Monday, February 29, 2016

Opportunity Lost?

 Amherst PD and ACPD arrest Justin Lewis and Abdoulaye Sanogo Sunday around 1:00 PM

 Justin Lewis, 21 (left); Abdoulaye Sanogo, 19 (right), both from New York

Amherst police, with an assist from Amherst College PD, arrested two young men -- one of them a 2nd year Amherst College student -- for passing counterfeit $100 bills two days in a row at the CVS on University Drive.

In a bail hearing before Judge William Hadley this afternoon a public defender countered the Commonwealth's request for $1,500 bail by pointing out Abdoulaye Sanogo was on a full scholarship to Amherst College, and he was cooperative with police at his arrest.

He also said his client was acting on orders from the other guy (Justin Lewis).  Both perps are from New York, which is why the Commonwealth is worried about them being a flight risk.

Clerk Nagle had refused to set bail on the day they were arrested saying to a few police officers he would not trust whatever cash they might come up with.

Judge Hadley mulled over the facts for a few minutes and decided on $800 cash for Abdoulaye Sanogo and $1,000 for Justin Lewis.  Their cases were continued for pre trial to March 28.

And you can bet the Clerk's Office will closely scrutinize any
$100 bills.

9 of 19

If the average Amherst voter bothers to read the survey responses from the 19 Charter Commission candidates it is pretty clear which of them are open to an actual change in our current creaky form of government.

So write down these names and bring them into the voting booth with you on March 29: Andy Churchill, Thomas Fricke, Nick Grabbe, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Phil Jackson, Bernie Kubiak, Maureen Raab, Irv Rhodes, and Julie Rueshemeyer.

Bring on change!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What Are They Afraid Of?

 Select Board (2/22) to Larry Kelley:  Go away

Last week the Select Board wasted a golden opportunity to ascertain the will of the voters by turning down my request to ask voters if Town Meeting should be maintained.  The non-binding question is pretty straight forward and a voter is as free to choose no as they are yes.

Using the Charter change process to simply tweak Town Meeting is like using a backhoe to plant a daffodil.

Obviously voters who support forming a Charter Commission at the upcoming March 29 election have strong concerns about our current form of government.  So why not ask them more specifically what those concerns are?

And why is it only the Town Meeting loyalists wanted it blocked from the ballot?

You know, the same three who refused to sign the Charter petition in the first place (that 3,500 other voters did sign) but now want your vote to be elected to that Charter Commission.

Construction Update

UMass Design Building (Yes, they were working on a Saturday)

Amherst College 4 Greenway Dorms (on left)

Olympia Place private dorms from low/moderate height
Olympia Place from maximum height

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A peaceful 4 Town Meeting

Maria Geryk, ARPS Superintendent

Representatives of all fours towns in the Amherst Regional Public School District met this beautiful Saturday morning for not much more than an hour to hear from the administration about the FY17 budget, up 2.6% over last year, and to hear updates about expanding Regionalization all the way down to preK-6th, and consolidating Regional Middle School students into the Regional High School.

 Amherst Assistant and Temp Town Manager Dave Ziomek, Peter Hechenbleikner attended

There was not much to update on those last two items since the Regional School Committee voted on Thursday to delay for a year the expanded Regionalization and last month voted to delay school consolidations.

Mainly because Amherst has so much on their plate at the moment, with the new $65+ million 2-in-1 mega school currently on the fast track.

 Always colorful Trevor Baptiste, Chair of the Regional School Committee (standing)

But Kathy Mazur did give a brief presentation pointing out the previous high water mark for enrollment at the Middle and High schools was 2,000 total, and September's projected total occupancy is only 1300.  The High School has a capacity of 1,700 or way more room for all the current students in the Region.

Spectators included State Rep & School Committee candidates and that rarest of breeds, a print reporter

Mazur estimated the savings to the Region after consolidation comes to $800,000.

Administrators wish to form working groups from all four towns to discuss the assessment method, merging the Middle School into High School, and what to do with the Middle School after it becomes surplus to the Region's academic needs, plus the enormous capital costs coming up in the not so distant future.

Ms. Mazur pointed out there's great interest in repurposing the Middle School building for the arts as well as space for Amherst Media, Greenfield Community College and the Amherst Boys & Girls Club.

Amherst's recreation department (LSSE) is already moving in to a 3,500 square foot space next month in the rear of the Middle School.

Regional Middle School (bottom center) Amherst Wildwood Elementary (top)

Of course Amherst taxpayers may wonder why they are financing essentially two new elementary schools to replace both Wildwood and Fort River when this building is a Frisbee throw away from Wildwood.

After an hour of mostly cordial discussion Superintendent Maria Geryk came to the key sales closing asking each town, "Will you pay your assessment?"

They all said yes.  Of course now all four Town Meetings also have to approve.

Friday, February 26, 2016

And Another One Gone ...

Our beloved downtown continues its slow but steady decline with yet another shop that is not a bar or restaurant calling it quits.

And yes the stores on either side -- All Things Local and The Mercantile -- are also dead or closing by March 1st.

That end of downtown is turning into a crypt.

 Carriage Shops have been closed and abandoned for over a year now

Meanwhile, Kimballs Auction Barn -- a fixture in North Amherst -- is moving to 299 Russell Street (Rt9) next to Rocky's Hardware. Cinda Jones, "the Donald Trump of North Amherst", confirms she is selling the building and 47 acres of land to farmer Joe Czajikowski.

 Rt 9 certainly has more traffic than Meadow Street
Previous business was an Art Gallery

Furthermore, Should you be running out of gas on the east side of Amherst you're out of luck, as the Cumberland Farms store -- perhaps the busiest convenience store in Amherst -- is closed for at least another week due to renovations.

And the shuttered Sunoco -- Barney's -- directly across the street, still has yet to find a new tenant.

 Barney's (left) Cumbys (right)

Don't Drink The Water?

Ye old unlined landfill off Old Farm Road.  Amherst Woods top center
Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek (far right) attended Water Supply Protection Committee meeting yesterday

The Amherst Water Supply Protection Committee voted 3-1 yesterday to recommend the town do one extra sampling analysis at Well 4-08, located in a sensitive area for our drinking supply (Zone 2) where a high level of Dioxane was detected in one lone sampling back in July, 2012.

As per DEP regulations the town tests annually at 15 sites for contamination from two closed landfills off Belchertown Road (lined landfill) and Old Farm Road (unlined).

After the alarming test results taken in July, 2012 the town quickly did a resampling in August using a better testing method which turned up nothing.  Zero.  Zip.

And for the past three years annual testing has turned up nothing.  Zero.  Zip.

Dissenting member John Tobiason, who is also a Board of Health member, was sure the unusually high readings on that one test date were simply due to error, or a false positive.  Especially since that lone sample date is so far outside the norm for all the other sampling ever done.

About a half dozen neighbors showed up for the meeting and were adamant the town test four times per year to account for "seasonal variations."

But the Committee pointed out the retest using a better testing method was done in August of 2012 only a month after the alarming sample was taken, and August is in the same "season" as July.

Of course these are the same Amherst Woods neighbors who filed a lawsuit against the town to prevent a solar array from going on ye old landfill.

After the appeased neighbors filed out of the meeting, just before adjournment, the Water Supply Protection Committee confirmed, "We're not concerned."

The southern end of Gull Pond has tested positive for contamination, but it's not like anybody would drink that water (or swim in it)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Regional School Expansion Delayed Again

Regional School Committee, 9 members from 4 towns (5 of them Amherst)

The four year slog to expanding the four town regional public school education system from grades 7-12 all the way down to pre-K-6 will just have to wait another year, as the Regional School Committee voted this evening to suspend discussion of the matter until January, 2017.

Katherine Appy, Amherst School Committee Chair and major cheerleader for expanded Regionalization, said Amherst simply has too much going on with a proposed new mega school and consolidation of the Middle School students into the High School.

The vote was 7-2 in favor of the delay with Vira Douangmany Cage and Stephen Sullivan voting no.

Mr. Sullivan, a Shutesbury representative, said this delay was unfair to three other towns who are members of Union 28 -- Wendell, Erving and New Salem -- aligned with Leverett and Shutesbury at grades K-6.  This delay leaves them in limbo for another year.

Furthermore, Sullivan announced Shutesbury public officials (Select Board, Finance and School Committees) will recommend their Town Meeting vote "No" on both questions concerning Regionalization.

The first question asks if voters will approve the Regional Agreement be amended to allow for the expansion of the Region, and the second question asks if you wish your town to join.  All four towns must vote "Yes" to the first question or the entire endeavor fails.

So tonight's School Committee vote to delay is really only a stay of execution.

Sad Commentary On Our Times

 New ambulance costs $260K and must negotiate all kinds of terrain

Presenting to the Joint Capital Planning Committee his $442,250 total capital budget request this morning Amherst Fire Department Chief Tim Nelson assumed a somber tone we he got to the next-to-the-last item on the list: "Never in my life would I ever expect to ask for this ... but we live in a different world now."

 Assistant Chiefs McKay and Stromgren (left & right) Chief Nelson (center)

The $17,500 item(s) he was requesting?

Ten bullet proof vests and helmets, one each for two ambulance personnel in all five AFD ambulances.  And yes this request was in the pipeline long before the recent weapon incident that sent UMass into lockdown.

But that incident certainly reinforced the sobering notion expressed by Chief Nelson that "It's going to happen here."

Assistant Chief McKay told the Committee that AFD has been training active shooter scenarios with UMass PD since 2002 (after Columbine) and since 2006 with APD.

These days protocols have changed somewhat in that rather than keeping FD in a "cold zone" where they are safe and protected until police have secured the area, the current idea is for PD to make a "dynamic entry" and clear part of a building so FD can then move in and stage in that "warm zone".

Because obviously the quicker medical experts can get to a victim the more likely they can do something to save a life.  But yes, at risk to their own lives.

The bullet proof vests would stay in the ambulance so they will get way less use than the ones worn by police officers daily, thus this request for 10 vests should be good for twenty years or more.

Our other equally vital public safety department, APD, had only two requests, both somewhat big ticket items totaling $315,000.  The usual request for four new vehicles -- Ford utility Interceptors at $35,000 each -- and new portable radios for the entire department.

 Chief Livingstone (left) Captain Pronovost (right)

The front line patrol vehicles are run 24/7 with plenty of stop and go under all sorts of negative circumstances.  Next year (FY18) they will replace three cruisers but the price is going up about $5,000 per vehicle.   While the radios are all over 20 years old so parts are hard to come by. 

The last thing you want is for an officer responding to a life-and-death emergency being slowed by a vehicle break down.  And officer safety is compromised if their hand held radio should fail when they are in the field.

Our public safety departments -- Police, Fire and Dispatch -- cost $10 million in total operation budgets this year so these two department requests of $757,250 works out to under 8% of total budget.

Currently the Joint Capital Planning Committee uses 8% of the town's total budget for capital equipment/building/facilities spending, or $3.15 million.  Requests from all departments total $3.34 million, so cuts will have to be made.

Hopefully not from Police or Fire.

Masslive catches up to this story (Can the Gazette be far behind?)

Regional School Expansion Showdown

Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury make up the Region

After almost four years of behind the scenes discussion that included two sub-committees made up representative from the four towns the Amherst Regional School Committee will vote tonight on expanding the current 7-12 Region (middle and high school) all the way down to pre-K through 6th grade.

And even though Amherst provides over 80% of the students -- and funding -- the five member Amherst School Committee only has 55.5% say in the nine member Regional School Committee.

The agenda only shows 20 minutes for the discussion vote (7:40 PM - 8:00 PM) so it's probably already a done deal.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Extravaganja Lives

Extravaganja 2015 Amherst Town Common

So Northampton, our sister city to the west, will welcome the 25th annual pot rally at the 3 County Fairgrounds April 30th.

Amherst bounced the mellow revelers from the town common due to the size of the crowd they attract, estimated in the range of 6,000.

Interestingly enough the 3 County Fair committee voted in favor of the rental agreement on Monday night around the same time the Amherst Select Board voted to support a 2nd medical marijuana dispensary on University Drive.

Average Amherst citizenry will certainly not miss the traffic congestion the event always created, but I'm sure starving downtown businesses will miss the thousands of hungry customers.

There's Something Happening Here

White Hut calling it quits

Yes, the restaurant business is the most unmerciful of all when it comes to failure rate before a 5th anniversary.

But the number of Amherst downtown food businesses that have failed or been sold/renamed in the past year or so makes me wonder what the hell is happening here.  But what it is ain't exactly clear.

 Baby Berk is a popular on campus late night food truck

With UMass Auxiliary Enterprises (aka dining services) doing everything possible to keep students on campus and with the built in advantage that comes with being a tax exempt entity, it's beginning to look like a hard working, tax generating, mom & pop simply can't compete.

 Location next to Bueno Y Sano didn't help of course

$2 Million Here & $2 Million There

Strong House Amherst History Museum located next door to Jones Library

The Amherst Community Preservation Act Committee held their required public hearing last night to seek input on 15 proposals totaling $2.1 million, with the available pot of funds being "only" $1.8 million.

The overall nest egg is generated by a 3% surcharge on properties, although residential homeowners are exempt from the first $100,000 of their valuation.

 CPA Committee Chair Mary Streeter (center)

Chair Mary Streeter called the meeting to order a few minutes late and explained to the sizable crowd they would go down the list of all the projects and accept comments or questions first, then the Committee would talk among themselves and possible vote on some of the projects.

The only two projects to generate public (supportive) discussion were the First Congregational Church request for $357,647 to install a fire suppression system and the recreation request of $600,000 for a spray park and other improvements at Groff Park in South Amherst.

 Good crowd on a potentially snowy night

Although most of the speakers voicing support were pretty much connected to the projects.

After 45 minutes all 15 projects were done as many did not generate any comments at all and the Committee then took up their discussion of the projects.  The first problem to deal with was some of the historical preservation requests were questionable as to being eligible for CPA spending.

The request from the Strong House/Amherst History Museum for $18,000 to pay for legal counsel to break  the will of the Emerson family (who donated the Strong House to the Amherst Historical Society) so they can sell property to the Jones Library was ruled illegal by the town attorney.

There were also questions/concerns about the legality of $10,000 in "due diligence" money for the Amherst Historical Commission as they seem to be treated differently than the Conservation Commission where due diligence money is routinely funded by CPA.

And a $5,000 request for a headstone to mark the grave of a black soldier who served in the Civil War was also found somewhat questionable, although if the CPA ruled it was a "rehabilitation of West Cemetery" it would pass muster.  Chair Mary Streeter seemed uncomfortable making that declaration.

A $10,000 historical preservation request to photo archive Amherst College owned Little Red Schoolhouse slated for demolition this spring was withdrawn by zealot Carol Gray.

In the end the Committee voted support for the non controversial projects -- previous debt that must be paid, and $3,500 annual dues to the coalition of CPA committees, and will take up discussion and votes at their next meeting March 7.

Town Meeting has the final say on all CPA spending, but they usually act as a rubber stamp for Committee recommendations.

 Little Red Schoolhouse will be demolished in May to make room for Amherst College $200 million science center

DUI Dishonor Roll

Amherst was fortunate again last weekend as APD only took one alleged impaired driver off the road. Since no female officers were on duty Amherst College PD sent one of theirs to assist with booking.

 Erica Wheeler-Perkins, age 52, arraigned before Judge Murphy

I overheard the shift supervisor alerting everyone as Ms. wheeler-Perkins, "was more than a handful" during the initial stop.

 Click to enlarge/read

In Eastern Hampshire District Court she was released on her own recognizance and will return for pre-trial with her own attorney on March 21.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Never Ever Punch A Cop

Cullen Driscoll, age 18, stands before Judge Murphy

So this mistake -- sucker punching a female officer in the face -- will cost Mr. Driscoll dearly.

Obviously UMass will bounce him for at least a year, and they don't give refunds for payments already made to cover this semester. 

 Click to enlarge/read

All because he can't figure out how to drink responsibly -- a trait he probably shares with all too many freshmen, away from home for the very first time. 

In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday Driscoll was assigned a public defender at a cost of $300 and his case was continued until March 29.

Party House of the Weekend

In Eastern Hampshire District Court yesterday all five bad boys took the standard deal:  Pay one of the $300 tickets (each) and stay out of trouble for the rest of the semester 

Click to enlarge/read

Monday, February 22, 2016

Drug Deal Gone Bad

William McKeown arraigned before Judge Murphy in Eastern Hampshire District Court

I just wish everybody showed this much interest when somebody is shot dead in Holyoke or Springfield, which happens all too often.  Turns out the handgun McKeown used was really a BB pistol but the charges still remain the same since even a BB gun is considered a "dangerous weapon."

Hearing attracted local TV news and print reporters

Click to enlarge/read

Bomb Threat

APD on scene Amherst Regional High School 1:45 PM