Tuesday, March 31, 2015

DUI Dishonor Roll

Every day in America another 28 people die from drunk driving accidents

If driving while texting is six times more dangerous than drunk driving what the heck is texting while driving under the influence of alcohol?

Obviously extremely dangerous, as evidenced by Gabriel Lopollo, age 38, crashing into another vehicle. 
Gabriel Lopolla was arrested early Monday morning and arrigned this morning
Click to enlarge/read

In Eastern Hampshire District Court this morning Lopollo had a plea of innocent entered in his behalf with his case continued until April 27 so he could hire his own attorney.

 Michael Flannery is arraigned on Monday morning before Judge Payne

At least Michael Flannery, age 25, gets bonus points for honesty.  Unlike the usual response of "two beers" Mr. Flannery admitted to the officer he had consumed five.  And his legally admissible in Court breath test confirmed that.

His DUI case was also continued until April 27 so he could hire a private attorney.

He Said, She Said

Andre Chris Edmund stands before Judge John Payne (from the lockup)

When a homeless woman soliciting money in front of CVS in downtown Amherst late Saturday rebuked his inappropriate advances, Andre Edmund, also homeless, allegedly starting yelling "Fuck you!  You're a racist, a fucking racist!"

Police were called to this rather high profile disturbance and Mr. Edmund, age 39, was located on the UM campus and placed under arrest.

 Click to enlarge/read

The Clerk Magistrate set bail at $2,500 so he was transported to the House of Correction to await arraignment and a bail hearing before Judge John Payne in Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday morning.

The Commonwealth requested $1,000 cash bail telling the Judge that Mr. Edmund has a history of drug and alcohol problems, served a year in jail in 2008 for a cocaine conviction and that this charge now before the Court was a "very serious matter which could result in a jail sentence."

The Public Defender told the Judge Mr. Edmund has been clean since 2011 and although currently homeless (he gave Craig's Doors Homeless Shelter as his address) Hwei-Ling Greeney had found him an apartment in Amherst starting April 1st.

He further went on to state confidently that his client, "strenuously denies these charges and looks forward to fighting them in Court."

Judge Payne imposed a $1,000 "personal surety bond", meaning if Mr. Edmund fails to appear back in District Court on May 5th he will be charged that amount and a "failure to appear" arrest warrant will be issued.

Monday, March 30, 2015

And Another One Gone

Hadley Rt 9 Diner now closed

I guess sometimes you have to destroy the village in order to save it ...

Hey UMass!

UMass Amherst:  Massachusetts flagship of higher education

As I pointed out on Friday students enrolled in the Amherst public schools emanating from UMass tax-exempt family housing costs Amherst taxpayers "over $1 million" annually to educate.  

Well now I have a more exact figure for number of students and their cost to the town:  56 students at a cost of $1,267,200.

Click to enlarge/read

Notice too that one student (at a cost of $18,200) does not even attend Amherst Public Schools, but that money still comes out of their budget for Charter reimbursement. 

Safe to assume that facts from this memo will be used by the Finance Committee in their report to Amherst Town Meeting concerning the school budget, so perhaps a long overdue discussion will take place about fair reimbursement from UMass for these serious costs.

The Amherst and Regional School Committees should also take a strong stand, and the Amherst Select Board should direct Town Manager Musante to use these figures to get a (much) better deal out of UMass in the next "Strategic Partnership Agreement" -- already almost three years overdue. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ice Ice Baby

Puffer's Pond this snowy morning

In addition to keeping the killer beast fire at bay, at the other end of the spectrum, Amherst Fire Department also deals with another potential killer for us folks living in New England: falling through ice into freezing water.

 AFD has a total of 6 protective suits (which are easy to spot against white background)

Wearing special suits that allow for submersion in freezing water pretty much all day long and using an ice sled with team members holding attached ropes, a three or four person crew can make short work of getting someone safely to shore.

 Captain Sterling (center) wearing one of the older red suits (not to be confused with Star Trek crew member)

This morning's drill was a make up for one scheduled five weeks ago when the ice on Puffer's Pond was too thick to cut through.  Most of Puffer's is still frozen except areas where tributaries come into the pond.
The ice sled, donated by the Amherst Rotary, folds up for easy transport

Firefighter Sarah Roe proudly shows off new turnout gear

Skill training can make a life or death difference. Not only for the victim, but the first responder as well.

Friday, March 27, 2015

High Cost Of Education (In A College Town)

UMass, with 27,569 total students, is Amherst's largest employer

"If in the future the town builds a new elementary school and vacates Mark's Meadow facility, the town Amherst Elementary Schools, ARPS and the University will negotiate a new agreement in which the University may reimburse the Town for a portion of the net cost of educating students living in University tax-exempt housing."

So declared the 2007 "Five Year Strategic Partnership Agreement" signed by Amherst Town Manager Larry Shaffer, UMass Chancellor John Lombardi and School Superintendent Jere Hochman.

That Strategic Agreement expired June 30, 2012 and a new multi-year contract has yet to be inked, even though Town Manager John Musante told the Select Board well over a year ago it was "very, very close."

The UMass campus generates 20% of Amherst Fire Department total call volume.  This year UMass will continue paying the annual $370,000 for AFD  (total budget $4.5 million) via the expired Strategic Agreement and another $80,000 for much needed extra EMS/fire staffing on weekends when school is in session (aka ambulance drunk runs).

By (embarrassing) comparison the University of Vermont with a total of only 12,000 students -- less than half the size of UMass -- paid Burlington, population 42,284,  $1.2 million in impact fees last year.  Or more than twice as much as UMass pays Amherst, population 38,819.

The town has not yet built a new elementary school -- although we're well on our way.   But we did, however, for budgetary reasons (saving $800,000) close Mark's Meadow Elementary School in 2009 and returned it to UMass. Yes, only two years after signing the 5 year Strategic Agreement that specifically talked about negotiating a new agreement should the town "vacate Mark's Meadow."

 It was even noted in the press release spun by the well funded UMass spinmeister PR department.

 Former Mark's Meadow Elementary School now undergoing major renovation

Currently the average cost of education per child in the Amherst Regional Public School District (grades 7-12) is $20,313 per student and for the towns three elementary schools an average of  $18,597.  State per student average is around $14,000.

 Town owned modular classrooms still sit on UMass property behind former Mark's Meadow school

Currently over 50 students attending Amherst public school system call tax-exempt UMass student housing their home ... or, just over $1 million dollars in educational service costs shouldered by Amherst taxpayers.


The upcoming FY16 Regional School budget, just to maintain "level services," required a $1 million cut resulting in the elimination of the equivalent of 16 full-time positions.

Let me repeat that:  A ONE MILLION DOLLAR CUT!

Do the simple but discouraging math: Time for UMass, our "partner," to pay up.

Do it for the kids.  Your kids!

UMass North Village, described as "family housing," is owned by Commonwealth of Massachusetts with an assessed value of $10.7 million. Thus, it would  pay $220,000 in property taxes this year IF privately owned

Should Everyone Get A Trophy?

Today's Gazette above the fold story (at least they used a question mark)

Well I guess now I know why the Gazette sent a photographer (but not a reporter) to the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting on Tuesday: Today's whiny front page soap opera piece about the supposed poisoned political climate in town.

Had the reporter attended the Regional School Committee meeting readers could have been informed about the one-hour discussion that took place concerning expanded Regionalization -- the most  important educational decision facing the four towns in more than a generation.

All the more important for print coverage since Amherst Media, although contractually obligated to, failed to cover it (too busy covering the town sponsored 3rd annual parking forum I suppose).

And where was the Gazette when former School Committee member Catherine Sanderson was being raked over the coals five years ago for telling it like it is on her blog?

The establishment went so far as to file a letter of complaint with the District Attorney about her outspokenness -- a clear violation of the First Amendment.   Thus sending the unmistakable message that if you question authority, you will be crushed.

Seemingly every year someone dies horribly while hiking in the White Mountains because they choose to set off ill-prepared for the journey.

Amherst politics is not a casual stroll along the bike path, but neither is it an ascent up Mt. Washington.

I would not have it any other way.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back In The Race Again?

Do supporters really need to bring the card in the polling booth?


Lawrence O'Brien says if elected he will not serve.  (See his comment/statement 4:39 PM)

Original Post 11:00 AM

So apparently Lawrence O'Brien changed his mind about changing his mind over the March 31 School Committee election.

 Lawrence O'Brien (right) is current member School Committee

First he was in, having collected the requisite 50 signatures of registered voters, then suddenly within 48 hours of handing in his nomination papers he withdrew within time to have his name NOT appear on the March 31 ballot.

But now he's back in. Joining fellow write-in candidate Victor Nunez-Ortiz and the two old fashioned candidates -- Vira Douangmany and Phoebe Hazzard -- who did things the normal way by collecting 50 signatures prior to the deadline so their names appear on the official ballot.

Well maybe Ms. Hazzard not so much"normal."

Unlike Amherst Housing Authority candidate Emilie Hamilton whose name does appear on the ballot but she has publicly stated she quit because AHA meetings are "too contentious."

Sarah Auerbach was Katherine Appy's campaign manager last year

Geeze, and to think I once considered this election boring. (But I'm still comfortable predicting an awful voter turnout, as in under 10%).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Regionalization: Not Dead Yet

Regional School Committee last night

Unlike the strong skepticism expressed at their meeting two weeks ago, perhaps brought on by the mad rush to seek approval in time for this year's Town Meeting season, last night the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee expressed optimism over the prospect of regionalizing the current grades 7-12 all the way down to preK through 6th grade.

Amherst School Committee member Rick Hood started off the one-hour discussion saying they should "keep working" on the project (after more than three years of committee work culminating with the Regional Agreement Working Group final report) especially if it allows a future "on ramp" for any town, like Shutesbury, who is not yet ready to make the leap.

In order for the educational expansion to happen all four towns via their Town Meeting must approve amending the current 60-year-old Regional Agreement but then one or two could vote not to join at the current time.

 RAWG member Kip Fronsh appeared at Public Comment period to lobby for Regionalization

Mr. Hood cited the $600,000 savings figure saying, "It's a big deal, if it's real."  A sentiment echoed later by other committee members.  Although Shutesbury member Steve Sullivan pointed out that financial projection "was old" and a study should be done for fresher figures.

Governance is still a major stumbling block with members expressing skepticism over a 13 member supersized Regional School Committee (7 from Amherst and 2 from each of the hilltowns).  Rick Hood suggested a RSC of seven member, four from Amherst and one each from Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury.

But other members thought that would be too much work and pressure on a lone town representative to the powerful new committee. 

RSC Chair from Pelham Trevor Baptiste said bringing financial sustainability to the Pelham Elementary School was his main objective but it was "debatable" if the money savings was worth it.  He liked the idea of district wide elections to the new super-committee because it would "reduce factionalism."

Amilcar Shabazz attending his final meeting via "remote participation" said confidently from Rick Hood's Mac computer:  "This can be done."

Committee Chair Baptiste then suggested for RSC meetings over the next year a major bullet point from the Regional Agreement Working Group report be put on the agenda for a 20 minute or so discussion.

And in the near future all three hilltown School Committees be invited in for a discussion. 

Marylou Theilman pointed out from the audience that it had been a good, long-overdue discussion but it was shame Amherst Media was not there to cover it, especially since a major criticism of the project has been the lack of public outreach.

The Chair, who has previously touted his respect for "transparency",  responded that maybe the reason the conversation/discussion went so well is because officials felt more comfortable without the cameras running.

Hmm ... 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

257 & Counting

Town Manager & Select Board get to sit at the head table

The Select Board signed the warrant last night and Amherst police posted copies this morning at all the precincts in town so there's no turning back now.  The 257th annual Amherst Town Meeting starts April 27 and runs for as long as it takes (usually two meetings per week) to get through all 30 articles.

A significant reduction from the 42 articles appearing on the warrant last year, which prompted a much talked about editorial in the Springfield Sunday Republican criticizing the molasses like pace of Amherst Town Meeting.

Click to enlarge/read
That year we finished up on June 2nd. 2013 was even worse with 45 articles on the warrant and a dissolving date of June 10th.

30 is not a new record for least amount but it shares that distinction with 2012 and 2009.  At the opposite end of the spectrum 2008 was the largest over the past ten years with 47 articles.

Our $70 million budget is balanced so not much controversy to be generated there.   Additionally, last night the Finance Director told the Select Board that enough savings had been found in health insurance and long term debt payments to cover the cost of the Town Manager's pet project:  A new Economic Development Director.

Police will see a paltry increase of one position but the beleagured Fire Department got burned with no additional staffing.

8 of the 30 articles are via "citizen petition" (it only takes 10 signatures to get on the warrant) and three of the eight are zoning related so they will require a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting to pass.

 Tedious standing vote

One thing that takes up tremendous time every meeting is the procedural process.  Standing votes and tally votes can require 10 or 15 minutes each, and some nights we can have nearly a half-dozen.

Although not in the budget for this year's annual meeting, Finance Director Sandy Pooler did set aside $25,000 for the Fall Town Meeting to buy electronic voting devices for the entire 240 member body.

Which should help speed things up.

Of course the best solution is to reduce the size of the legislative body by 75% and hope some of the more loquacious members do not survive a competitive election. 


DUI Dishonor Roll

 Drinking six beers and piloting a pickup truck don't mix

In what will probably be the last somewhat quiet weekend (brought on by Spring Break) until UMass graduation in May, Amherst police still managed to arrest two impaired drivers, Brett Fellows, age 42, and Christopher Chilson, age 25.

 Christopher Chilson stands before Judge John Payne

Amherst police had been called to a house on West Street in South Amherst for reports of a breaking & entering in progress.  The reporting party said she and her boyfriend had barricaded themselves in the basement after hearing glass breaking and then footsteps.

Police surrounded the house but found nothing.

Until Mr. Chilson came roaring along in his F350 pickup truck.

Click to enlarge/read

Amherst Police also arrested Brett Fellows, in spite of his refusal to take the Field Sobriety Test.  He also refused the chemical breath test back at police headquarters, which will make it somewhat harder to prosecute the case.

Both individuals had a plea of "not guilty" entered in their behalf and their cases were continued until next month after they each told the Judge they would be hiring a private attorney.

 Brett Fellows arraigned before Judge Payne

Housing Authority Votes Budget

Amherst Housing Authority

The Amherst Housing Authority voted unanimously yesterday to approve a $1,662,631 budget for the upcoming 2016 Fiscal Year which includes a 2% increase in employee pay, although Executive Director Denise LeDuc, whose contract was extended two years, garnered a 1.5% increase to around $88,000 annually.

 Commission member Laura Quinn

During the routine approval of minutes Commission member Laura Quinn criticized the record keeping from the March 2nd meeting as "cryptic". 

When asked to explain by outgoing Chair Paul Bobrowski she pointed out that her suggestion the Executive Director performance review be tied to her contract extension did not make it into the minutes.

The minutes were then amended to reflect her concerns, although not before audience member Alan Root complained they had been "sanitized."

 Alan Root leaning in

The Amherst Housing Authority owns 191 units of housing in Amherst and manages another 36 units.  But their main influence with providing affordable housing comes via a "voucher" program.  The AHA oversees a federally funded Section 8 Rental program where they are authorized to issue up to 413 vouchers, which assists renters based on their income.

Housing Urban Development funding for that voucher program has returned from pre sequestation levels.  In the upcoming fiscal year the AHA will receive $3,077,917 or enough to fund 390 vouchers, 23 less than their maximum.

Currently over 600 people/families are on the waiting list to receive a voucher.

Since the vouchers are based on a recipients income things can change from month to month. If the person loses their job then the amount of the voucher goes up thus making it hard to project overall costs.

Annual HUD funding is based on previous year's spending so if you have too much money left over your funding next year could go down, but if your average voucher goes up too much and the budget is overrun, they have to dip into reserves.  


Sunday, March 22, 2015

If You Can't Stand The Heat

Anytime you pack a room with town officials, board and committee members -- appointed or elected -- you're bound to have a few grumps.

So I didn't really mind so much the venom spewed towards the media by Shelburne Board of Selectmen Chair John Payne -- it was more the ovation he received from the rest of the crowd.

Although I did notice Stan Rosenberg, who organized the Hampshire & Franklin Municipal Conference, calling his speech finale, "fighting words."

What the Attorney General needs to do is put more teeth into the Open Meeting Law.  Make an example of offenders who knowingly violate the law, not by fining the committee or board $1,000 so the taxpayers get stuck paying it.

Fine every individual member of the board $1,000 that must be paid out of their own pocket.  Then you will see a dramatic improvement in compliance.  If that doesn't do it, then try a jail sentence.

Making the job of the media a little easier via a strong Open Meeting Law only brings better enlightenment to the multitudes of citizens who rely on the media for vital information about their local government.  

If you can't deal with transparency then don't volunteer or run for public office.

Where There's Smoke

Extravaganja 2013 attracted typical crowd of 6,000 fans to the Amherst Town Common

Now I know it's Spring!  The preliminary paperwork for the town common pot rally is in the pipeline.  Or maybe I should say bong line. 

The Amherst Select Board will discuss parking approvals Monday night for the 24th annual Extravaganja festival coming this April 18th to a bucolic town green near you.

The event is promoted by the UMass Amherst Cannabis Reform Coalition and every year manages to attract many thousands of aficionados to Amherst town center for an afternoon of live music, food, and camaraderie all punctuated by the pungent fragrance of pot.

Some of the original adherents from two decades ago have probably gone on to high profile positions in the state legislature, paving the way to legalization in the next year or two.

Considering the awful toll legally ubiquitous alcohol wreaks on our little "college town", perhaps not such a bad thing.

The pot rally coexists with the Amherst Farmers Market

Saturday, March 21, 2015

North Amherst: Can't Stop Progress

 The sun also rises over entrepreneurial rebuilding

The renovation of a former cow barn for Atkins North is moving along at flank speed and may actually see satisfied customers before the end of August, in time for when the swallows, err, students return to Capistrano, err, Amherst.

Not that a chic operation like Atkins needs to rely on students.

 Helpful that Cowls President Cinda Jones husband can operate an excavator

Large windows are framed in the south wall

South east corner needed the most work

Adjacent abandoned barn is almost contigious

The immediate neighboring barn, however, may not be as fortunate as the cow barn.  Last July 22nd the Amherst Historical Commission placed a one year demo delay on the ancient structure, but no plans have been forthcoming for its revitalization.

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones would like to save the barn and is willing to lease it for $1/year for 20 years to anyone who can renovate it with a business plan that's complimentary to the The Mill District.  

 Roof is starting to collapse
And has plenty of holes

Otherwise, in the interest of public safety -- especially Atkins North customers -- the building will come down.  The clock is ticking.

Currently the barn screens the Mill District from neighbors along Montague Road