (supposedly set aside for “unanticipated emergencies”) was bankrupt, so the potholes (requiring about $10,000) that made Amherst resemble a B-52 carpet-bomb test range would just have to wait until July.

Of course the Cherry Hill Golf course--that both Shaffer and Musante championed--was sucking up $16,000 of the FinCom’s $50,000 emergency fund; and the Town Manager’s car/cell phone allowance of $4,200 also encumbered that fund because Musante neglected to include it when he put together his (or rubber stamped Del Castilho’s) FY07 $220,000 Selectboard/Town Manager budget.

So if Musante has trouble with a spare-change $220,000 budget, what else will he miss in a mid-$60 Million budget?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Seasons in the sun

Cherry Hill Golf course, too late to benefit the bottom line, is on a PR role (with the crusty Gazette anyway): yesterday’s puff piece about Frisbee golf--a sparsely attended non-revenue event--and today’s “back in the black” advertisement, errrr, I mean article.

With all the figurative lying cheating and stealing, the best town officials can conjure up is $26,500 over last year's Fall closing? Let’s see, they ignore over $20,000 in hidden costs like employee benefits and insurance, $15,000 in capital expenditures for a new fence and underground gasoline storage tank, and try to suggest the course can be managed by only one-quarter of one person when two years ago it required two full-time people.

No wonder operations are down. In FY06 they had purchased $6,200 of fertilizer/insecticide in the first half of the year but this year delayed that purchase until the second half of the season (this coming Spring), probably to make the mid-season report look good.

And of course the most important calculation the crusty Gazette failed to acknowledge: had the Town Manager accepted Niblik’s privatization bid last year the town would be GUARANTEED $30,000 profit thus freeing up the Recreation honcho and Town Manager to attend to more important matters.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Umass Strike: Summer Soldiers

So I took a lunch hour break from my working day that started at 5:25 this morning to attend the high-noon Umass Strike Rally in the Student Union Ballroom. Yeah, that would be the very same premier facility on campus that students are protesting is not available to them. Hmmm.

And let me get this strait: They are protesting the high cost of education by boycotting classes over the next two days they have already paid (too much) for? Isn’t that kind of like Mobile Oil Company management saying they are gong on strike by locking out employees for two days but the workers will still get paid?

I guess if it were sunny they would have had the rally on the Campus Center steps (like in the good old days). But hey, it was raining.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Just one look

Obviously Selectman Kusner is disappointed and angry…with his Lordship Select Board Chair Gerry Weiss in particular. Notice that overly pregnant seven or eight second delay before Weiss half hearted says he “raised an objection” (the objection was just as wimpy).

And particularly notice at the very end Mr. Kusner’s little flip of his head and eyebrows diagonally up and to his left, like an evil Klingon.

Stephanie O’Keeffe transcribed on “Recap of the 11/7 Select board meeting” the innocent and accurate observation “Mr. Kusner appeared displeased.”

So Kusner, first after pressuring O’Keeffe to delete the line, posts the entire NY Times Vs. Sullivan First Amendment case as a form of intimidation (go ahead Rob suit her--or me for that matter--and see how much press that would generate.)

Why he wanted Mr. Weiss to vote NO on this liquor license upgrade for the UMass Faculty Club is anybody’s guess. Probably as a reaction to the flack generated by their $200,000 giveaway of water to Umass at the 9/17 meeting, and not wanting to be seen as simply sycophant servants to the University.

What I found particularly fascinating about this entire brief episode is that Kusner and Brewer both recused themselves from the discussion (actually leaving the room) over their Umass affiliation.

So they can leave the room over a nickel-and-dime liquor license to Umass BUT when it comes to gifting the University $200,000 in free effluent water they lead the charge.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Oops...wrong button.

So we had another one of those amusing, always revealing cyberspace boo boos on a listserve where, longtime Amherst Town Meeting member Hilda Greenbaum, sent a chatty missive to fellow longtime Town Meeting member Mary Wentworth lamenting “nasty” Moderator Harrison Gregg and encouraging a continued fight over upcoming zoning articles; and it accidentally went to over one hundred Town Meeting members.

Although she did send another to the entire group three minutes later with the subject line all in caps: “PLEASE DELETE WITHOUT READING” my previous post. Of course that probably doubled the readership of her mistaken email.

The battle line is drawn around the Zoning Board of Appeals (which Hilda Greenbaum is an Associate Member) giving up some of its veto power to the Planning Board, thus making it a tad easier for development to occur in the People’s Republic.

Fist off, Hilda Greenbaum is a significant Amherst property owner--both commercial and residential. Why is she on a quasi-judicial permitting board where her one vote can kill a proposal to increase competition by adding either commercial or residential property to the tax base?

Her email reveals: “Barbara Ford, Carolyn and I have been working together to avoid the whole issue of posting public meetings for telephone calls, emails and lunches. Jane joined in after the public meeting but again we had to be careful about open meetings and passed all messages through Carolyn.”

Barbara Ford is the ZBA Chair, Carolyn Holstein is a town employee acting as staff liaison, Hilda Greenbaum is an Associate Member and I assume “Jane” who “joined in” AFTER the public meeting is ZBA Associate Member Jane Ashby, thus making three.

According to Rules and Regulations for the ZBA posted on the Town Web cite:
“Three members/associate members shall constitute the panel for all public hearings or meetings. Three members/associate members shall constitute a quorum.”

So in spite of trying to “be careful about open meetings” they obviously were not careful enough. I guess they learned it from the Select board, who appointed them all.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Only in Vermont

My daughter the treehugger. Yeah, a chip off the old block.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Something old, something new.

Old Glory over a new light fixture with St. Brigid's steeple in the background.

Thanks to all the veterans who have served and sacrificed to keep our nation free.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

$omething old, $omething new...

So Amherst Town Meeting coughed up $278,000 to bribe the state to release APR property so Mr. Cherewatti could build his new home on 1.7 acres of land just to the rear of the historic brick Kimball house. He originally wanted to tear down the structure and build on its footprint, but Amherst do-gooders liked the view and wished to preserve it (a digital photo would have been a lot cheaper).

Mr. Cherewatti contributed $25,000 cash and $8,000 in APR property to the deal. He still owns the Kimball House, although he can't demolish it (and has done some recent renovations). The Cherewatti’s also sponsor family fund that donates money up to $500 in Challenge Grants to local youths and families in the area.

Their brand new LARGE abode will probably be in the top-ten assessed homes in Amherst, thus paying significant property taxes. And, with no school aged children, will have minimal to no impact on town services.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Expensive Feed for the Great White Elephant

One of the advantages of a Daily paper cranking out four or five editorials per week it they occasionally sink a hole in one. Today’s Gazette for instance.

Yeah, it’s bad enough the free spending state encouraged South Hadley and Amherst into the golf business in the first place with $500,000 Open Space Grant’s--but now to further embolden South Hadley with a $237,000 grant for a Clubhouse throws good money after bad. But hey, it’s state money so who cares?

Perhaps the small business owners (believe it or not golf courses are considered small businesses) who have to unfairly compete with South Hadley’s Great White Elephant.

Private business creates tax dollars while public entities consume them. And when that public business goes into competition with private, tax-paying entities they have an unfair advantage.

The Leisure Services Empire in Amherst (fancy term for Recreation Department) has been salivating for over a decade to construct a mega-million Recreation Building. And Umass is about to break ground (is spite of a historic barn on the site) on a $50 million Recreation Center that will instantly kill two health clubs—one in Amherst and one in Hadley-- who target Umass students (not to mention another one in Hadley about to open).

Amherst College did a $7 million renovation of their Fitness Center a few years back and the Amherst Athletic Club went from signing up an average of twenty Amherst College students per semester down to one or two, or a 90% hit. Ouch!

Of course Amherst College has every right to do whatever it wants to serve its students. Just as Umass—a state agency—has every right to take care of students’ health fitness needs. I do draw the (battle) line with Umass however if they open up subsidized memberships to employees or their spouses.

As an Amherst Finance Committee member mentioned at a recent meeting almost everybody in Town Meeting and the town itself has some connection to Umass. If that Recreation Center were a private enterprise it would pay the town $750,000 in taxes and membership rates to consumers would have to reflect that overhead.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Crime Does Not Pay

OverRiders--some anyway--will be grumpy to hear the State actually coerced the teen-aged culprit to reimburse (Amherst) Taxpayers for Responsible Change for the 75-100 stolen angry bumblebee “No More Overrides” signs snatched from lawns all over the town of Amherst during the dead of night April 22’nd--only a week before the ill-fated $2.5 million May Day Override tanked--where they were ceremoniously displayed like trophies in front of the Amherst Regional High and then callously tossed into the school's dumpster.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

From One Command To Another

A news junkie’s disadvantage is that reading a headline in the morning newspaper seldom elicits surprise.

Not today. I was amazed Sarno beat Mayor Ryan in Springfield. And apparently the venerable Springfield Republican was too as the headline used the appropriate term “stunning upset.”

But the other one was a pleasant surprise: Michael Boulanger becoming Mayor of Westfield.

I first met the Colonel at a Memorial Day ceremony in Southwick, Donna’s hometown, when he was still commander of Barnes Air National Guard 104’th Fighter Wing. We have one of those husband/wife deals where we spend July 4’th in Amherst and Memorial Day in Southwick.

It was one of those numerous picture perfect days of 2001; and I remember thinking, “who is this guy”? Probably a pencil-pushing military bureaucrat who will give the stock, monotone speech that I endure all too often on the floor of Amherst Town Meeting (except never having to do with patriotism of course).

The person who introduced him at the microphone briefly ran down his accomplishments--not just as base commander--but as a fighter pilot and all the conflicts (some recent) he had served in; not too mention being one of the first to test night vision goggles, and survive.

He gave a heartfelt speech. I’m not sure if I was more impressed with his resume or that speech. Three and half months later, on another picture perfect day, the world changed.

The Amherst Veterans Agent planned a Veteran’s Day ceremony (2001) on the town common for the first time in memory, so I contacted the Colonel and requested a fly-over. He said he would love to, as his son was attending Umass at the time and he often buzzed Amherst.

Naturally, this being the People’s Republic of Amherst, peace protestors (the US had just begun the bombing of Afghanistan after they refused to give up Bin Laden) crashed the solemn event and the arguments got so heated that I thought for the first time ever I would have to physically intervene between two opposing participants.

Just then a pair of those gorgeously ugly A-10’s came SCREAMING up South Pleasant Street directly overhead, flying wicked low and wicked fast with their wingtips almost touching. The entire dumbfounded crowd went silent. War averted by fighter jets.

The Colonel retired just before the A-10s were retired and Barnes now has F-15’s out of Otis Air Force Base, probably including the very same two who scrambled that awful morning and chased the wayward commercial jets all the way to New York.

If Colonel Boulanger runs Westfield half as well as he ran his command (and I’m sure he will) those folks are in very good hands. I only wish he had became Amherst’s Mayor.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Way We Were

Who needs first run airings of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” or Stephen (I could have been a contenda) Colbert’s “The Colbert Report”, Amherst Town Meeting is back. Ah…the humor, the irony, the ZZZZZZZZZZZ.

And we're off to a typical start. Town Meeting (supposedly) begins at 7:30 pm; the required quorum didn’t happen until 7:45 and we didn’t start discussing article #1 until 8:00 pm.

If you want the blow (hard) by blow (hard) description then go to Stephanie’s Town Meeting Experience (whenever she awakens and posts).

Last night’s most interesting presentation goes to feisty Nancy Gordon who dared to speak against spending a quarter million to add modular classrooms by suggesting we close down Marks Meadow the smallest of our four elementary schools.

Marks Meadow overhead consumes over $1.5 million and the structure has aged into obsolescence. Umass owns it and they refuse to give Amherst any more space nearby or renovate or expand the building.

The Town Manager admits he spent most of his time on Marks Meadow while negotiating the “strategic agreement” with Umass; resulting in the same status quo going back a generation--except an acknowledgement from Umass that these kids do exist and do cost Amherst taxpayers significant tax dollars (estimated $600,000 annually)

1. “If, in the future, the Town builds a new elementary school and vacates the Mark’s Meadow facility, the Town, AES, ARPS and the University will negotiate a new agreement in which the University may reimburse the Town for a portion of the net costs of educating students living in University tax-exempt housing.

Don’t you just love that waffle term “may reimburse.”

Heck, for the $600,000 Umass annually costs our education budget they should donate us the darn building.

And pay for their effluent, and the local hotel/motel tax, and the property tax on recently demolished Frat Row property, and Amherst Police World Series overtime ...

Monday, November 5, 2007

History, unfortunately, repeats itself.

A “a fed up taxpayer” anonymously mailed me the three-year agreement between Amherst and Umass circa 1995 with the observation that it was a better pact for the town than the one Town Manager Shaffer is currently crowing about.

My anonymous friend multiplies the $6 for each student by 20,000 rather than the 11,000 it actually covered (“student resident of University owned housing") and also multiplied $50,000 in “economic development and planning services” by three when in fact that amount was the total maximum for all three years combined.

So they came up with $510,000 when in fact the total was about half that. And what really brought Umass to the bargaining table in the first place was the fear of a lawsuit over $203,000 in misrouted moving violations money the Northampton Court Clerk had accidentally sent to Umass rather than Amherst over a ten year period.

Umass said they had already spent the money on student scholarships. I said it doesn’t matter if you used it to save the whales or cure cancer; it was not your money and please give it back (with interest).

So I filed a warrant article with Town Meeting calling for them to immediately suit the University to recover the money. And, amazingly, it passed. Umass came calling the very next day.

But Selectman Hill Boss and Town Manager Barry Del Castilho got taken to the cleaners by Umass negotiators (in a series of meetings at Hill Boss’s private home that the DA declared “violated the spirit of the Open Meeting Law)”, flushing away the $200,000 lawsuit that a judge already said was the town’s money for $50,000 in trade (something we probably could have gotten out of a Grad Student for free anyway).

But the $66,000 in ambulance money was new, although we postponed pursuing the Hotel/Motel tax on the Campus Center Hotel (estimated value $50,000 to $75,000) and to “confine differential in water rates to 20 cents per 100 cubic feet.”

In a later agreement the differential went away completely; but if our Water Commissioners simply reinstituted that 20 cent difference at tonight’s Select board meeting it would cost Umass about $75,000.

And of course there was much talk about Umass helping to advocate for an “equitable” PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes). All talk and no action.

Today’s PILOT formulae is the same as it was ten years ago, repaying towns with state property simply by the square mile with no difference between the Wendell State Forest and a densely populated areas like Umass.

This one-page pact certainly demonstrates how easily Umass, in the current “strategic agreement”, built on its previous outmaneuvering of Amherst Town officials.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Camp David

Keenan that is. Sunday night.

Those who live in glass houses...

So we bust a former Select board member for having an unkempt home but a current Select board member can store scrap metal in his driveway for years on end.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Handwriting on the wall...

Amherst certainly didn't waste any time condemning Mr. Keenan's humble abode...or should I say the town's humble abode.

And I couldn't help but notice a portable heater/grill unit (looking a tad tired) a chair and tent equipment sitting on the front steps. Hmmm.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Mi Casa, Su Casa

So as predicted, the town found enough structural defects in Dave’s castle to bring down a skyscraper and probably by the close of business today will condemn his Happy Home. Funny how quickly the system works when hassling a Gadfly.

I don’t think the Springfield Republican reporter quite realized that Dave was serious when he said perhaps he would relocate into the Town Hall stairwell (after all, it is currently covered by a plastic sheet,)

This incident reminds me of another infamous Barry Del Castilho episode, now South Hadley’s $65/hour interim town administrator. Del Castilho desperately wanted a multi-million Override for Town Hall renovations (where his office was located) so he made a HUGE health issue of pigeon poop in the attic.

His secretary Laurie Benoit (whom he later married, after divorcing his then wife Linda) was posed for the Front Page of the crusty old Amherst Bulletin wearing a surgeon’s mask to filter out the supposed biological hazards.

And the two of them used a mail order air quality test kit (that at the time was about as reliable as a coin toss) and submitted samples from the back filter of an air conditioner (Gee, you think maybe that turned up a few beasties?)

Del Castilho then commissioned a $10,000 study by a reputable consultant to study the air quality in and around Town Hall. Hilariously, the study revealed the BEST air quality in the building was located in the attic because of the hot dry air up there (and all the poop was stuck to the floor so it didn’t go airborne).

And the WORST quality air was directly outside the building (called normal New England air in late Spring or Summer).

Along comes Dave Keenan suggesting volunteers simply clean up the poop for free and fix the broken window that the pigeons were using to enter the nice warm attic for the winter. The Town Manager, not wanting to grant Keenan a positive headline for selfless volunteerism, unequivocally said No.

Dave then crashed a Select Board meeting with a few friends (no, not me) dressed in space suits singing the song Ghost-Busters. Although changing the key word to Pigeon-Busters.

The town went on to spend over $100,000 to clean up the poop. And about then Dave stopped paying his taxes.

Town Meeting later overwhelmingly voted a $2.7 million Override with only two out of 155 or so voting No. I was one and Hill Boss the other. A week or so later Boss Hill wrote a Letter To The Editor of the crusty Bulletin saying he changed his mind and now supported the Override. It got walloped at the ballot box.

Town Meeting tried again; and again voters said take a hike. Town Meeting then used a loan to pay for it (thus bypassing voters) and by then it had grown to around $4 million. And even then a couple years later, Town Hall required a $200,000 more for roof repair and next week Town Meeting will be discussing how to pay another $600,000 for the current exterior repointing.

Only in Amherst.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

War averted

So the question at 10:30 this morning: Would Mr. Keenan submit to the court order and keep his door open to Amherst Building inspectors or do a Perp Walk?

And it didn't hurt that the media--Springfield Republican, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Amherst Bulletin and a blogger or two--showed up in droves!

About equal to the number of public officials: Police, Sheriff, Town Attorney, Building Inspectors

Inspectors enter Dave's Humble abode, unmolested. Good Call Dave!

Kudos to Chief Scherpa for his behind the scenes negotiations (as well as on the scene)
UPDATE 5:00 pm: So Mr Keenan confirms the building inspectors (two no less) found numerous health code and safety violations. A town official just called and asked Mr. Keenan if he could at least put batteries in the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Keenan told them to talk to the owner. That is, of course, the town of Amherst. Hmmm

A horse is a horse...