Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fitness Zombie Dies Another Death

Blame the victim

In spite of the recent headline that the Leading Edge Health Club in Greenfield had "No Plans to close the gym" the well earned end came swiftly anyway as today their doors are locked, the music silenced and machines switched permanently off.

Apparently Home Depot did not want to forgive $300,000 in unpaid bills rung up over the past two years, probably figuring any business partnership that can fall that far behind in such a short time is not a good bet to turn around instantly simply because one loser partner purges the other.

I guess the good thing about charging a ridiculously low monthly fee is that members can't be owed too much in lost pre-paid memberships. But it is still bad for the industry, sowing seeds of distrust and giving people the wrong impression of the true cost to run a health club properly--which is reflected in normal monthly rates.

Industry standard these days is easily in the $49/month range. So when someone promises to provide the same service for $9.95/month, beware.

If it sounds to good to be true..

Still a "Grand Opening" sign over three years later

Ch 22 TV news jumps on the story

Parking Ticket Slump

Only the top left gray screen is illuminated at night

Even worse than the beleaguered Cherry Hill Golf Course, Amherst parking ticket spoils are down a dramatic 25% half-way through the fiscal year, currently totaling $111,824 vs. last year at this time, $148,527.

The new parking system needs some getting used to, so enforcement officers have been spending more time showing folks how to use the parking machines and less time writing out tickets. The new machines can be a tad confusing because after you pay for time it does not confirm the payment and tell you to "have a nice day."

The machines are also hard to read in low light conditions, although they do take credit cards and payments can be made via a smartphone. Unfortunately those transactions have a slight catch: "Each mPARK transaction is subject to a minimum $1.00 purchase, made in $1.00 increments, plus a nominal service fee." So if you wish to run into a store for coffee and a paper you may want to park at the remaining traditional parking meters that take good old American change.

The Spring Street Parking lot in town center was also under construction for almost six months, which could account for substantial lost ticket revenues.

Noise and Pot

Frat Row neighbor, 374 N Pleasant St, Pi Kappa Alpha. Managed by Kendrick Properties

Over the weekend Amherst police and fire personnel paid professional visits to this frathouse strategically located on the Gateway to UMass. No, that's not unusual.

According to APD logs: 2:27 AM (early Saturday morning)

Narrative: Loud Party
Music could be heard upon arrival.

Earlier that evening Amherst Fire Department responded to a smoke alarm alert due to "pot smoke near detector."

Interestingly the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals denied the conversion of a nearby (138 Nutting Avenue) sorority to a fraternity precisely because of incidents like this. In that case, the new owners have now filed suit against the town and ZBA.

On Wednesday night the Planning Board will take up a similar issue and discuss making recommendations to the Zoning Board of Appeals, who has ultimate jurisdiction:

Eagle Crest Property - 156 Sunset Avenue - to convert a dimensionally non-conforming single-family dwelling to a two-family dwelling.

And of course "two-family" does not mean a pair of 'Leave It To Beaver' households with a stay at Mom, working Dad, and two precocious kids. It means (at least) eight UMass students.

Ownership card for 374 North Pleasant Street

Monday, January 30, 2012

Busy weekend for Amherst Fire Department

Amherst Fire Department ambulance

Apparently in a "college town," unseasonably mild weather and copious quantities of alcohol go together like pizza and, ummm, beer.

In addition to numerous noise complaints all over town fielded by Amherst Police Department, their brother-and-sister First Responders were kept on the go all weekend long as well, dealing with the other byproduct of too much alcohol--a legal product, when consumed without restraint could cause death.

AFD summary of runs 1/27/12 through 1/30/12
Note cluster of ETOH (alcohol poisoning) calls at UMass late Friday early Saturday morning. And yes, that did tie up all four on duty ambulances, so that the only thing left protecting the entire town of Amherst (for fire or medical) was the Student Force--God love them.

Oh the irony: Irresponsible actions of students required the more upstanding responsible students (Student Force) to come to the aid of the town.

Party Apartment of the Weekend

Puffton Village Apartments #323-#334

When you share walls with a bevy of other apartments, a little consideration would go a long way--especially after midnight. And it would save on those $300 noise tickets.

According to APD logs:
12:30 AM (early Sunday morning): RP complaining of loud music, drums and a barking dog.

Narrative: Extremely loud music and voices heard upon arrival. Such noise did disturb the reasonable quiet of Amherst residents. All residents were extremely uncooperative throughout our interaction. Approximately 15-20 guests cleared from residence.

Arrested For Noise TBL violation (and transported to APD headquarters):
Dennis Lynch, Puffton Village #330, Amherst, MA, age 21
Eric Russo, Puffton Village #330, Amherst, MA, age 21
Zachary Munsell, Puffton Village #330, Amherst, MA, age 21

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow...

At least they used red ink for Fy14's $135,654

Amherst Finance Director Sandy Pooler exhibited the same curious protect-at-all-costs-the-expensive-game-of-golf attitude oozed by his predecessors John Musante (now Town Manager) and Nancy Maglione, relying on the tried and true bad weather cliche for yet another abysmal performance at the Cherry Hill Golf Course budget half-way mark.

Curiously he declared revenues only "slightly down". Hmm...17% is "slightly down"!? Are these not the same town officials who screech louder than an Irish banshee if state aid to the town is reduced by 1 or 2%?

And Mr. Pooler fails to mention the $226,308 in capital improvements slated over the next five years for the ailing enterprise. But since expensive capital items (as with insurance and employee benefits) come out of a budget separate from golf course operations, town officials hope nobody will notice.

Makes you wonder what else they're hiding.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Garage Band Shuffle

370 Pelham Road, Amherst

Unseasonable warm weather last night was unfriendly to Amherst's overburdened first responders--and I fear tonight may even be worse.

According to APD logs (12:47 AM this morning):

Excessive noise from a live band and approximately 60 guests. Noise citation issued.

Steven Placzek, 370 Pelham Rd., Amherst, age 21

Friday, January 27, 2012

Busted before he hurt someone

South Pleasant Street 8:15 PM (in front of my house)

Cuffed and heading towards a cruiser

After receiving a tip about an erratic auto heading north via a driver using a cell phone, the responding officer only needed to follow the car in question for a few seconds and pulled him over for driving on the wrong side of the road--a busy travel road less than a mile from Amherst town center.

Two other cruisers quickly arrived as back up. A senior officer administered a field sobriety test. The Perp failed. Now he's going to jail!
According to APD logs:

RP reports white Pontiac all over the road and almost struck several other vehicles. Granby police also advised APD of this vehicle as they took a report of erratic operation as well.

MV stop for marked lanes. Observed operator (Gallagher) to have slow motor skills and pin dot pupils. Gallagher admitted to nodding off as he was on several prescriptions to wean him off heroin. Gallagher given Field Sobriety Test and several indicators of impairment were present. Gallagher was placed under arrest for OUI drugs.

Arrest: Joseph Gallagher, 120 Mill Street, Wilkes Barre, PA, age 26

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Glowing Review?

The worst state report card in seven years for Amherst Elementary Schools

Not sure what Amherst Regional School Committee members were looking at in a dispassionate way (it's hard not to be passionate about a personable lady) when they came up with such a saintly review of Maria Geryk's first year as superintendent without "interim" in front of it.

At $16,413 vs state average of $13,055, Amherst elementary schools have the highest average cost per student in the Valley , a student/teacher ratio of 10 to 1 when the state average is 13.9 to 1.

And with Amherst average teacher salaries at $66,000 that enviably low student teacher ratio adds up. Now throw in the 21 administrators (Elementary and Region) making over $85,000; which is why our average cost per child for "administration" is a whopping $698 vs state average of $446.

But we get less than whopping results--especially with low income and minority children, who failed to reach proficiency at a higher rate than state average. Our Special Education results are certainly not special, with 82% failing to reach proficiency vs state average of 70%. Particularly disconcerting since Maria Geryk came from a special ed background.

A background that does not, however, include a doctorate...in a town where coffee baristas have one.

Even though Regional School Committee member Debbie Gould's husband is employed by the Regional Schools she penned the only part of the evaluation made public. No direct conflict of interest I suppose, but a little open disclosure would have been nice.

Like when Dr. Rebecca Woodland from the UMass School of Education (where Ms. Geryk attended) appeared before the School Committee 9/22/10 to sing the praise of Maria, she could have mentioned the no-bid $96,000 teacher training contract Ms. Geryk gave her that very week.

According to School Committee minutes: "Rebecca Woodland, parent and UMass education professor, stated that she believes it is unwarranted and unwise to go forward with a Superintendent search and doing so would amount to a vote of no confidence in Ms. Geryk. She noted that she has worked with Superintendents across the state and Ms. Geryk has accomplished more in her seven months on the job than most new superintendents accomplish in three to five years."

And considering our lack of Adequate Yearly Progress this past year, Dr. Woodland's expensive services do not seem to have resulted in better teaching.

Such a glowing review after one year as "interim superintendent" and now a full year as real deal superintendent does not give Ms. Geryk much incentive to do anything differently. Maybe the schools do not require an entire 12 step rehab program, but they could unquestionably benefit by the first step: Admit there's a problem!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who ya gonna call?

AFD on the scene, Kirby Theater Amherst College, 10:30 AM

One of the reasons Amherst College should increase Payment In Lieu Of Taxes to the town...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

APD doubles down on rowdyism

APD confiscated keg stash. Friday night acquisition, on left

There's absolutely no question the fine increase to $300 for alcohol related activities in town are working, and yes they are being paid.

Last night Finance Director Sandy Pooler told the Amherst Select Board that at the half-way point this budget year court fines collected have doubled, totaling $111,000 compared to $56,000 and $54,000 previously. Unfortunately the party season expands and gets meaner in the Spring.

On Friday night around 11:00 PM Puffton Village security called APD as they spied a handful of college aged kids lugging a keg of beer towards an apartment, who when discovered, dropped the keg and scattered, kissing goodbye perfectly good beer and their $100 keg/tap deposit.

Probably cheaper, however, than a $300 ticket for "possession of an unlicensed keg" (one of the newly increased in fees town bylaw), or being arrested for under aged drinking. In basketball it's called "hearing footsteps": when a player hurries a shot --and misses--because he thinks an opponent is bearing down on him.

The town manager recently acknowledged that both police and fire departments may be understaffed. At the rate the ticket revenues are going, Amherst could fund a pair of new positions for each department.

A sin tax for the greater good.

In Heaven There Is No Beer, but in Amherst...

Amherst Select Board mediates

Amherst Select Board 1/23/12

So in addition to abiding by the School Committee's wishes to have a joint meeting February 6 to fill the seat left vacant by Steve Rivkin's departure because, as eloquently stated by Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, it would be beyond "weird" not to indulge their wishes, the board last night also delayed approving changes to Personnel Procedures Manual that the Personal Board has been working on for three years to allow Jones Library Trustees to discuss it at their next meeting.

The changes seem to take away authority from the Town Manager and give Library Trustees--elected volunteers--power to hire and fire all employees. Union rep Tina Swift told the Select Board "impact bargaining"(on a contract that was signed only last month) needs to happen with Service Employees International Union before they adopt the revised Personnel Procedures Manual.

Librarian Susan Hugus told the board a lot of employees "are very uncomfortable about this"; and even the Town Manager agreed with delaying a decision because the original intent of the change was "to provide clarity, not sow confusion."

Monday, January 23, 2012

APD Bags Arsonist Red Handed

Barbecued Dumpster at Hobart Lane. "Arson Watch" sign was at top left.

Heads up police work by a patrol officer in an unmarked car early Sunday morning (12:45 AM) may have brought an end to the serial dumpster arson cases that have plagued North Amherst for over a year now. When the officer spotted three young men near the dumpster and detained them for questioning, one individual--Travis Consolo--was acting particularly nervous.

And for good reason: While the officer was questioning him, the dumpster--which had ArsonWatch reward poster affixed to it-- exploded into a conflagration. AFD put out the fire; Consolo, a UMass student, was arrested.

Since August of 2010 this particular dumpster has been torched 30 times. Police and Firefighters distributed informational flyers to the immediate neighborhood around Hobart Lane back in October, reinforcing the reward offer posted on the abused dumpster.

Arrested for "Burn Personalty":
Travis William Consolo, 143 Birch Bark Drive, Hanson, MA, age 21

A recent (bad) example

ArsonWatch reward poster like the one attached to burned dumpster

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Occupy Amherst Town Hall

Amherst Town Hall in the middle of a storm 12:15 PM

Occupiers pulled a George-Washington-crossing-the-Delaware and successfully orchestrated an occupation of Amherst Town Hall...which is closed on Saturday.

And even if they managed to shut it down during normal business hours, would anyone in town even notice?

Friday, January 20, 2012

No Exit Plan (same old, same old)

Leading Edge Amherst. Sign went up six weeks before business died

The Greenfield Recorder 1/20/12

Well considering Joanne DeLong and Peter Earle gave members, instructors and the general public only a couple hours notice before they scuttled their flagship The Leading Edge in Amherst last year, I'm not surprised half of that dynamic due now publicly proclaims the Leading Edge (rowboat) in Greenfield, has "no plans to close the gym."

Planning was never their strong point.

Obviously it's w-a-y more fun to plan for opening a business rather than closing, just like it is far merrier to attend a wedding or baptism vs. a funeral or divorce proceeding.

But consumers had better be wary--very wary. Both in Greenfield and the one maybe opening soon in the same complex in Amherst as the former Leading Edge. Considering their business model (low-cost, pack them in the door to sign up, then hope they never come in to use the facility) only took 13 months to accumulate massive amounts of red ink, it's hard to imagine a sudden turnaround simply because one partner ditches the other.

Apparently customer service is not a strong point either

And strangely enough, in this case, the partner getting ditched--Peter Earle--has far more fitness experience than Joanne DeLong, who jumped into the fitness field a tad late in life, with her main experience fighting with Earle at the Gold's Gym, Inc in Amherst before it morphed into The Leading Edge which only lasted another two years before suddenly going out of business.

As Scotty, Chief Engineer on the good ship Enterprise, used to say, "Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."
This from the Greenfield Recorder:

"According to court documents, Greenfield Fitness Inc. is in default of approximately $307,000 in back rent, real estate taxes and maintenance costs. The fitness center has routinely missed payments of maintenance costs ($46,420), real estate taxes ($54,896), and back rent ($205,524) since May 2010. The business opened in March of 2009."

10/24/11 They certainly cut corners with their Greenfield sign (now a weathered banner)

Throwing my hat into the ring

Hat by Jada
Amherst School Committee
RE: Open Seat

Please consider this a formal application to enter the contest for the current open seat on the Amherst School Committee to be filled via a joint meeting with the School Committee and Amherst Select Board.

As a father with two young children in the Amherst public schools, former small business owner with 28 years experience managing a service oriented operation, and life-long multigenerational resident of the town, I feel unequivocally qualified to serve and look forward to a lively tenure.


Larry Kelley


UPDATE (7:55 AM) Of course one of things I forgot to mention is my PR communication skill. For instance, I would have made sure the school district's snow cancellation line (413 362-1898) this morning had the correct day/date for informing multitudes of parents whether school is open for business (or any delays) today.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The new face of Amherst College?

Jim Brassord pitches Amherst College reconstruction projects to Amherst Historical Commission

Todd Diacon and Jim Brassord pitch BID to Amherst Select Board

With recent appearances before the Select Board to support the formation of a Business Improvement District as well as the Planning Board and Historical Commission for new construction and major renovations, Jim Brassord seems to be the poster boy for all things Amherst College, although President Biddy Martin did get out for the grand reopening of the stately Lord Jeffery Inn.

Amherst College President Biddy Martin (does not require a microphone)

And both the BID and Lord Jeffery Inn will contribute greatly to the revitalization of downtown Amherst. Amherst College is the largest landowner in town and even though the vast majority of their empire is tax exempt, they are still the town's largest taxpayer contributing about $350,000 last year for 40 some odd houses used to shelter professors and of course their profitable nine hole golf course that puts the town's moribund municipal offering to shame.

The Lord Jeffery Inn, open for business

Amherst College is also refurbishing the old historical Baptist church downtown for office space and launching a $200 million, six year construction project, for a new Life Science Building on campus. And all these construction/renovation projects will be protected by the Amherst Fire Department.

Amherst College owned former Baptist Church in the heart of downtown Amherst

Former Town Manger Larry Shaffer crunched the numbers four years ago to discover Amherst College cost the town about $120,000 annually for fire/ambulance protection. That year the College, kindly enough, donated $120,000 to the town's General Fund.

Ahh, but then the stock market slid into the toilet and Amherst College's endowment declined from $1.3 billion down to a paltry $1 billion. In response they shelved the $20 million reconstruction of the Lord Jeff, and reduced the Payment in Lieu of Taxes to Amherst from $120,000 to $90,000 and let Amherst taxpayers go back to subsidizing emergency services.

But now their endowment has W-A-Y more than recovered, sitting at a historic high, $1.6 billion. The sparkling renewed Lord Jeff is open, and work is about to commence on the former Baptist Church they purchased two years ago for $2.3 million, over twice its assessed value. But even at that lower value the building generated $16,000 in taxes to the town. And at today's whopping tax rate ($19.74/$1,000) would have generated $20,000.

Amherst College, around that same time, purchased and removed from the tax rolls houses on Hitchcock and Snell Street that today would also be generating $20,000 if still on the tax rolls.

22 Snell Street
14 Hitchcock Street

Most recently the town was overly generous with the Spring Street Parking lot renovation at the Lord Jeff's front door, spending over $350,000 in enterprise fund money and providing almost two years worth of work for an already busy enough DPW.

Spring Street Parking lot adjacent to the Lord Jeff

So let me recap: Over the past three years Amherst College has added to the protection portfolio of the Amherst Fire Department, removed buildings from the tax rolls and reduced annual payments to the town, all while their endowment has grown significantly.

Currently Amherst, the town, is cobbling together the FY13 budget which goes into effect July 1, 2012. And for the first time in many a year there's no gloom and doom talk emanating from Town Hall about devastating budget cuts, although the schools, as usual, are looking at a $500,000 shortfall.

Since Amherst the College and Amherst the Town are synonymous with education it would be both fitting and nice if the College donated a chunk of change to either the town for new fire/ambulance equipment, or the schools to help close that $500,000 sinkhole.

And I'm sure Town Manager John Musante or Superintendent Maria Geryk would buy Biddy Martin (or Jim Brassord) a beer at the Boltwood Tavern.

Recent typical weekend for AFD (note calls to Amherst College compared to UMass)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shadow O'er the Art

Miss Emily gazes at the tree casting a shadow

Created by artist David Fichter in 2005, using $35,000 in privately raised money, the historic mural along the side of West Cemetery (where Miss Emily is buried) still looks striking. And yes, as senior planner Jonathan Tucker pointed out on Facebook, the graffiti "artists" have shown proper respect (or maybe it's the special coating/sealer that went over the finished work).

Meanwhile, on an adjacent wall...

Occupy the Web!

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Go Google! I was so startled by this, I forgot what I was going to search for.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Why wouldn't we want to do that?"

The Amherst School Committee voted unanimously this evening to fill the seat left vacant by Steve Rivkin, although Superintendent Maria Geryk seemed skeptical that it is indeed necessary.

Once the Amherst Select Board is formally notified of this positive vote they will have time to discuss it at their January 26 meeting, issue a public call for candidates, and choose a winner at a joint meeting with the School Committee on February 6.

The new member will serve until the next election, April 4. The next few months are particularly important as the School Committees (all Amherst SC members are also members of the four town Regional School Committee along with Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury) takes up discussion of the FY13 budget.

The Regional High School budget currently faces a $500,000 shortfall and the three other towns are already griping about their expensive assessments. Just today a highly contentious $1.4 million Library Override in Shutesbury was decided by a single disputed vote ruled valid, thus increasing taxes all the more.

According to the regional agreement, three out of the four towns must vote in favor of their assessment or else it's back to the drawing board.

Art & Graffiti

So yes, the recent arrest of two Bad Boy perps for tagging the fence behind Rao's made me wonder about other sites in town where the line between art and graffiti is maybe not so clearly defined.

Amherst Cinema building. Combination art/graffiti
Eagle Crest Property Management graffiti (probably a disgruntled customer of either Eagle Crest or APD)

Art Works, Main Street (definitely art)
Snell Street Bridge. Due for replacement this year (not because of graffiti)


Amherst Town Hall 1/17/12

Panicked citizens flooded Amherst Town Hall with calls, emails and texts this morning as folks awakened to discover a mysterious white substance coating the entire town.

Video at 11:00 (if it's still present).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tag, you're it

Graffiti filled fence behind Rao's

Amherst Police arrested two old-enough-to-know-better men late Saturday afternoon for "tagging" this fence behind Rao's Coffee, a popular spot for hipsters and townies to hang out for the great coffee and free wifi.

Thus, is you are going to deface property, you probably should wait until after a popular business closes.
Cuong Ly, Sunderland, MA, Age 24. Arrested for defacing property, drug possession (class D) and warrant initiated by another agency.

Tyrus Stinson, Belchertown, MA. Age 27. Arrested for defacing property.

Cuong Ly previous exploits

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Squeaky Wheel

TMCC turns the table on reporter Scott Merzbach 1/11/12

So third time was the charm for the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee request for reporter Scott Merzbach to "join us" at the table for a friendly discussion of public relations in general and free press for their open house town meeting recruitment drive 1/31 in particular.

Pat Holland pulled the "I'm hard of hearing" routine and Mr. Merzbach was too much the gentleman to turn that down.

The Committee had listed the reporter as an agenda item, so I thought maybe they were going to upbraid him for something or other the way I was at the last Town Meeting for daring to use flash photography. But no, they just wanted to hit him up for free PR advice.

Although during the discussion they seemed to fully understand the basics. If you want to get media attention, send out a press release. Or, apparently, put them on your agenda as a discussion item.

Carol Gray: "You're welcome to come on our bus tour, Scott"

Daily Hampshire Gazette Friday the 13th (appropriately enough)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Da Boot

If you owe Amherst ticket money, don't park near Town Hall

Now if only Amherst was this aggressive with recovering those $300 nuisance house violation tickets, our neighborhoods would be soooooo much better off. And if UMass really cared, they would assist the town by linking payment of these fines to the issuance of a diploma--like they do with their parking tickets (not that party hardy types have a high graduation rate).

Yes, within hours the fines were paid