Thursday, February 4, 2010

BCG: Why bother, when it's a done deal?

The Bully Reports (factual errors and all)
Of course you non news wonks will wonder what the big deal is: the Governor either submitted a level funded budget or a lousy 5% cut from last year budget (as reported in the Bully). But the difference to Amherst is $1 million. Kind of a BIG difference.

Just as someone could say what the hell difference does it make for the teachers to give up their little 3% raise and COLA next year. Well, that makes a $1.3 million difference. That too is pretty damn big.


My reliable sources at the BCG meeting tell me the Override will be a lump sum general amount (almost certainly $1.9 million) but "With Allocations" (meaning it will include ballot language that will allocate so much to the libraries, so much to the schools, etc.)

The BCG will meet again Wednesday at 10:15 AM, after more School Committee meetings next Monday and Tuesday. The Select Board will definitely meet next Friday at 8:30 AM, as scheduled in advance in case they needed to, to finalize things.

And Amherst School Committee lightening rod Catherine Sanderson posted this interesting strong arm incident from Tuesday's School Committee meeting:

"One final thing - I asked Stephanie O'Keeffe at the meeting last night three questions:

1. Whether it would be possible from the BCG/SB's perspective for the SC to vote simply to put an override on the ballot to let the voters decide (without the SC taking a specific stand supporting the override). She said no -- that the SB would not include the schools on an override ballot if the SC didn't take a position supporting an override."
11:30 AM
So I'm sitting here trying to liveblog this meeting (the wireless keeps coming and going.)

Starts on time. First 'public comment' mentions "menu Override". He states that 3 members of the Facilitation's Committee are here and last year they stated an Override would be necessary withing the "next five years," BUT that Override should be a Menu Override, meaning voters can pick and choose what they support rather than an all-or-nothing, lump sum number. Maybe they should get a chance to explain that position?

I, of course, ask why we're here in the first place, since this body is supposed to forward a dollar amount and structure to the Select Board, who is meeting on Monday night, and that I also thought the Select Board on Monday would hear "public comment" on the Override--both structure and amount.

But, I'm reading today's Amherst Bulletin (dated tomorrow) that trumpets a definitive $1.9 million Override on a Front Page story--above the fold no less. So if it's a done deal, why bother with this meeting, and why bother with public input on Monday night?

Stephanie deflects by saying she can't speak for the Bulletin and they (the Select Board) are still in the process.

Vince O'Connor said he agrees a Menu Override would be best.

Andy Churchill (School Committee). Some are saying to delay the Override vote to April (thus setting up a standalone election that will cost $12,000 And since the Town Clerk is scheduled to lose an employee that's just what they need. )

The Region consists of 4 towns and the other three should have some input. They are comfortable with allowing the Amherst School Committee to come up with a figure for the Elementary Schools. The Region, however, does not meet until this Saturday.

12:05 PM
Andy Churchill actually uses the word "hardball" for the way the Select Board is strong arming the School Committee to get behind (in lockstep) with the Override. Hmm...

Jones Library. Did not take a formal vote on supporting or opposing the Override--i.e. "took no position." They only voted to support the total amount needed so that they do not lose state certification.

Princess Stephanie (SB Chair) parses that to say that they "support" an Override. Hmm...

Town Manager asks if they are "silent on the Override". "So far," they respond.

12: 15
Gerry Weiss starts to browbeat Jones Library Trustee Chair Patricia Holland. "So, you want an extra $60,000--but you don't want to ask the voters? You want the Select Board to do that!"

Town Manager: "One option for the BCG is to give the Select board a number NOT to exceed..."
The community is expecting the Override on 3/23, so Shaffer is recommending for the SB to keep to that date. "The train is leaving the station."

Andy Churchill: "We need another BCG meeting next week and the Select Board should not make a decision this Monday night."

Gerry Weiss: "It's not feeling good to hear you're not ready. Delay is a bad idea."

Alberto Rodriguez (School Super)
How can we deliver school services cheaper? What are we going to bring back? Two different budgets (elementary and Region) but we're trying to integrate them and think more like a seamless K-12. Some cuts may go, so may come back. I met with Principals and they are working on a reprioritized list of cuts but will get them to me later.

In other words: they are still working on it. But says Mr. Rodriguez, "We will come up with something that everyone dislikes," eliciting the first chuckles of the meeting.

Princess Stephanie: We can still move forward and give the Select board a recommendation. We're committed to keeping the 3/23 date? (Andy Churchill and Regional School Chair say "no")

Town Manager uses metaphor, "We're not a speedboat, we're more like the Titanic." Yikes! (A few folks jump in to correct that image.)

Stephanie mentions the $12,000 cost for a stand alone election if after the normal 3/23 town election.

Alberto Rodriguez says you would get a better turnout on the already set 3/23 date.
Stephanie closes the discussion by saying it's going to be 3/23. Now moves on to THE AMOUNT.

Town Manager: "We're right around the $1.9 million figure." (Gee, he must have read the Amherst Bulletin.)

Stephanie moves on the "the form" of the Override. Gerry Weiss wants to talk about the "surplus" the town seems to find every year, that goes into Free Cash savings. That with-or-without an Override we will still have a surplus (because of cuts.)

Musante: Recent surplus was about $720,000. Previous two years was a little over $1 million each year. Reserves are beginning "to rebound." Better than they were two years ago.

Sorry folks. I gotta go pick up my daughter. Will make a few calls in the next few hours to see what happened.


Anonymous said...

Credit where due. Great job Larrey.

Anonymous said...

"We're more like the Titanic"

Captains go down with their ship. ....I've been waiting for this for a long time.

Anonymous said...

I don't blame Mr. Weiss if he lost patience with the Library Trustees. As a group, they have not been playing it straight with us for months.

This latest gambit, "we want the money but we don't want to take a position", is just another episode in a continuing saga. If there's a Law of Conservation of Wierdness in Amherst, then the nonsense has flowed disproportionately for the time being toward the Libraries. And I say this with apologies to apparently sane Trustee Chris Hoffman.

I never thought that I would see the name "Gerry Weiss" and the word "browbeat" in the same sentence. And if that sentence is accurate (always a question given Mr. Kelley's sometimes tenuous grasp on reality), I'm quite sure that Mr. Weiss was pushed to it.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

Well I believe Mr. Morse, you once said I would make a Hell of a good expert witness for the prosecution.

(Although at some other point you mentioned I would make a "lousy sympathetic victim.")

My grasp on reality is pretty damn good--right up until about nightfall.

Ed said...

It is not going to pass. And without the schools getting any money, folks favoring that will hold off for a 2nd attempt.

Bullies always come in last....

Anonymous said...

I'm voting yes.

But this is an awfully school-heavy override, especially to the regional schools. Even the School Committee can't agree on the allocation between elementary schools and the Region.

Last override, my neighbor, a former Amherst School Committeeman from way back, said that he was voting no. He said, "The schools will be fine." I'm not seeing anything to make older voters think otherwise. (Now talk about cutting high school football, basketball, and/or hockey, and that changes things. I'm not kidding.)

I still wish we had a menu, so that we could come away with something. But the menu supporters including the FCCC seem to be outgunned. Remind me again: why do we appoint these citizen task forces?

I agree that this looks like a loser in a wierd coalition of back-to-nature retrogressives, LarryK's anti-taxer cranks, the elderly, and those who find themselves mortgaged to the hilt.. When I start to see voters who opposed the last override coming out of the closet publicly in support (Carol Gray?), I'll start to feel better. But right now it does look like it's going down.

I still think that the "no override, no how" position is a dangerous game. But you've heard that before.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

I'm not a "no override, no how" kind of guy. $1 million Override with some concessions from the unions, some cuts, and some expenditure from reserves and I'm there.

Frankly I was a tad amazed at the BCG meeting yesterday. Reminded me of crabs in a bucket all desperately trying to escape, but as soon as one almost gets out the others pull 'em back.

Taylor said...

I am confused why our elected leaders and their appointed executives are so scared of providing their constituents who voted for them with the power to make a determination as to what they want to spend their tax dollars on? I would suport an overide that allowed the public to choose funding for specific items. However, handing the town a $1.9 million dollar blank check when it is very clear they have can not articulate where exactly the money will be spent is a prospect I can not endorse.

LarryK4 said...

Well, they don't want to pit one department against another. You know how government hates competition.

Alisa V. Brewer said...

Speaking for myself only (as usual, in blogging)

...the hesitation you see around a menu isn't because we want a blank check, really -- it's figuring out the detail level of the menu that will be enough detail for most people -- and then, does that detail box us in?

A menu that includes x number of firefighters is pretty straightforward, sure. But what about the Collections or Town Clerk's office assistant FTE we're really sure we need? How many people are going to vote to keep those?

Unfortunately, the Commonwealth doesn't allow us to put a lot of detail/context in the question, and I am cynical enough to agree with those that say "of course people will support a firefighter, but they ain't gonna support a clerical"

...and yes, we've already cut those collections-type clerical/admin/etc folks way back and they're already working much harder than ever, just like in the private sector. It's easy for someone to say, sure, let's have x numbers of firefighters available per shift, but how do you say let's make sure all the back office stuff that needs to be done gets done so the Town is still collecting fees, paying employees, etc?

And as to being boxed in -- what if some great new grant magically appears, so that something the override is supposed to be "buying" gets covered part way through the year via that new grant? Would menu override voters feel offended that a decision was made to restore some other cut -- quite possibly in a completely unrelated area -- at that point?

I really do appreciate your thoughts on this, because it is a huge challenge!

Taylor said...

Alisa-Thank you for your detailed explanation. It is thoughtful and articulate. However, I think you must realize why 2 firefighters are more important to the town's people than a Part-Time Clerk. If it takes an extra two weeks for my tax abatement to processed that is accecptable. If I call 911 because my child has an air-way obstruction and can't breathe and there are no ambulances available the consquences are far more dire.

There are certain core services that must be suported and require an immediacy in their delivery. No one is stating the collections clerk is not necessary, but the loss of the position does not have the gravity of the loss of two firefighters.

The two firefigthers are the first cuts to be replaced. Why not just put it on the ballot as a seperate line item, knowing it has a decent chance to pass and then any additional money that comes in from other sources can be applied to other important needs that have merit?

Anonymous said...

I think you miss Alisa's point. It is easy to see the value of an adequately staffed fire department (as clearly you do). It is less easy to see the value of more mundane, behind the scenes town services which, though not life and death, are nonetheless essential if town functions and services (many of which are far from optional) are to carry on effectively. At some point, though I know this is not a popular point of view on this blog, I think we need to trust the powers that be to lay out the range of priorities they would like to see restored through an override and we either buy in, or not.

Taylor said...

Actually, I clearly see her point and I think I acknowledged the necessity of such mundane positions. However, many do not see it. By placing a menu item for firefighter positions, that item will pass. Meaning the tax levy will support those positions. Then if additional funding is secured through local aid or other resources, which lets face it, does happen every year, that money can be used to fill the less obvious, but just as essential needs. Use the override to support functions you know the voters will approve. The fact is people trust their elected leader less than ever before and a "trust us we know what were doing" mentality is not going to get a majority of voters to support this override. A non-menu override is destined to fail and the town is going to end up with no additional financial resources. I am trying to lay out a plan where they can at least get some of what they want.

Anonymous said...

The problem with your plan Taylor is that a balanced budget has to be voted and approved by Town Meeting, which requires us knowing how much revenue can be realistically expected. We can't just say we'll keep that position on the books while we wait to see "if" local aid increases. It's either part of a balanced budget picture, or it's not.

Anonymous said...

Overide/Menu Overide

What gets cut in both scenarios?

I haven't seen hard numbers?

Taylor said...

Anon-You are throwing up red herrings. You know that the budget is not voted on until mid June. You will have a lot better handle on local aid and other funding resources well before that. The fact is you just don't want anyone to have a say in how the override money is spent.

Anonymous said...

Not true Taylor. I just have been paying attention to the process (including the past years of considerable paring down of the budget and the services and programs that they support) and am ready to trust the opinion of the town, school and library administrators (along with the citizen boards that oversee them) about what is needed next year to protect what they define (more broadly than the average citizen might) as core. I get that you're not at that same place and respect your opinion. I just happen to believe that putting a menu override on the ballot opens us up to results that threaten the invisible but still essential aspects of what makes this town run. I also trust that they won't tax to the full amount of the levy or expand the restoration list beyond the plan put forth to the voters if additional revenue presents itself. Voting for an override does require a leap of faith and I'm one voter willing to take it.

LarryK4 said...

Well last week the "opinion of the town, school and library administrators (along with the citizen boards that oversee them)" was the state would cut both Local Aid and Chapter 70 School Funds by 10%.

The Governor actually proposed a 0% cut in BOTH. A two million dollar difference to the town.

Yes if that plan by the I'm-running-for-reelection Governor holds up, and Amherst had passed an Override on March 23 town officials could defer taking the full amount of the tax levy increase at the start of the new Fiscal Year.

But, I assure you, next year town officials would take that full amount plus the 2.5% increase allowed by Proposition two and a half.

Overrides are FOREVER.

Anonymous said...

Larry (I think) raised an interesting idea earlier:
tie the language of a more mosest override to an agreement with school and other town employess to forego some of the COLA/step increases next year.

Is there a way (practically, legally) to do that? Not only
does it reflect reality (with UMass staff not seeing any
COLAs for the past 3 years) but also addresses Anon-responding-to-Taylor's point that it might make for
a positive outcome on March 23.

-Your Friend

Anonymous said...

overrides are not forever. Towns can pass them each year if 2.5% does not give enough revenue to meet their needs. You're wrong. In any blog you write it, you're still wrong.

LarryK4 said...

The only two General Operation Budget Overrides this town EVER passed (not the 8 or 10 Capital Debt Exclusions) are still generating extra revenue to this very day.

In fact, the ONLY way to neutralize those two previous Overrides would be to pass an Underride--something the town of Amherst has NEVER done.

Anonymous said...

Dear Your Friend:

In answer to your question, No. And the fact that the Bulletin never acknowledges that the answer is "no" is one of the bones I have to pick with them. There is no political mechanism for their (and Larry's)wet dream vision of a grand compromise involving unions, reserves, taxes, etc.

Instead the Bulletin editorial board (behind their curtain) blames our elected officials for "not stepping up", as they put it. But we've divided political power into little slices that give no one the impetus and the authority to do anything.

I suppose that the unions could put a big ad in the paper (whether the Bulletin would offer free space remains to be seen) offering to give back IF the March 23rd override is passed. Ready.....hold your breath for that.

We're in a town that discourages leadership and encourages sitting on one's hands. We've lived with it for years. It's great for the status quo and horrible for progress. And a slim majority of voters opted for the status quo in the last Charter fight; those folks love it living here and believe that Town Meeting etc. gets credit for it (just don't ask them to run for TM!). I respectfully disagree with the cause-and-effect premise here.

Criticizing and vilifying the volunteers who are wrestling with the limitations placed upon them is the height of cynicism, coming from what Mr. Kelley rightly calls the anonymous cowardly nitwits here and elsewhere.

Rich Morse

LarryK4 said...

The Bulletin and Gazette rely on the power of the press--written words, ink on paper.

Those days are over. Too bad. For the first time in a long, long while they were right on the money.

Anonymous said...
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