Thursday, December 31, 2015

Half Way To Bankruptcy

Cherry Hill winter wonderland (note DPW did not even bother to plow the parking lot)

Once again at the fiscal year half-way point for the golf business that straddles two calendar years, the municipally owned Cherry Hill Golf Course is, as usual, on a fast track to economic ruin. 

Only it's the taxpayers who cover the losses, not the tax-exempt White Elephant business. 

At closing in mid-November (yes, they did not stay open to take advantage of the warmest December in history) total revenues are a pathetic $99,144, down from last year's $102, 347 at this same time.

And last year they went on to finish FY15 with $211,680 total intake vs $298,133 spent, or a lost of $86,453.

But this year's budget has an extra $16,000 in capital appropriations for yet another lawnmower, so safe bet they will break the $100,000 mark for losses when the books close (June 30) on FY16.  This will about match the $103,964 lost in FY14.

Hey a $100K here and $100K there,  pretty soon you're talking real money.  Money that could go towards hiring a couple of badly needed first responders.

Next spring when all our ambulances are out and AFD Central and North Station are empty, Dispatch should tell a 911 caller to try the golf course.  Maybe a groundskeeper in a golf cart will be free to respond, as they sure aren't overly busy serving golf customers.

Status Quo Housing Allocation

Amherst Housing Authority Board of Commissioners

The Amherst Housing Authority Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 on Monday to set the HUD voucher payment standards for 2016 at 113% of Fair Market Rent for Amherst and 97% for Extended area which covers 388 total vouchers and gives all of them a few dollars more in monthly subsidies.

Commission member TracyLee Boutilier voted against the motion saying the Board should show "more compassion," pointing out a $10 month increase in payments for a family living in a  three bedroom apartment is too little.

The problem is Housing and Urban Development is only giving the Amherst Housing Authority an extra $38,443 in 2016 going from the current $3,077,917 up to $3,116,360.

And with the approved payment standards for 2016 the 238 Amherst vouchers will cost an additional $25,812 and the balance of them another $10,260. To suddenly increase the subsidy any higher would mean defunding some vouchers to make up the difference.

If the AHA went to 120% of the Fair Market Rate for Amherst, Executive Director Denise LeDuc estimates 35-40 vouchers would need to be terminated to fund the increase in monthly payments to the other 200 or so Amherst recipients.

Last year the average cost paid out for all 388 vouchers came to $649/month or $7,788 annually.

The problem in Amherst is too little housing supply combined with too great a demand.  Students who wish to live off campus pack themselves into sometimes sub-standard units and drive up the prices, forcing out families and blue collar workers who cannot compete.

 Click to enlarge/read

Although the recent passage of the town's Rental Registration Permit Bylaw and the successful completion of Kendrick Place, with more large mixed-use buildings on the immediate horizon, the future for affordable housing is starting to look a little brighter.

Five story mixed use Kendrick Place (mostly residential) opened September 1st

Story Of The Year 2015

John Musante

The sudden tragic death of Town Manager John Musante on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning last September, just as summer turns to fall, is my local story of the year. How could it not be?

Like a large projectile fired into a calm expanse of water the detonation created ripples bordering on a rip tide that will be felt for many years to come.

Not that he was the perfect Town Manager. Heck, he wasn't even the first choice of the Select Board almost ten years ago when they chose, ugh, Larry Shaffer over him.

But the Select Board got it right the second the time around when he was chosen (2010) without an expensive time consuming search after Mr. Shaffer suddenly disappeared. And as I said at the time, immorality is something you never have to worry about with John Musante. Or bad financial decisions.

Although his diffidence in dealing with NIMBYs did cost us greatly in losing the Gateway Project, a collaboration with UMass that could have resulted in a potential $50+ million addition to the tax rolls in badly needed commercial/residential mixed use development.

And the original solar array project on the old landfill was also sabotaged by NIMBYs, although he turned that around just before his death.

While our current form of government is inefficient and outmoded, with John Musante at the helm the good ship Amherst always stayed on a slow steady course of financial solvency.

Still, the vital asset I will miss most about Mr. Musante was his keen sense of humor. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Appointing A New Leader

Town Hall in a fog since untimely death of John Musante September 20th

Since Amherst citizens are nothing if not outspoken the Amherst Select Board -- who expects to appoint a new Town Manager this summer -- wishes to hear your input at three upcoming forums about criteria for hiring that new leader:

Bernie Lynch from Community Paradigm Associates, seen here at 12/21 Select Board meeting, will facilitate

My only suggested requirement is that he/she have a thick skin.  But I'm sure they will be forewarned about the blogosphere.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Déjà Vu Ethics Violation?

Amherst Select Board: town's highest ranking elected office

Interestingly the Select Board has been through this Conflict of Interest issue before, so you would think history would not repeat itself.

 Click to enlarge/read

Back in 2007 rookie Select Board members Alisa Brewer and Professor Rob Kusner voted to allow UMass free use of effluent water (in a close 3-2 vote) that normally would have cost them over $100,000 annually.  I instantly filed a complaint with the State Ethics Division.

 Note Ms. Brewer's body language

Interestingly they found no violation because the board members had (sort of) made a PUBLIC disclosure at the  9/17 meeting immediately before the discussion/vote.

And they had filed a disclosure form with the Town Clerk, although those forms were filed a week AFTER the 9/17/2007 Select Board meeting.

Note this disclosure filed 9/25 was for a 9/17 meeting

Whereas this time around Ms. Brewer still has the 2007 disclosure form on file, but she did NOT make a public announcement during the 12/21 meeting about her UMass affiliations.

Rob Kusner's disclosure filed 9/24 to cover a 9/17 meeting

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Conflict of Interest?

 Interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek, SB Chair Alisa Brewer

Attorney General Maura Healey
Division of Open Government

I wish to file a formal complaint about the 12/21 Amherst Select Board meeting that was chaired by Alisa Brewer, who shows up in the UMass/Amherst People Finder as a UMass employee, as does her husband, Steven Brewer.

Ms. Brewer did not publicly announce her potential conflict of interest when the Select Board voted unanimously to allow Interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek to sign a 3.5 year, multi-million dollar "Strategic Partnership Agreement" with UMass, her employer, that is a sweet deal for the University, a sour deal for the town. 

I'm not suggesting she or her husband gained financially by this deal, but I do strongly believe the better way of handling it would have been for her to abstain on the matter and certainly not to act as chair for the very brief time period allowed for Select Board discussion. 

I believe our state law suggests public officials avoid even "the appearance of a conflict of interest."

I would ask the Select Board be ordered to do a "do over."

Larry Kelley

At the 9/25 Select Board Cable Ascertainment Hearing Ms. Brewer did publicly announce she was married to Steven Brewer before he testified in his role as Amherst Media Board President

Thursday, December 24, 2015

What's Yours Is Mine

Modular classrooms back in March

UMass, acting as The Grinch, gave Amherst an early Christmas load of coal by destroying the town owned $215,000 portable classrooms installed behind the School of Education, aka the former "Mark's Meadow Elementary School."

Interestingly the town is still paying off the ten year $215K loan on the classrooms, which were never actually used as classrooms.  Clueless Town Meeting almost unanimously authorized the expenditure in 2007, but Mark's Meadow closed down in 2010.

According to Superintendent Maria Geryk the downsizing saved $850,000 in the town's elementary budget, but was bitterly opposed by parents and some town officials with children attending Mark's Meadow.

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson became a combination Wicked Witch of the West & Joan of Arc (aka burned at the stake) for her leadership role in shuttering Mark's Meadow.

But these days even Superintendent Geryk uses it as an example of why the town should consider mothballing the Middle School building and relocating/consolidating students into the High School.

On Monday night the Select Board, with no input allowed, approved the Interim Town Manager signing a "Strategic Partnership Agreement" with UMass that for the first time in history pays something towards the 56 children from tax exempt UMass housing attending our public schools, at an estimated cost of $1,267,000.

Of course that something is a lousy $120,000 or less than ten cents on the dollar.

Early School Budget Prognostication

Sean Mangano and Superintendent Maria Geryk at Four Towns Meeting earlier this month

In addition to the hour or so discussing the Wildwood School project -- and unanimously authorizing a hurried $2,500 survey of all staff and educators in the elementary school system about which expensive school renewal they favor -- the Amherst School Committee also heard a brief report from Business Director Sean Mangano about the state of FY17 budget (which starts July 1st).

Interestingly the elementary budget is in almost the exact same boat as the four town Regional system (and neither of them are taking on water):  At the Four Towns Meeting earlier this month he pegged the Regional level services budget at a $460,000 deficit and he told the Amherst School Committee the elementary budget is currently $480,000 in the hole.

 Click to enlarge/read

According to Mr. Mangano:

"As I mentioned last night, the three drivers of the budget increase are three more classrooms than anticipated, steps/colas for all staff, and an increase in the net charter assessment. Each town department was allocated a 2.5% increase which equates to $546,746 for the elementary school.

Since the Town pays charter costs on behalf of the schools, it deducts the increase in charter tuition from our increase. The net charter increase in FY16 is projected to be $282,651 which leaves an allowable increase of $264,095 for the schools.

There are some other adjustments for school choice but the end result is the schools get a 1% increase in their operating budget. Interestingly enough, the large increase in the net charter assessment is driven mostly by declining reimbursements. DESE projects an increase of charter 5 students which is $89,640 of the increase. The other $193,011 is due to insufficient state aid to fund the reimbursements. DESE projects Amherst will get 24% of the total reimbursement. 

And lastly, the projected reduction has improved and now stands at $480,000. "

 Those damn Charters!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

DUI Dishonor Roll

Amherst police arrested and charged three drivers with drunk driving over the weekend -- all of them women.  In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday all three lawyered up and had their cases continued until next month.

All three also took the legally admissible Breathalyzer test back at APD headquarters, so their chances of outright winning a trial are pretty close to zero

Interestingly Meaghan Shea initially seemed like she wanted to settle her case immediately, telling Judge Payne, "I know I'm guilty."  But he had her talk to the prosecutor and she then opted to have a public defender assigned to her.

Meaghan Shea, age 29, arraigned before Judge Payne
 Click to enlarge/read.  Note BAC is 3x legal limit!
Heather Pew, age 21, stands before Judge Payne
Carrie Holmes, age 22 (and father) stand before Judge Payne

10 Cents On The Dollar

Let's not talk about the mega-millions UMass has squandered on football

So no I'm not surprised the new l-o-n-g overdue (3 years) UMass/town Strategic Partnership Agreement is a lousy deal for the town, which is probably why John Musante did not jump at the chance to sign it when it first landed on his desk well before his tragic untimely death.

The $257,000 payment for hotel/motel tax is simply money that was owed us, collected, and put in escrow.

Since Senate President Stan Rosenberg clearly stated he wanted the Campus Center Hotel to pay the 6% local option tax when he filed special legislation a few years back, safe bet UMass was told in no uncertain terms to pay the hell up and keep paying it from now on.

Sort of like a homeowner withholding a year's worth of mortgage payments and then suddenly making it current before the bank forecloses.

The status quo payment for public safety are also grossly inadequate:  AFD spends 20% of their time dealing with on-campus calls while APD spends 20% of its time dealing with off-campus students, so with a $10 million public safety budget that comes to over $2 million for both departments.

In return UMass is paying us less than $500,000 for AFD services only.

 Click to enlarge/read

But the biggest booger is the payment for education of 56 students living in UMass tax exempt housing attending our expensive public schools.  Superintendent Maria Geryk told Amherst Town Meeting last spring  that alone amounts to $1,267,000.

Thus an annual payment of $120,000 amounts to less than ten cents on the dollar.  At a time when the Regional School budget is $600,000 in the hole.

You would think a bastion of public higher education would put more value on, you know, public education.

Town owned $200,000 Mark's Meadow portable classroom were demolished by UMass

Monday, December 21, 2015

Signed, Sealed & Registered

Attack of the drone

I was very pleased to see the FAA drone regulations did not include night flying on the list of banned practices.

Click to enlarge/read

Some of the neater photos I've taken were of the town fair at night (both Amherst and Belchertown), or more recently the Merry Maple Christmas tree in town center.

Amherst  Town Fair 5/30/15
Belchertown Fair September 2015

It's actually a lot easier to keep your drone in "line of sight" at night because of the flashing lights against a black background.  

I was also most pleased the entire registration process took just under five minutes (online) and was FREE.

They did charge $5.00 to my credit card but that will be instantly rebated for all registrations done within the next 30 days.

Now all I have to do is to continue flying safely.

 Merry Maple


Amherst Town Meeting lovers may soon be in mourning

The final certified signature count to force placement on the ballot a question about forming a study group -- aka Charter Commission -- to come up with a new & improved local government came in 242 signatures over the 3,215 threshold.

And it's all or nothing, so as along as a formal challenge does not negate 243 of the signatures, the question will appear on the March 31 ballot. 

In addition 9 Charter Commissioners will be elected on that same ballot and already five citizens have taken out nomination papers, which require 50 valid signatures:

Cheryl Zoll, Irv Rhodes, Aaron Hayden, Stephen Schreiber, and Janet McGowan are the brave souls who have stepped forward thus far, but now that enough signatures have been certified to make the ballot other candidates will no doubt soon enter the fray.

 Amherst For All celebrates in the hallway in front of Town Clerk's office this morning

Since the Select Board can also place a non-binding advisory question on the ballot they should also do what a previous Select Board did a dozen years ago and ask the voters if indeed it's time to lay Town Meeting to rest.

That way the Charter Commission can focus on the real solution:  Mayor/Council.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Brick By Brick

West Experiment Station back in June

Let's hope UMass has not bitten off more than they can chew with the West Experiment Station reconstruction project to make way for the new $100 million Physical Sciences Building.

 West Experiment Station 11/29/15

As of today the historic old building has been completely dismantled and will hopefully be reassembled by 2018, integrated into the new Physical Sciences Building, for a unique blending of the old and the new.

West Experiment Station today

Trolley Station on North Pleasant Street, built 1911 trashed June, 2012 by a contractor without full approval

At The Top Of The Pole

Red/white/blue flag instead of just baby blue

For the first time in town history -- a whopping 43 years anyway -- the flagpole immediately in front of Town Hall flew a lone flag other than the United Nations flag, for which it was erected back in 1973.

A good cause of course:  the 150th anniversary of the signing of the 13th Amendment to end the pernicious practice of slavery.

Besides being a good reminder that our sacred constitution can be amended, it is also fitting we pause to remember that slavery was once the routine here in our land of the free.

The flag that flew alone on the pole for barely 24 hours was an American flag but a reproduction of a vintage 1865 U.S. flag with only 36 stars.

The Select Board somewhat routinely allow various flags to fly -- Rainbow Flag, Puerto Rico, Black Liberation Flag, Children's memorial flag against child abuse, etc -- but always with the UN flag above them.

US flag protocol however clearly states the American flag never flies below that of any other entity.  Unless of course it's an act of God.

UN Flag flies above Black Liberation flag, February this year

Top Of Their Class Still

Amherst College Greenway Project this fine Sunday morning

I don't think anybody is going to feel overly bad for Amherst College being reduced from a AAA to merely a AA+ by Standard & Poor's so they now share, gasp, the same bond rating as the town they are named after.

After all, they still have $2.2 billion in their endowment.  Yes that's billion with a b as opposed to only $9 million the town has in its reserves. 

The cause of the slight crack in their financial armor is the increased debt load, a mere $330 million, brought on by reinvesting in infrastructure, mainly the new Greenway Project.

The four new dorms should be open in the fall of 2016 and the $200 million, 230,000 square foot science center project will get underway, again.

Last year Amherst College donated $120,000 to the town to cover Amherst Fire Department emergency runs to their campus.

And AC does pay taxes on all the one and two family homes it owns and rents out to professors so in that respect they also help fund the huge pubic education costs in Amherst, which consume the lion's share of the municipal budget.  In fact, Amherst College is the #1 taxpayer in town.

But there was some grumbling at the recent Community Preservation Act Committee meeting in regards to a $200,000 request for a fire suppression system at the Amherst College owned Dickinson Museum complex.

Since CPA money can only be used for certain things, perhaps the town can work out a kick back deal whereby Amherst College donates 75 cents to the General Fund for every CPA dollar they are awarded.

Representative Stephen Kulik has a bill pending in the legislature to allow cities and towns to tax private tax-exempt entities like Amherst College at 25% of their assessed value.

Vince O'Connor has started a one-man crusade to get Amherst College to contribute more Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, specifically to relieve pressure on the Regional School Budget.

 Vince O'Connor on the attack, December 7th SB meeting

His theory is Amherst College would be wise to sign a multi-year donation deal now before the state makes it a requirement.

Kind of like working out a divorce settlement with a mediator rather than allowing a probate judge to make the call.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Hadley Barn Fire

Hadley has distinctive yellow apparatus
Surround and drown

Despite the best efforts of Hadley, Northampton, Sunderland and South Hadley fire departments the beast  completely consumed a Hadley barn immediately off River Road (Rt 47) not far from the scene of another barn fire just over the town line in Sunderland six weeks ago.

Fortunately there were no injuries to man or beast.

The fire spread to an adjacent brushy/wooded area, but was quickly controlled