Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sorry Kids (and parents)

So at tonight’s Town Meeting we learned the War Memorial Pool (you know, a Summer item) would not open until mid-July and the wading pool at Groff Park will not open at all. The town manager thinks it more important for the DPW to be tied up at Groff Park constructing a “comfort station,” polite term for a bathroom--you know the kind of thing most municipalities contract out to the private sector. Even though folks have gotten along just fine for the past two years with good old reliable sani-cans.

And the reason it is taking them so long to do the comfort station is because they were preoccupied constructing sidewalks in the downtown (another thing that could have been contracted out).

And the one thing EVERY municipal DPW lives for—filling potholes—will not happen until July 1’st, because they have no money for hot patch, no money for manpower (or women power) and no leadership from the Select board or Town Manager to get the job done.

Okay, on another less angry note. I’m leaving for Bar Harbor early this morning for a few days. Now I will find out if I’m addicted to this blog stuff or not.

Only in Amherst: Pothole Alley.

If I lived on Hulst Road I would engage in civil disobedience to draw attention to the moonscape that once was a road. Unsafe for cyclist (I almost crashed), unsafe for cars, or even pedestrians.

Somebody should collect the hubcaps and dump them on the Town Manager's desk.

Stan Gawle, founder of the Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change has a great letter in this week's Amherst Bulletin:

To The Editor,

The Town of Amherst is projected to collect $1.4 million in motor vehicle exise taxes this year.Yet our Town Officials have declared a pothole fixing moratorium until July 1st because we ran out of monies to patch potholes, I recently took a ride to visit some friends in South Amherst. As I entered their street, I was impressed with the amount, variety and depth of the potholes. The road appeared to have been a receipient of a B-52 carpet bombing run. A caring resident had even gone so far as to paint circles around some of them.

I am nominating Hulst Rd. as the worst maintained road in Amherst. It is yet another example of the Town's failure to provide basic core services while wasting tax dollars on non-essentials like Leisure Services. If the Town can put off its basic responsibilities, so can we.

I encourage the residents of Hulst Rd. and other neglected streets, as well as other sympathetic taxpayers, to take the first step and not pay their exise and property taxes until the day they are due.
Stanley Gawle

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Town Officials Can't Take The Heat

Feeling scorched, Town Meeting revisited the shameful pool closing decision and reversed course—the pools will open. Unfortunately no such luck with the money pit Golf Course. And that too, is only going to get hotter.

Last night for the first time in memory Cherry Hill came up early in the meeting…first no less.

Since the Town Manager had stated many times publicly and privately that he wanted to give Cherry Hill one year to ascertain the effectiveness of this new management ‘surge’ (with only a one-quarter time LSSE bureaucrat in command perhaps ‘drip’ is a better description) I honestly thought Town Meeting might agree to hold him to his word.

My motion was to give them $150,000--more than enough money to get from July 1’st to fall/winter closing (giving new management fifteen months total), and then do a mid-year analysis and see if the surge is working. If not, put it out to bid or put a bullet in its head (fade to black).

Select person Hwei-Ling Greeney and, twice now, prosecutor Rich Morse have tried to get a strait answer number out of the Town Manager to use as a benchmark for success or failure. He simply refuses to go there.

On May 31 Mr. Shaffer told the Select board Cherry Hill had generated $174,412. Interestingly the math challenged Ms. Awad warned him to be careful with his figures.

According to the Comptroller Cherry Hill is a few thousand under his figure (that, amazingly he described as "up almost 10%") and last year was at $167,897 or only about 3% less than current. So factoring in inflation, they are exactly where they were a year ago with only June remaining in the Fiscal Year.

And with a rainy June thus far they will be lucky to hit the same $28,771 from last year. But even with a 10% surge that still only closes June with $31,648 and a Fiscal year total just under $205,000 or less than last year’s revenue goal of $206,903.

With the FY07 budget as approved by Town Meeting Cherry Hill requires $224,000 to break even. Last week the Finance Committee used an emergency$16,400 transfer from the Reserve Fund cover budget overruns. So $19,000 in revenues shortfalls combined with $16,400 in budget overruns comes to losses of over $35,000… when we could have privatized the White Elephant for a positive $35,000.

Last year Cherry Hill lost $59,649, a 20% greater subsidy than the War Memorial Pool. Next year will be worse. “When will they ever learn? When will they…ever learn.”

From: Aldrich, Sonia
Cc: Shaffer, Larry
Sent: Mon, 11 Jun 2007 10:57 am
Subject: RE: Cherry Hill


We won’t have the May revenues finalized until the end of the week. The funds are in the bank just the allocations have not been completed…..busy time of year. The total recorded to date for May is $37,581.21 and year-to-date $171,399.80.


Hey Sonia,
So about how much more could it be for May? A few thousand, or ten thousand?

Cc: Shaffer, Larry
Sent: Mon, 11 Jun 2007 12:00 pm
Subject: RE: Cherry Hill

A couple days, a few hundred maybe a thousand.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Uncharted territory at that.

Darn! I grudgingly have to award Larry Jackson (those damn movie producers) the premiere line in Nick Grabbe’s Front-page Gazette article ‘Activism goes with Territory’.

Said the sagacious former Hollywood Honcho: “The community seems to go to great lengths to not do or say anything that will offend anybody—unless that person is a Republican.”

I would have used “Conservative” rather than “Republican,” although most folks—especially in Amherst—think they are interchangeable. If I ever switched to Republican, however, my staunch Irish-Catholic mother would broadcast a banshee wail from beyond the grave.

I’m just happy the headline editor didn’t steal the name of my blog, although Regional school committee member Michael Hussin whines about the often-used phrase (usually accompanied by a rolling of the eyes) “Only in Amherst.”

But then, Mr. Hussin was a BIG supporter of the school allowing ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and was in fact the only Committee member who spoke publicly in favor of it.

And Mr. Hussin also acted as the Regional School Committee’s (toothless) attack dog, assailing the Pioneer Valley Chinese Charter Immersion School, the only proposal of ten to receive a Department of Education charter this year.

Fortunately Hussin shoots from the hip; and he’s a lousy shot.

I’m sure somebody will accuse me of racism for stating Amherst “takes minority opinions a little too seriously.” Mr. Grabbe left out my illustration: The ‘West Side Story’ fiasco happened because of the actions of ONE 17-year-old Puerto Rican girl who collected 288 signatures (out of 1,600) on a petition circulated at the High School decrying the play as “racist”.

About a year earlier another Senior (white male, so nobody took it seriously) collected 300 signatures on a petition demanding the right to leave school premises during the day so students could smoke, presumably cigarettes. So much for the judgment of High School kids signing petitions.

In a 4-1 closed door School Committee meeting in 1948 my mom (back when her maiden name was Connors) was fired from her job at the Amity Street School where she taught for two years resulting in a firestorm (even covered by the Boston papers) with mobs of concerned citizens attending School Committee meetings and writing Letters To The Editor to voice their outrage at her dismissal.

Nobody raised the issue of her Irish heritage, but many folks thought it had a lot to do with the firing.

Kevin Joy, who revived the July 4’th Parade in 2002, and I hosted an overnight Irish Wake on the town common with a replica of the Twin Towers on the eve of First Anniversary of 9/11, a woman later complained to the Bulletin: “Irish storytellers tales are compilations of the vernacular of the tragic. This keeps the tap flowing and the bottle caps flying.”

As a teenager Emily Dickinson whimsically wrote to her brother requesting he come home and deal with all the Irish that had washed ashore and flowed inland to Amherst (for work on the railroad) suggesting, “To kill some—there are so many now, there is no room for the Americans.”

Forty years later, after retreating into a literary world where the Irish exclusively and faithfully served her, Miss Emily requested in writing a simple funeral with six Irish pallbearers and my great, great Grandfather Tom Kelley—even though he had only one arm—acting as the Chief pallbearer.

Recently the Select Board voted unanimously to fly the Rainbow Flag in front of Town Hall for a week to commemorate the Third Anniversary of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriage. Only moments later, they unanimously took “no position” on my request to fly 29 commemorative flags in the downtown to mourn 9/11.

And earlier this week Town Meeting resoundingly defeated my Special Town Meeting Warrant Article (requested by 200 Amherst taxpayers) to reissue a Request For Proposals to privatize the always ailing Cherry Hill Golf Course.

Last year practically the identical article proposed by Irv Rhodes (and only requiring ten Amherst taxpayers signatures) passed Town Meeting by a vote of 72-62. Irv Rhodes is black.

As Stephanie would say, Hmmmm.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Hey Kids: No Pool For YOU!

Only in Amherst would Town Meeting vote to continue squandering ten$ of thousand$ of tax dollar$ on a Golf Course that attracts mostly white, middle-aged males from outside Amherst and then vote to kill the War Memorial Pool that, conversely, attracts mainly Amherst children--many low income and ethnically diverse.

And I do mean kill! Because if the War Memorial Pool does not open this summer for the first time in over 50 years, the infrastructure damage caused by deterioration of components requiring moving water could be fatal.

Last year Town Meeting, over the Finance Committee’s objection, supported privatizing Cherry Hill; last night Town Meeting overwhelming voted against essentially the same measure and this time it had the unanimous support of the Finance Committee.

Town Meeting is supposed to control the purse strings, but every year they pass a Cherry Hill budget built on wishful thinking and outright lies, requiring year-end infusions of copious amounts of cash.

Immediately before the Cherry Hill privatization debacle, Town Meeting voted to increase the Finance Committee’s Reserve Fund because the $50,000 emergency account was completely tapped out, with Cherry Hill budget overruns absorbing $16,500.

Last week the Town Manager told the Select board there was no money until July 1 for pothole maintenance because the DPW budget was depleted.

No money for potholes, no money for the War Memorial and kids wading pools, but endless amounts for golf.

Now I know my background music for the YouTube upload: “No it isn’t very pretty what a town without pity….cannnn doooo.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Revenge of the Potholes

Monday night the schizophrenic Finance Committee voted unanimously to support Wednesday night's Special Town Meeting warrant article to "strongly urge" the Select board to "strongly urge" the Town Manager to reissue the Cherry Hill Golf Course privatization proposal but with a three year contract.

Yes, these are the same fiscal watchdogs that wrote in the 2004 Annual Town Report: “The Town should no longer operate Cherry Hill Golf Course. Instead, requests for proposals for outside management should be put out by the fall of 2004. If this is not done the course should be closed.”

Barry Del Castilho did put the course out to bid (telling the Select board the minimum bid needs to be $30,000) but garnered no responses. The Finance Committee then went back to supporting (losing) business as usual at Cherry Hill. They predicted a loss of $8,710 for FY06 countering the Pollyannaish outgoing town manager’s prediction of a $16,084 profit. Actual losses that year were $59,649

And last year they opposed Irv Rhodes Town Meeting article that “strongly urged” the Select board to reissue an RFP for the beleaguered golf business. Town Meeting supported it anyway and the rookie Town Manager then turned down an offer for $30,000 to $35,000 annually because the respondent wished for a three-year commitment.

Perhaps the Finance Committee feels guilty about spending one-third of the emergency Reserve Fund on golf, leaving no money for filling potholes.

Yesterday Fin Com member Andy Steinberg, in an attempt at damage control, wrote on the Town Meeting Listserve: “The $16,425 was due to costs associated with the change in management, unbudgeted increases in utilities and some additional seasonal help that was required.”

Yeah, sound like typical cost overruns to me.

Superintendent Dan Engstrom, believe it or not, made $60,000 annually running Cherry Hill for 7 months out of the year. But he was paid in $5,000 monthly installments. After his sudden resignation on March 17 (or be fired) he collected his final salary check on April 1. So his impact on the budget normally would have been $15,000 over the last three months anyway.

On August 18,2006 the rookie Town Manager issued a press release announcing that “the Cherry Hill Golf Course operation has been assigned to the Director of Leisure Services and Supplemental Education department, with Barbara Bilz assuming oversight of the course operations on a day to day basis,”

Interestingly the press piece closes with: “The town is fortunate to have Dan Engstrom, Course Manager, to continue his expertise in maintaining one of the highest quality public golf course in Massachusetts.”

Well, big old Dan continued to offer his expertise only until March 17’th, when the luck of the Irish suddenly and mysteriously ran out for him. Now if only the taxpayers could catch a break!

Breaking News Update: 2:45 pm. Turn About Fairplay

Vince O’Connor, everyone’s favorite activist and longtime Town Meeting member and member of the Public Works Committee filed a written complaint on June 1 with the DPW department with a list of streets where “potholes constitute a safety hazard to both motor vehicles and bicyclists." He closes with “Even tho the Department has expended its budget on other projects I believe these areas constitute such a hazard as to require a trip to the Finance Committee Reserve Fund”

Vince will be disappointed to learn the Finance Committee Reserve Fund is spoken for, with Cherry Hill Golf Course yelling the loudest. Now if only Vince had not been so instrumental in the original Taking Of Cherry Hill 20 years ago…

Saturday, June 2, 2007

A Question of Priorities in The People's Republic

Filling potholes is one of those mundane tasks of local government that goes unnoticed until it doesn’t happen. Like forgetting to brush your teeth once to often and then having to fill a cavity or endure tooth replacement.

Mayors have lost elections because snow and ice removal was ineffective after a particularly bad blizzard, or garbage collection languished in the middle of a blistering heat wave, or because an influential individual had their luxury car’s suspension ruined by a cavernous pothole.

Town Manager Larry Shaffer reported to the Select board Thursday night that the $27,600 DPW asphalt budget was depleted, so we would have to wait until the start of the new fiscal year (July 1) for pothole maintenance.

Excuse me?

Would a restaurant in Florida wait a summer month for air conditioning repairs because their HVAC maintenance budget was expended? Divert from another budget, take out a loan or rob a bank.

I quickly asked if the $50,000 emergency Reserve Fund controlled by the Finance Committee could be tapped and Mr. Shaffer responded that it was completely encumbered.

Moments later the Town Manager championed the Cherry Hill Golf Course; but he made the mistake of releasing current revenues—$175,000—with only June remaining in the Fiscal Year. And last June they generated $28,000, so even if they do 10% better that still brings them in at $206,000. The Finance Committee declared $224,000 in revenues required for break even.

Even worse, the Town Manager projected operations at $213,000 a $21,000 overrun from the $192,385 budget approved by the Finance Committee and Town Meeting. $18,000 in revenue shortfalls combined with $20,615 budget overruns equals tax losses of $38,615 for FY07 (not counting the $17,000 Payment In Lieu Of Taxes no longer made).

So if the Niblik privatization contract had been in effect, rather than a $38,615 loss we could have had a $35,000 gain or a $73,615 turnaround, significant enough to fund teachers, police or human services.

Last year Cherry Hill lost $59,649 and the Finance Committee covered $13,419 of that from the Reserve Fund.

On Friday I called FinCom chair Alice Carlozzi to confirm the current status of the Reserve Fund. She corroborated that it was entirely tapped out and, indeed, Cherry Hill will absorb $16,500 of that—or one-third of the total fund created to cover “unanticipated emergencies.”

We can spend emergency money on golf, but not on potholes? Only in Amherst!