Monday, December 1, 2008

Community Choices Suggestion Box

Of the almost 500 folks who took the survey to provide feedback to town officials on the budget over the next five years a couple hundred had written "suggestions". The FCCC will publish them all unedited in an appendix of their Final Report (presented this afternoon to the Budget Coordinating Group and this evening to the Select board.) I culled these ten in no particular order of importance:

The town needs to become business friendly and develop means of generating income through technology and tourism.

Make hard choices without compromising ESSENTIAL services -- fire, police and schools.

Ask employees for a giveback on their raises

We must stop subsidizing ambulance services to Hadley and the other towns, and not accept a long-term contract in lieu of actual cost payments. We must foster economic development and business growth so that property owners are not the principal source of revenue.

No increase in budget. Aggressive initiative to change our form of government. It is dysfunctional to try to make choices by surveys. The results don't reflect to true political will of Amherst. The results only reflect those who go to meetings and fill out questionnaires . . . and there is no way for those who do participate to be assured that their concerns will be addressed our can they hold anybody accountable for choices made. Who will be held accountable for the choices made? Town Meeting? The community Choices Committee? Who and how and what consequences? Why not put all your efforts to finally changing our form of government to a fully accountable government of professional politicians that are paid and held accountable for their choices. It is the way the State, US and hundreds of thousands municipalities govern themselves. And please, don't respond that we have to work with the government we have. If you er-call, the first vote on the charter lost by 14 votes in an election where 9,000 registered voters didn't vote. If the "Choices" committee put their efforts into changing town government, perhaps two years from now we may still be in this mess, but we can be assured that choices will be made by people we know and who we can hold accountable. Jim Pitts

Prioritize better, focusing on maintaining public safety and education -- everything else is frosting on the cake. Close the branch libraries! Eliminate bus lines with low ridership; increase fees on remaining lines. Eliminate the human rights staff position, if it still exists. Increase LSSE fees to better cover costs. Close the Cherry Hill golf course. Open only one public pool in the summer, and/or charge a per-use fee (perhaps with summer pass option). Work very hard on business development, and on making sure we retain the businesses that currently exist (and generate revenue!). Quit using tax dollars for charity donations, that's inappropriate when we can't pay our own basic bills. Charge the farmer's market sellers a fee for use of the land each week. Pay attention to the fact that Hadley doesn't have a revenue problem -- I don't want to live in Hadley (weak schools, poor zoning), but they are very smart to use business development to create a strong tax base. We can be smarter about zoning, but still see some business growth.

Close branch (North and South) libraries Reduce budget at main library Negotiate for more money (PILOT) from UMass, Amherst and Hampshire colleges Renegotiate town employee’s wages/salaries and health insurance to lower cost Elementary Schools Reduce Special Ed program Make fee based ALL after school programs (academic and extra curricular) Regional Schools Eliminate and/or make fee based Russian and German language programs and Make fee based ALL after school programs (academic and extra curricular) Reduce Special Ed program

Increase tax base through business development, focus on core services, move to a mayoral form of government that provides greater accountability to the budget process.

Stop spending! This is not easy, nor is it popular but it must happen. Our town asks too much of its taxpayers. When times were more prosperous, we could better afford the wonderful services we have. Now, times are tough in the US and the world and we need to be satisfied with much less. We are ready for a mayor who has the skills to make the really difficult and unpopular decisions that need to be made. Amherst can remain a beautiful, New England college town without all the "extras" we have come to expect in the past. Please act responsibly and stop overspending!


Town should lives within its means--like any family budget.

15 comments:

Alison said...

Anyone interested in reading the entire report (arranged in chapters for ease of finding relevant information) should check in to www.amherstchoices.org It should be available on our web site this week.

...Alison Donta-Venman, member FCCC

Ed said...

I am so tired of folks thinking that towns are entitled to tax payments from land that the Commonwealth has essentially "reserved" for Commonwealth uses.

A building downtown is one thing, but something like the UMass Campus essentially is a re-drawing of the town line and the land owned by UMass isn't really in Amherst anymore.

No more than Amherst is really in Hadley anymore - even though it once was.

The General Court has the authority to draw municipal lines - and to redraw them, to partition and the rest. UMass isn't IN Amherst and you aren't entitled to tax it.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Well, we can't say we haven't heard these before. I am *not* responding as to whether I agree with these ideas or not, but simply to suggest some further thoughts if the suggesters happen to read this blog:-)since I'm sure Larry already knows the stuff I'm adding below.

Close the branch libraries!
(we'll still own the buildings, will have to winterize the buildings, & what about the activities that make money for us at Munson?)

Eliminate bus lines with low ridership
(then they won't be there as people want to drive less & ride more)

increase fees on remaining lines
(the only reason we don't pay fees on the UMass-driven lines -- which are most of the lines Amherst riders use -- is because the UMass drivers are students, & UMass would rather not have to mess with getting them all bonded so they'd be allowed to have cash on the buses)

Eliminate the human rights staff position, if it still exists
(this is currently a combined position with Human Resources, being (1) FTE plus consultant services from former HR director)

Increase LSSE fees to better cover costs
(a detailed "unitization" study showing the true costs of each program should be available before January 16)

Open only one public pool in the summer, and/or charge a per-use fee (perhaps with summer pass option)
(OK, here I get to say it: what rock you been living under? I've only lived here 10 years, but all that time LSSE *has* charged a per-use fee, it's gone up more than once, & of course summer passes have been an option. None of the three pools (MS indoor, War Memorial outdoor, Mill River outdoor) are free, although sometimes the wading pools -- which are often closed for maintenance -- are free. While we do offer discounts for those on free/reduced lunch, there's only so much you can raise pool fees til it becomes unworkable for folks, & remember we also charge private camps & our own LSSE camps to use the pools -- we make money off the camps usage & the swimming lessons, & there ain't no way you can bring in all the paying camps that want to come in, plus the lessons demand, plus have the general public be willing to pay to come in all during the same hours)

Charge the farmer's market sellers a fee for use of the land each week
(how much would be enough to be useful for something vs too much cutting into their profit? Have you seen how inexpensive their products are???)

Renegotiate town employee’s wages/salaries and health insurance to lower cost
(to lower than what? lower than private sector pay for the same work?)

Elementary Schools Reduce Special Ed program
(illegal -- contact your School Committee)

Make fee based ALL after school programs (academic and extra curricular)
(already been doing this for years, with increases)

Regional Schools Eliminate and/or make fee based Russian and German language programs
(we have no fee-based academic programs -- talk to your School Committee members)

I wish folks would get informed and engage on a level other than ranting on an anonymous survey.

Anonymous said...

Great! Then we'll just leave our fire trucks in the station next time the students burn down a dorm.

Anonymous said...

There are some lessons that apparently have to be learned for the first time by every single voter in town.

The one that Amherst is stuck on right now is "there is no free lunch."

These surveys are simply inventories of our delusions about town government.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

There are some lessons that apparently have to be learned for the first time by every single voter in town.

The one that Amherst is stuck on right now is "there is no free lunch."

These surveys are simply inventories of our delusions about town government.

Rich Morse

Ed said...

"the next time the UMass students burn down a dorm" -- well the last dorm that burned down - Abigail Adams dorm - burned down in 1962. JFK was President at the time, it wasn't quite yesterday...

And the last building that burned on campus, the art building -- well the AFD fire truck didn't start which (I am told) was fortunate as exploding tanks would have gone into where it was supposed to be sitting.

The vast majority of AFD calls are ambulance runs and unlike those for other low income folk in town, AFD gets 100% PAYMENT FROM THE UMASS STUDENT INSURANCE! This is unheard of, my doctor bills $140 but only gets $15 from me and $30 from the insurance company and has to eat the $100 -- but AFD gets the whole thing.

UMass could run a fairly nice fire department on its own if it could just keep the 50% of all traffic tickets that its own cops (not APD but just UMPD) write. Even though UM has to pay to defend these tickets in court, Amherst gets the revenue....

Sorry folk, there isn't any golden cow to rape to balance the budget.

Alison said...

Alisa...

I wouldn't characterize respondents to the questionnaire as "uninformed." That is not a productive way to begin this process. If there is a suggestion that is misinformed (i.e. reduce special education), rather than criticize the respondent, work to address the issue. If special education cannot be reduced due to current state law, let the public know why, through some regularly-available venue.

Having read every single one of those comments and worked with them, I can tell you that some people have some very good ideas. Your rebuttal to the branch library suggestion, for example, was addressed by other respondents who suggested that the town SELL the branch libraries to raise revenue. No, that doesn't address your point about the fees brought in through the Munson (again, here is where you could educate the public--how much does the town net per year on those fees and is that worth keeping the building open, lit, and heated), but I believe it was you who suggested selling town "assets" to raise money. And the questionnaire respondents have offered you two assets right there.

Just a caution that although it might seem most expedient to dismiss some of these suggestions as "uninformed," naive, or not feasible, it is also possible to use them to look for new ways of looking at old problems.

Oh, and I have kids at the middle school--after school clubs do NOT charge fees although althetic teams do. Perhaps you were thinking of after-school care in the elementary schools.

...Alison Donta-Venman, member FCCC

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Alison-

I understand completely how devoted you are to this process that's lasted a little less than a year; I have the same feelings about the Planning Amherst Together process that's stretched over more than eight years.

I'm sorry my comment:
"I wish folks would get informed and engage on a level other than ranting on an anonymous survey."
seemed harsh and unproductive.

What I see from being on Town Meeting for 10 years and serving on various committees during that time is that while of course people new to the process bring up some of the "same old, same old," that doesn't mean those concerns shouldn't be addressed, of course they should, but I also see many of the "same old same old" comments coming from people who've been around in Town Meeting and elsewhere for *much* longer than I have -- where does that person's responsibility for becoming an informed resident, and my responsibility for attempting to reach them, meet?

I like to believe that the huge amount of effort I've put in over the past 10 years has resulted in more people, overall, knowing more about how their community works. Yet it's also true that sometimes it feels that no matter what information we provide, we continue to hear the same old "rants," which on a difficult day can sound *a lot* like the commenter is assuming the volunteers on the various committees are idiots not to have addressed them before.

And no, I was not thinking of the elementary after school programs run by private organizations (Crocker Farm, Mark's Meadow) or by LSSE (at Wildwood); at one point the high school was charging a fee to everyone to cover after school clubs, although it was obviously a lot lower than the charges for sports. So things do vary year to year.

Yes, I have encouraged us to look at our holdings in terms of buildings, and to consider whether it would be appropriate to sell any of them. That's different in my mind from suggesting the town sell assets to raise money -- no matter how I might have been quoted in a newspaper -- since I like to think I wouldn't have said anything so ignorant; obviously selling assets doesn't raise money, it simply precludes an ongoing cost to maintain the asset. There was a huge hue and cry some years back over selling the building the Cushman childcare is in to the Cushman folks, that it was just a horrible idea, but we did go ahead and do it and the world didn't end -- and now we no longer have to maintain an aging building, and the childcare has the security of owning their building.

I'm sorry what I said sounded like I was dismissing the suggestions; it sounded to me like I was telling folks where to go next with their question or what else to consider, not that I was saying their idea was naive or impractical. That's why I led with saying I didn't agree or disagree, was just offering further information. Of course the comments from the surveys are not irrelevant simply because they've been made before; it's different times now and it's certainly (even hopefully!) possible some reasons for not doing things that way in the past would no longer hold. I also hope that the report the FCCC is expecting to publish by the end of this week helps us all look at things differently than we have before, because Amherst is going to have to make changes that people aren't going to like, and they won't be temporary.

Anonymous said...

Alisa --

Your response criticizing individual suggestions on the town budget as ill-informed was quite revealing, but not about the budget process. Instead, it suggested to me that you are neither open-minded about the budget, nor willing to educate the public (some of whom elected you to public office!) about reasoning behind budget decisions.

What possible purpose could there be to soliciting public input on the budget, if not to consider the responses seriously? We cannot afford to reject options now simply because they have been rejected previously. Indeed, isn't that attitude one of the many reasons that Amherst has a large structural deficit?

Thanks to Alison, both for her efforts on the Community Choices project and for her reasoned remarks.

Anonymous said...

Why does Town Manager make over 100k, when mayors get less than half of that amount for a salary? I think we should drop his salary. because the SB is making all of the decisions, except about the 4th of July Parade.

Alison said...

Alisa...

It is frustrating to try to provide public education and not feel as if it is reaching enough people. We had that same experience and were disheartened with the low response to the survey, and I share your frustration. But to me, that means we need to keep trying new and different ways to engage the public and fill in the gaps of public knowledge. An amazing amount of information is out there but few people know how to access it all. All of us on the FCCC learned many thing we never knew during this process, and we consider ourselves engaged citizens.

Please also keep in mind that for some of our respondents, this IS all new to them and is NOT the "same old same old." Some of our respondents explicitly stated that they were new to town so they cannot be expected to know the full history budget discussions. Their fresh eye is also a good perspective to get, even if they end up coming up with "the same old same old."

Your discussion of the selling of the Cushman building is very informative and will undoubtedly be helpful in helping our elected officials take a "look at our holdings in terms of buildings, and to consider whether it would be appropriate to sell any of them." I think reminding people that this sort of evaluative process does take place on a regular basis is helpful.

I also hope that our report will provide the Select Board, our budget managers, and all our elected officials some good material to work with. Whether or not it "helps us all look at things differently than we have before" remains to be seen. The information is all there, but we are not policymakers. The decision of what to DO with the information we provided is up to you. One way to "look at things differently" is to be open to putting EVERYTHING on the table for discussion, even if it is the "same old same old."

I wish you luck!

Alison Donta-Venman, member, FCCC

LarryK4 said...

She's going to need it.

An Override vote is the ultimate survey response. If the people actually believe the town is doing a good job with the budget and circumstances beyond their control are in play, then a majority will vote yes.

But if they think the town is wasteful and not prioritizing (and sometimes it is only those little $10,000 potholes not getting filled items that gets their attention) then they will vote No.

If the town (especially after receiving my latest property tax assessment) asks for an Override this year, I’m voting NO WAY IN HELL.

Anonymous said...

Property assessments are unfair, without an inspection of all properties. This house is, in no way, worth what they have assessed it as being. I could not even get that for a total loss, from fire insurance. Is this town going mad?

I am voting NO, on overrides, also.

Anonymous said...

my question is: what's the value for the money?

paying more for less? that's a bizarre notion.

the elementary schools are not anywhere near living up to their hype.

the roads are a travesty.

our sports facilities are awful.

public safety can barely keep up with demand.

enough.