I went from skeptic to supporter on Jones Library project

By Nick Grabbe

I confess that I used to be skeptical about the $35.3 million project to expand and renovate the Jones Library.

I have been a regular visitor to our beautiful library for 37 years, and have always thought that it met my needs very well. I rarely had a problem finding my way around its many rooms, and the children’s room seemed adequate to me.

After the pandemic made me unable to go inside the library for 15 months, I felt sad that the project would make the building inaccessible during construction. Since I know Carol Pope, the designer of the lovely garden behind the library, I sympathized with her desire not to have the expansion infringe on it.

But I will be voting “Yes” next Tuesday on the referendum to affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in support of the project. As Councilor Alisa Brewer related one resident’s succinct message to her, “To refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective.”

I’ll summarize these four perspectives, but truthfully, I have two other reasons why I’ll be voting “Yes” that pertain to the kind of town we want Amherst to be.

Finances. The library project is a great deal for taxpayers. The Town’s $15.8 million share of the cost (only 39 percent) is being borrowed and will not cause a tax increase. A “No” vote would mean spending about the same amount on the repairs that are needed because of 30 years of deferred maintenance – with no state money! After a minority at Amherst Town Meeting rejected $34 million in state money to help finance a new elementary school, which will now be much more expensive, it makes no sense to now reject $13.8 million in state money for an improved library. Re-establishing credibility with state funding sources is critical. A campaign to support the project has pledged to raise $6.6 million. The library project is not an unnecessary expense; it’s an opportunity to buy something we need at a bargain price.

Climate. The library project will represent a major step toward meeting the Town’s climate goals by moving away from the use of natural gas. It will result in a significant reduction in energy use even though the amount of floor space will increase. I don’t understand the reasoning of some climate activists who maintain that the project will result in a net increase in energy use because of the new materials to be used and the old ones to be discarded. Several local energy experts have said unambiguously that this project as a whole represents a big win for climate action.

Education. The Jones Library has a responsibility to the many visitors who come to Amherst to see the archival materials related to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and others in Special Collections. There have been at least four water leaks that resulted in damage to rare books in the past five years, due to a malfunctioning heating and cooling system. In addition, the Jones Library provides 16,000 hours a year of English as a Second Language instruction, and the space provided for this important service is inadequate.

Social justice. As I transitioned from skeptic to supporter, I realized that my own needs for the library could not be my most important consideration. I had to think about the physically disabled people who can’t fully use the building, the residents who rely on the library for computer use, and the newcomers who can’t find the bathrooms or meeting rooms. Most of all, I had to consider the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be using the Jones Library in the coming decades.

All of these are important factors. But for me, there are also two overriding issues. The first one relates to the reason why we’re having this referendum in the first place. It’s all about democracy.

The library Trustees who were elected to their posts worked out the details of this project. Voters favored Trustee candidates who supported the project over those who didn’t. Many Town Councilors backed the library project in their campaigns three years ago and were then elected in a high-turnout, competitive election. Opponents of the project have had ample opportunity to state their case. Council President Lynn Griesemer was, like me, skeptical before she fully considered all the reasons to proceed with the project. The vote on the Council to support the project was overwhelming.

But that was not enough for the determined opponents. They circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the library project, and were not deterred when they failed to collect enough certified signatures. Even though some who signed the petition said they misunderstood its purpose and asked for their signatures to be removed, the opponents went to court. They forced taxpayers to pay for much legal consultation, and then the Town Council scheduled Tuesday’s referendum, which is what opponents were seeking. I hope a “Yes” vote will put an end to the debate.

I was a member of the Charter Commission, and I remember saying that the “voter veto” provision that’s been invoked by library opponents should make overturning a Council action “difficult but not impossible.” I now regret that the commission did not restrict this “voter veto” to Council votes that were closer.

When you lose a political battle, as the library opponents did, instead of continuing the fight, it’s better to accept defeat. The “voter veto” provision of the charter should be used only when the Council vote was close and there’s good reason to believe it does not reflect public sentiment, or when there’s been new information or some change of circumstances.

One of the key principles of democracy is that sometimes you have to live with results you don’t like.

The other overriding issue for me is the willingness of library opponents to use deception in their campaign. Many of us received a postcard last weekend with a manipulated image of a wrecking ball about to strike the Jones Library building. The facade of the library will not be demolished during the renovation project, but the opponents apparently believe that some voters will be influenced by this false image. (This postcard shows why referendums are risky; residents who haven’t paid attention to an issue are more vulnerable to this kind of deception than a town council.) I don’t want to see this brand of smash-mouth politics become standard practice in Amherst’s political campaigns.

Library opponents have also been spreading false rumors. No, the project will not cause a tax increase, and no, it will not mean the closure of the branch libraries. We have debunked all of those rumors here and here. I don’t mind disagreement about important local issues — that’s inherent in a democracy — but I support the old-fashioned notion that facts matter.

It’s OK to be skeptical of proposals made by Town officials, but it’s important to look at the facts. By voting “Yes” on Tuesday, we’ll be doing more than just voting for an expanded, energy-efficient, accessible library. We’ll be casting a vote of confidence that Amherst can move forward in updating our public infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.

Jones Library Trustees announce anti-racism policy for the Building Committee

By Sarah Marshall

This week, the Trustees unanimously passed a policy meant to guide the Building Committee as it undertakes its work (pending approval on Nov. 2). Here is the text:

MOTION – The Trustees of the Jones Library publicly announce their intention that the renovated and expanded Library be developed in such a way to assure all members of the Amherst community are and feel welcome, and that all members of the community feel that the Library belongs to them.  Such intention would be realized in the first instance through the work of the Building Committee, which work should be guided by a commitment to antiracism and include the perspectives of marginalized groups.  That Committee’s work must involve an examination of the way different communities in our town use and experience Library spaces and the iconography and representations contained in the Library.  Approved as amended, 6-0-0.

A few weeks ago, Library Director Sharon Sharry discussed, during the recent Cuppa’ Joe meeting focusing on the project, the painful realization that some members of our community do not feel welcome in the existing library spaces. She mentioned that, for example, encountering a large, formal portrait of a white benefactor in the front entry seemed to announce the space as white.

Editors’ note #11

The Amherst Current will not be endorsing any candidates in the Nov. 2 election. Now, we are extending that policy of not favoring any candidates to the comments section of the blog.

From now until the election:

  • We will accept respectful comments that criticize or commend positions that candidates have taken, but we will reject comments that include personal attacks, innuendo, hearsay, speculation about motives and gratuitous insults. Amherst people don’t like negative campaigning, and we won’t tolerate it.
  • All comments must directly pertain to the blog post they are attached to. Please do not send us comments that are unrelated to the subject under discussion.

Nick Grabbe and Sarah Marshall

Two energy experts endorse Jones Library renovation project

This first statement is from Todd Holland, an Amherst resident with four decades of construction experience who served on the Jones Library Sustainability Committee.

I want to be sure our new library is a financially responsible investment, a step toward sustainability, and a key to honoring our carbon commitment.

Choosing building materials is one of the largest variables in the carbon equation.  The baseline design used concrete and steel.  But the massive energy inputs required to make and move those materials would have created a huge carbon footprint, one that even a highly efficient building would take decades to erase. 

With wood timber construction, the embodied carbon will be less than one-third of the baseline.  While far-out solutions to climate change imagine massive machines to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground, this project will take advantage of an existing solution: trees.  Trees pull carbon from our atmosphere, and building with wood sequesters that carbon, potentially for centuries. 

I know this because my house and garage were built from timbers salvaged from structures built in the 1800’s.  The carbon in those timbers was pulled from the atmosphere some 200 years ago and is still sequestered today. 

If the library went with the earlier design, it would take 30+ years to offset the embodied carbon with operational savings.  The lifetime carbon savings would be 4,500 metric tons.  That’s not insignificant, but the project before the voters will do far better. 

The proposed Jones Library will save 7,500 metric tons of carbon over its lifetime.  Its impressive energy efficiency will enable its low-carbon construction – and the relatively tiny footprint of demolition – to be offset in just over eight years.  And from then on it will pay a carbon dividend, year after year. 

This second statement is from Sara Draper, director of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, a net-zero energy building.

I am glad so many people in Amherst are thinking critically about building sustainability and about how the town should spend its energy and carbon “budget” to best fulfill our climate goals. The energy efficient, low-carbon Jones Library project is exactly where we should be spending those resources.

As a historic preservationist by training and a sustainable design advocate by trade, I was glad to be a part of the Jones Library Sustainability Committee. My litmus test for the Jones Library project was threefold: Does the proposed design improve the energy efficiency of the building without compromising the historic portion? Do the energy efficiency improvements of the new addition outweigh the carbon “cost” of demolition? And does the design help the Town of Amherst meet its sustainability goals? The answer to all these questions is yes.

By replacing the existing (leaky, inefficient) addition with a new high-performance structure, the overall energy efficiency of the Jones Library will improve by 60 percent. The new Library will have an EUI (Energy Use Intensity, a measure of energy use per square foot) of just 29 kBtu/sf/year, compared to the average 71.6 kBtu/sf/year for libraries nationwide. If we wanted to see comparable energy use improvements in the existing building, we’d need to undertake major work, like covering the existing stone walls with exterior insulation. This would drastically compromise the historic integrity of the original Library building, an outcome no one wants.

While these efficiency improvements are attractive, the Sustainability Committee wanted to make sure that the overall carbon impact of the project was positive — in other words, that the demolition and construction project would save more carbon than it emitted. The Sustainability Report put together by Finegold Alexander Architects shows that the overall carbon impact of the new Library would amount to
10,800 tonnes CO 2 eq over a projected 60-year span; this includes the carbon emissions associated with demolition and construction, and the carbon emitted during building operation (heating, cooling, electricity use, etc.). If left as it is, the current Jones Library will emit 18,300 tonnes CO 2 eq over that same
60 years — without the improvements in service and community space the proposed project will bring.

Critics of the project say that the “greenest” thing is to do nothing, to leave the building as it is. But we can’t do nothing. The Library heating and ventilation systems are at the end of their useful life and need to be replaced. Without substantial energy efficiency work to the current structure, the only feasible option would be to replace them with another gas boiler system, a course of action that directly contradicts the town’s goal to reduce fossil fuel use. We indeed cannot “kick the can down the road.”
The project will reduce the town’s dependence on fossil fuels, lower the energy costs of the Library, and better provide for the needs of all the town’s residents. That in itself would be enough for me, but I am excited that this project can also provide a valuable example of sustainable historic preservation, an essential component of successful climate action over the next 50 years.

At this point in the climate crisis, there is nothing worse than a missed opportunity. We need to reduce our energy use and associated operational carbon NOW. We need to lead the way in showing how to reduce the embodied carbon of our buildings. The Jones Library renovation and expansion project is the way to do that for the Town of Amherst, today.

Amherst needs more senior housing

By Elisa Campbell

Housing options are both limited and expensive in Amherst. A recent forum described our severe shortage, the factors that cause it, how it affects various groups of people, and measures being taken to mitigate the problem.

John Hornik, chair of the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust, reminded us that very little housing was built in Amherst from 1980 to 2010. During the same time period, the population grew, so pressure on the housing supply intensified. More recently, people moving here as a result of Covid-19, and the upsurge in investors buying houses that they then rent, have combined to increase prices dramatically.

In the most recent decade, while the largest group of residents continues to be people between the ages of 18 and 24, that percentage is smaller than it used to be. The proportion of adults aged 25 to 45, and of children 17 years old and younger have both decreased. People 65 and older are currently the smallest group but the one that is growing. We are becoming more and more a community of college-age and retirement-age people, with fewer families with school-age children.

One of the topics of the forum was housing for older adults who want to downsize from the house they lived in with a family and still live in Amherst. Many homeowners are struggling with their current housing costs; pre-pandemic data showed that 20 percent of Amherst homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and 10 percent spend 50 percent.

Mary Beth Ogulewicz, until recently the director of the Senior Center, said that Massachusetts is “graying” rapidly. In Amherst, by 2030, the cohort of the population increasing most rapidly is expected to be people over 80 years old. The Donahue Institute has reported that Massachusetts has the highest percentage in the country of single adults living alone, and that of those, 62 percent have incomes that do not meet their needs. In general, women face more economic insecurity than men. Given economic disparities, the problem is worst for people of color. Economic insecurity leads to having to decide between filling a prescription or paying a utility bill, or having enough to eat.

Moving to something smaller is not easy. There are few one-level houses in Amherst. While an owner of a house in Amherst has at least that financial asset, many can’t compete with the investors and people moving to Amherst from places with higher incomes and house values. Nor do most retirees want to pay a high rent in a development that is mostly filled with young people.

Some people become literally homeless. According to Gerry Weiss, President of the Board of Craig’s Doors, the local homeless shelter, estimates are that Massachusetts had over 2,000 elders in homeless shelters in the winter of 2020. In the past four seasons, Craig’s Doors has given shelter to 49 people age 62 and above; 10 of these people had been there in previous winters, with three of them having been there all four years. Of these people, 11 were 70 or older. This past year, the number of female guests age 62 or older nearly doubled from the average of the previous three years. In addition, there were at least two elders known to be living without shelter during the winter of 2020.

Hornik suggested Amherst should consider developing a new project of rental housing for older adults. Projects of the kind most likely to be suitable are called senior living residences. Existing ones in Massachusetts include the following facilities: outdoor living spaces; restaurant-style dining with healthy food options; enriched daily activities; studios and 1- and 2- bedroom apartments, each with kitchenette, walk-in shower, emergency alert systems, individual thermostat control, housekeeping and linen laundry services, apartment maintenance and utilities, and wiring for cable TV and phone. Senior living residences don’t provide health care, but do have staff who help coordinate services for residents from organizations in the area. Hornik noted that the developable land along West Pomeroy Lane at the former Hickory Ridge Golf Course could be used for such a facility.

Amherst has some subsidized senior housing. Three facilities are managed by the Amherst Housing Authority: Ann Whalen Apartments, Chestnut Court, and the Jean Elder House. Combined, they have 110 one-bedroom apartments and one apartment each of two bedrooms and three bedrooms. All have income limits. The Clark House has 100 apartments, 81 of which are for the elderly; 19 are for families and 10 are accessible. All are Section 8 apartments (subsidized, but one has to get on the list).
Amherst needs more housing for seniors who cannot afford their current home or want to reduce their costs and maintenance responsibilities. The suggestion of building some near the open space of the former golf course sounds good to me.

The forum was sponsored by Amherst Neighbors, the League of Women Voters, and the Town’s Affordable Housing Trust. A video of the forum is available from Amherst Media at https://youtube.com/watch?v=V1tjM-vl7u0

Music and performance venue planned for downtown

By Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe

Imagine a place in downtown Amherst where you can hear a jazz band play on a stage with first-class sound and lighting, while patrons sit at tables enjoying beverages prepared by skillful bartenders.

This place might also be the site of a poetry slam for college students. It might attract nationally known musical artists, attracting people from all over western Massachusetts. It could host a science night that brings together families and faculty from local colleges and universities. How about a place where you could hear TED talks? Or high school ensembles sharing their talents? Or see the work of local artists?

The 4,060-square-foot venue – on the upper level of the former High Horse at 44 North Pleasant Street – will be called The Drake in honor of the former hotel and bar at 85 Amity St. that was converted to apartments in 1985. Its memory has been kept alive by the graffiti on the back of the Amherst Center’s brick facade reading “Save the Drake; For Willy! For Humanity!” (Willie Whitfield was the Drake’s bartender.)

As Gabrielle Gould, director of Amherst’s Business Improvement District (BID), showed us around the site and described plans for the Drake, our view of piles of old insulation, layers of concrete dust, electrical conduits sticking up from the floor, random junk and disgusting old carpeting was replaced by her vision of an attractive venue alive with music and chatter.

“I want to flood the downtown with arts and culture and make it destination-worthy,” she told us. “No town can thrive unless its downtown thrives.” Gould envisions several layouts that could accommodate up to 200 people for music and dancing or 185 people for jazz or chamber music concerts. It will have a lounge area in the back where friends can chat without shouting over the music, she said. “You could meet the love of your life on the dance floor and then go sit there with martinis.”

The Drake will have a bar, perhaps with different cocktail menus depending on the type of show and audience, but will not be open when there’s no programming. Renowned Lincoln Allen, formerly of the Alvah Stone, will be the bar manager. The Drake will not offer food, as the goal is to attract people to downtown Amherst who then patronize existing restaurants. Gould has talked to restaurant owners about a cooperative system of charging customers.

The plan is starting to take shape. The Downtown Amherst Foundation, a non-profit entity established by the BID, recently received a $175,000 state grant. That pilot grant enabled the project to negotiate and pay for a three- year lease from landlord Barry Roberts, to hire Kuhn-Riddle Architects to draft the layout and design, and to contract with Tiger Web for web design and ticketing system.

Gould is working with Laudable Productions to book artists. The BID itself has donated funds toward the lighting and sound systems developed by Klondike Sound. Roberts and the Foundation are working with W.S. Pickering & Son on a new HVAC system.

Finally, Ludlow-based sculptor Kamil Peters, designer of the High Horse logo and the cow sculpture on North Pleasant Street, will create artwork.

According to Gould, the timing is right for this venture. Downtown Amherst could benefit from the economic boost that such an attractive venue could provide, and many artists are unhappy with the performance spaces of similar size in Northampton.

And the project is more than a pipedream. Landlord Roberts supports it, and Rep. James McGovern said on a recent tour of the site that this is exactly that kind of project that the federal recovery money should be used for. The Downtown Amherst Foundation has set up a Patronicity site that had raised more than $32,000 and has received a $10,000 matching grant from the Mill District. The foundation is also applying to the Town of Amherst for $300,000 from the millions of dollars we’re receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act.

But where would all these people coming from out of town for the musical shows, not to mention to the Amherst Cinema, park their cars? Gould supports the construction of a parking garage behind the CVS. (A zoning change that would enable this is due to come before the Town Council soon.) It will be a great day when we need to build a garage because we have so many visitors, she said. But the Drake will not wait.

What the Drake hopes to supply – an inviting, family-friendly music and performance venue – has topped every wish list on every survey of what Amherst needs for the past 10 years, Gould said. Depending on how rapidly funds are raised, the Drake could open sometime this winter.


We can’t wait!


To learn more, visit https://downtownamherstfoundation.org/thedrake and the
Patronicity site, https://www.patronicity.com/projectthe_drake__downtown_amherst_live_music_venue

Editors’ note #9: Greeney back on ballot, gets prime positioning

Robert Greeney has rescinded his withdrawal of candidacy for an at-large seat on the Town Council, and so his name will appear on the ballot on Election Day Nov. 2 after all.

Greeney filed the required number of signatures with the town clerk on Sept. 13, but withdrew his name from the ballot on Sept. 27. On Sept. 29, the day before the deadline, he rescinded that withdrawal.

Town Clerk Susan Audette said she checked with town counsel to make sure that, despite the unusual circumstances, it was legal to include Greeney’s name on the ballot

Greeney was a candidate for an at-large seat in the first Town Council election three years ago. He came in last of the six candidates, receiving 1,982 votes. The three candidates who were elected to at-large seats received more than 4,000 votes each.

When Audette drew lots for ballot position on Friday, Greeney’s name was the first one drawn. So his name will be the first one voters see on Nov. 2.

— Nick Grabbe

Downtown businesses seek renaissance

By Nick Grabbe

We lost Judie’s, Bart’s Ice Cream and the Lone Wolf during the pandemic. Amherst Yoga, the High Horse and M&M Links are also gone. Head Games, Amherst Barbers and Lit are all in the past. Amherst Copy & Designworks has relocated to Hadley.

A series of microgrants helped keep other struggling downtown businesses afloat during the pandemic, paid for mostly with private fundraising. A.J. Hastings’ business was down 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and Amherst Books’ business was down even more.

But now things are looking up. Negotiations to bring a food store and a music and performance venue to downtown Amherst are under way. Powerhouse Nutrition has opened at the Bart’s site, Mexcalito’s taco bar has opened where Shiru and Rao’s Coffee used to be, and Garcia’s restaurant is opening soon at the former Bertucci’s location. The Spoke, La Veracruzana and Go Berry are expanding their offerings, and two new restaurants called Protocol and Hazel’s Kitchen are preparing menus. Downtown is even getting a lingerie shop on Main Street called Art of Intimates.

The post-pandemic renaissance in downtown Amherst was recently highlighted on Capitol Hill by Mike Kenneally, the Massachusetts secretary of housing and economic development. Kenneally held up Amherst as a model of a town addressing the economic challenges created by the pandemic.

To learn more about these downtown initiatives, I sat down with Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District, and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. They said that although much has been accomplished, some key decisions are coming up.

“It’s amazing what we could create here,” said Gould. “The forward momentum could proceed if politics doesn’t get in the way.”

Amherst has always taken comfort in the stability provided by the University of Massachusetts and the colleges, and when they were mostly shut down during the pandemic, we were reminded of how vital they are to the local economy. Now UMass is expanding its retail and restaurant offerings on campus, creating a new challenge for downtown businesses.

One answer is to bring more people to town. Using a $116,655 state grant, the Chamber has launched a marketing campaign to draw people from outside the area to Amherst’s hiking trails and museums as well as our campuses. A video promoting tourism on digital platforms and showing things to do here has had two million views, Pazmany said.

“The fact is, this is an incredibly beautiful place to live and visit and should be a destination for people,” said Gould. “The goal is to have people be here for more than a dropoff of students.”

The popular new playground at Kendrick Park already provides a destination for parents of young children. Plans for a live music and performance space at the former High Horse site will be detailed in a future post on this blog. Outdoor dining is due to continue next year.

Naomi Darling & Ray K Mann

Gould presented plans for a bandshell on the Town Common – to be paid for by the non-profit Downtown Amherst Foundation – to a supportive Town Council on Monday. And the project to beautify the northern part of the Town Common is proceeding.

The BID engaged a consultancy called Civic Moxie to advise on strategies for pandemic recovery. Its recommendations included investing in arts and culture, making zoning more business-friendly, and helping to navigate the permitting process at Town Hall.

But a complete renaissance “hangs in the balance,” Gould said. The election on Nov. 2 will determine whether the Jones Library expansion and renovation project can proceed and whether there will be a two-thirds majority on the Town Council for zoning changes to revitalize downtown. The Town Council will vote on a proposed zoning change would make possible a parking garage behind the CVS store. More spaces are due to be created on the eastern side of North Pleasant Street through angled parking. Gould supports all these initiatives.

There will never again be a full supermarket in downtown Amherst, but there could be enough people living downtown to support a food store, Gould said. Negotiations are ongoing with a business seeking to operate a store selling dairy, fish, meat, eggs and other food supplies at a specific location.

“Talk about a game-changer,” Gould said.

The two controversial five-story apartment buildings in the northern part of downtown have provided an increased density that promotes commerce, she said. Graduate students are stepping outside these buildings to go to Henion’s bakery, and young professors are bringing their shoes to Paul’s shoe repair store, she said.

“We could turn this into a highly-sought-after place to visit, to live, retire and raise families,” Gould said. “But it would be hard to convince business owners to come to a downtown that’s anti-development.”

Climate change: What is our town doing?

By Sarah Marshall

Climate change: what can our town do?

Several local efforts to increase renewable power generation, conserve energy, and/or reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions are under way. Some are recent and some are several years old, but all will soon bear fruit. Here is a roundup.

A landfill solar project will shortly begin construction at the closed landfill adjacent to the transfer station off Belchertown Road. Owned by Cypress Creek Renewables and built by Signal Energy, the system is expected to begin generating power (3.9 MW) next summer.  The Town, which will continue to own the land, will receive $78,000 per year over 30 years for leasing the land and in payments in lieu of taxes.  In addition, while the power will go on the grid, the Town will “offtake” all the generated electricity and pay a reduced rate.  This will cover most of the electricity demand of our municipal (but not school) buildings.

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

[Side note: A hitch in the planning (which began in 2012) meant that Town Council had to establish a conservation restriction on the other closed landfill, across the road, to compensate for loss of habitat for the grasshopper sparrow.  This restriction, voted in July of 2021, will be held by the Kestrel Land Trust. Plans for that southern part of the closed landfill now include not only Amherst’s first dog park but also 6-foot-wide trails around the conserved land.]

Commercial, industrial, and non-profit property owners such as houses of worship, as well as owners of multifamily housing of at least five units, will soon be able to participate in a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction program called Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE). The Council authorized the Town to participate in PACE in August of this year. This state-wide program allows qualifying property owners to submit plans for energy improvements that result in net energy savings and reductions in GHG emissions and, should their plans be approved, receive loans for these improvements, to be paid off over time via the local property taxation system.  The Town will add what is called a “betterment” to the property tax bill, so that the obligation to repay the loan transfers to the new owner if the property is sold.  Owners of property that is not currently taxed (e.g., a church) will only be able to participate if the Town can generate a property tax bill for them.

The PACE website, https://www.massdevelopment.com/pace, contains the details about what sorts of improvements may qualify. For example, windows or insulation may qualify, but appliances such as refrigerators do not. Importantly, the owner’s proposal must demonstrate that the savings in energy costs exceed the cost of the improvements over the lifetime of the improvements.  Interested? For questions about the Town’s role, contact Stephanie Ciccarello, the sustainability coordinator, at ciccarellos@amherstma.gov.  For questions about the PACE program, consult the website and/or contact Julie Cowan at jcowan@massdevelopment.com.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Amherst is making slow but steady progress on its plan to aggregate its town-wide electricity demand with that of Pelham and Northampton. The aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency and the development of local, renewable distributed energy resources. Back in November, 2017, Town Meeting directed the Town to consider participating in the state’s Community Choice Aggregation, with the goal of evaluating the pros and cons of such a program (you can see the ensuing task force’s report here).  After receiving the task force’s report, Town Council authorized the Town Manager to pursue Community Choice Aggregation.  Stephanie Ciccarello reports that once the chief executives of each town sign a contract with the chosen consultant – expected within the next two months – that firm will begin developing the specific aggregation plan. Residents will be invited into a public participation process. Meanwhile, an advisory group has been developing a Joint Powers Entity with funding secured by State Sen. Jo Comerford and State Rep. Mindy Domb.  The JPE, which should be established soon, will house the CCA program.

CAARP

Last (but not least by any means), the Energy and Climate Action Committee, established by Town Council in 2019, issued its Climate Action, Adaptation, and Resilience Plan in June of this year (click here to access the graphics-heavy file).  It presents strategies to aid in achieving the goal of reducing GHG emissions in Amherst by 25% by 2025, compared to 2016 levels. I found two graphics (on p. 13) describing the 2016 baseline to be particularly noteworthy: the first indicates that 74% of emissions came from stationary energy sources, and within this sector, only 37% came from non-college, non-UMass sources. Moreover, only 1% of stationary emissions came from the municipal buildings covered by our recent zero-energy bylaw.

Reductions in GHG emissions can be made nevertheless in both the non-campus stationary emissions sector (primarily emissions associated with buildings) and the (non-campus) transportation sector. All of the programs described above will help. But given that most of the non-campus emissions stem from the actions of individuals and businesses, much of the Town’s role will be to educate, encourage, and facilitate participation in existing programs or adoption of best practices in construction.

CAARP

I am sure readers can think of other local efforts to respond to the urgent demands of climate change, but I find these municipal efforts encouraging.

Fiscal sustainability: Some modest proposals

By Bob Rakoff

The Town of Amherst is not fiscally sustainable without significant changes. The major problem is that nearly 50 percent of the land in town is exempt from property taxes, which account for 70 percent of the Town’s annual revenues. State aid makes up another 20 percent, while 10 percent comes from other sources.

The Town has limited control over these sources of revenue. The state makes its own decisions about local assistance. And the ability of the town to increase property tax revenue is constrained by law, by the regional real estate market, by a limited supply of buildable land that is appropriately zoned for development, and, of course, by the unpopularity of tax increases.

At the same time, demand for public services continues to increase beyond the growth of our tax base; we already face one of the highest property tax rates in the state. Deferred capital projects (library, school, fire, public works) pose significant financing challenges, even in an era of low interest rates. Voter approval of a tax override in 2022 to finance a new elementary school is by no means assured.

In response to this tension between the supply of tax revenue and the demand for expanded and quality services, there have been two kinds of responses.

Some people call for retrenchment, with deferral or scaling back of some capital projects along with cutbacks in regular annual spending. Others see more intensive commercial and apartment development as the route to a more sustainable and affordable future that does not sacrifice needed building projects or popular programs.

Retrenchment is not politically popular, and its proponents are also largely opposed to increased apartment development. Meanwhile, proponents of expanding apartment construction to increase tax revenue acknowledge that such development may make expansion of town-financed services (e.g., schools, library, public safety) even more necessary. Of course, if apartment development attracts mostly households without children, then the impact on school spending is lessened. But that would mean more apartments for college students, not working families, hardly the best or most equitable future for our diverse town.

There seem to be no easy answers. We need new revenue sources. And we need new, outside-the-box thinking.

So, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, here are a few modest proposals for a more sustainable fiscal future for Amherst.

NULLIFICATION. Texas has taken the lead in declaring that it has the right and power to nullify federal laws it dislikes. Let the Lone Star State be our guide here. The Town should declare as oppressive the state and federal laws that prevent the taxation of property owned by non-profit organizations and move expeditiously to tax the holdings of Amherst College, Hampshire College, and other rich, tax-exempt landowners.

UMASS STUDENTS. There is not much we can do to get more money out of UMass. But UMass students are another story. Those students spend millions of dollars to purchase credit hours. Those credit hours are a commodity that is ripe for taxation. Let’s go after them.

Photo by Adi Coco on Unsplash

GAMBLING. Instead of pursuing boring and expensive capital projects that will never return real profits to the town, we should pursue the more lucrative path of casino development. Perhaps go for double-or-nothing by locating a casino on the capped landfill.

NAMING RIGHTS. We already have a library named for the benefactor, Samuel Minot Jones. Let’s sell the naming rights for other buildings and spaces. Imagine a Jeff Bezos Elementary School, or a Warren Buffet Public Works edifice. Or imagine buying your local fruit and veg on the Apple Computer/Steve Jobs Memorial Town Common.


ANNEXATION. As one local wag put it (OK, it was our own Nick Grabbe), the Town of Amherst has outsourced its commercial development to the Town of Hadley, which reaps the benefits of an expanded tax base, increased revenue, and low tax rates for homeowners. We need to take control of that development and seize those tax benefits. The town should raise a militia (perhaps ROTC at the University could assist), march directly down the hill, and forcibly annex the Town of Hadley. This would add substantially to our commercial tax base while providing us with valuable agricultural and waterfront property. The likelihood that there are more gun owners in Hadley than in Amherst should not deter us. Be of stout heart.

Pretty wacky, I know. But both fantasy and reality require outside assistance to move toward fiscal sustainability. The state grants the town new taxing authority. A rich benefactor comes to town. Neighboring towns join forces to work together on common problems.

It’s this last case that points the way to a new path. Not through conquest, but through regional cooperation. The accident of having a big state institution or less valuable property should not determine a town’s ability to offer and pay for public services. Equity and efficiency demand a shared, regional approach to governance. And for Amherst that means re-creating Hampshire County government. What that would entail, and promise, will be the subject of a future article.

Editors’ Note #8

We plan to begin election-related fact checking!  Please email us if you read or hear, first-hand, incorrect or suspect public statements from candidates or groups. You must be able to document who, what, when, and where, and provide your name, and if you can document the correct information, please send it also. Be sure to distinguish statements of fact and statements of opinion, and allow for some campaign hyperbole. No anonymous tips! (But we won’t post your name.) And no guarantee that we can or will choose to respond. If we learn of errors worthy of correction, we will begin a Fact-check page.

This is new for us so we will see how it goes.

In their own words

By Sarah Marshall

On November 2, Amherst voters will be asked whether they affirm the vote taken by our Town Council on April 5, 2021 to proceed with the Jones Library expansion and renovation project by appropriating and authorizing borrowing of the necessary funds.

In preparation, all voters would do well to read or listen to the remarks that Councilors made immediately before their important April vote, because they lay out the important considerations that were worked through in extensive meetings of the Council, the Finance Committee, the Library Board of Trustees, and public forums. To that end, we are adding a new page, “Councilors’ statements on the Jones Library project,” on which each Councilor’s remarks are fully presented. In the rest of today’s post, we give excerpts in the order in which Councilors spoke at the public meeting.

Cathy Schoen

[Part] of it is an interest-free loan that will be repaid by the Trustees if they can get the pledges. So we have to hope that that will happen, and we have an Memorandum of Understanding [with the Trustees of the Jones Library] that we can tap into the endowment fund or potentially put a lien on the building but really we don’t have this secured. . . What has always concerned me – I love the Library and want it to be renovated.  I think it needs repairs but I think it is a high cost risk and no matter how many questions I ask I still have uncertainty that we will actually keep our share to what is. . . 

Mandi Jo Hanneke

A yes vote helps us meet the Climate Action Goals we adopted in 2019 by getting rid of the fossil-fuel heating system and dramatically improving the energy efficiency in one of our largest public buildings. A yes vote helps our future economic health and well-being by bringing more visitors to town. A yes vote addresses social justice in our society . . .A yes vote is financially prudent . . . a yes vote ensures that the building will serve our residents over the next 50 years. . .

Darcy Dumont

The fact that our own Finance Committee didn’t make an affirmative recommendation was concerning to me. . . To me, the library expansion is not a need, it’s a want.  I am afraid that a vote to fund this major project will convince folks to vote against the school project when the school override vote comes up. . . we need to be factoring in our new goals of racial equity and climate action. . . Additionally, I agree with the suggestion that we should try to design any library expansion or any municipal building so that it also gives our town a climate resilience hub. . .

Evan Ross

But climate action goals and a climate action plan are only valuable if they are followed by action. So approving this project would be the most significant action this Council will take on climate. . .This project helps us take a tangible step towards our climate action goals and sends a strong message to our community that we are serious about achieving those goals, whereas forfeiting this opportunity now will only make it more difficult down the road to achieve those adopted goals. . . if you are someone who says “the library works fine as is,” if you are someone who sees this project as a want and not a need, consider that is in part because of your privilege and that maybe this project isn’t for you.

Dorothy Pam

I feel very proud of the work that many people on this Council have done in making us come up with a better plan or helping us to encourage changes in design, and I think that we have come to a place now where it is prudent to go forward. . .[After the pandemic} we are hoping to come together as a civil, social, intellectual, political body again and the library is going to be, I think, the place where we are going to do it. . .So we have this library right in the heart of downtown and we are hoping for a reawakening of our town, of our society and at this moment having gone through the budgets at some point you just have to take things on faith, and I am going to make the leap of faith and trust that the work and the numbers that we have been shown are accurate. . .

Andy Steinberg

One comment was made that the Finance Committee did not make recommendations and something should be read into that, and I want to make it clear that that is absolutely not the case. We were asked not to make a recommendation. . . The reality is that the repair costs are going to be pretty much the same as the cost the town will ultimately have to bear. And . . . I also wanted to respond to the assertion made earlier that we are taking on a huge risk. I don’t think we are taking on a huge risk. . . 

Pat De Angelis

I acknowledge that voting yes is taking risks . . .But not doing this project poses risks as well: piecemeal repairs that will cost almost as much as  renovation/expansion, losing state funding and losing credibility with state funders, ongoing impacts to English Language Learners, low income residents . . .

Steve Schreiber

Libraries are the most democratic buildings; town commons are also democratic; but libraries literally the most democratic institution invented in this country. . . I want to address one tenet:  the greenest building is the one that is already built. Another tenet is – Cash for Clunkers. . .  I see this [library project] as a Cash for Clunkers on steroids. It’s something that serves the entire community, it’s all about the social capital as opposed to electric vehicles which are all about the individual. . . 

Sarah Swartz

I guess I’m going to go out of this Council speaking for the middle class, which I don’t think anybody has addressed. We’ve heard from people that there are young rich families who would like to settle here and they can pay these taxes and this is what they want. . . So for me, we are looking at these projects and I have to say it seems like we are taking a very expensive one first . . . I am concerned about people being able to stay in town, and I do not believe that middle class people in five years will be able to, and I’m going to vote against the project, much as I love the library. . .

George Ryan

A library today is so much more than a place to house books. It is a key community resource that serves us in so many ways. Much like the Amherst of Samuel Minot Jones’s day, we too are emerging from a global pandemic.  Like them, we need now more than ever, as Dorothy suggested, to believe in the future and the possibilities of our town. We cannot be afraid. We need to provide those who come after us the tools they will need to ensure that this town continues to prosper and to flourish. Like Samuel Minot Jones, now is the time for vision and for courage. . .

Shalini Bahl-Milne

Two things I want to add to the conversation. One is something that Todd Holland, an engineer, stated earlier – that most of the arguing can lead to inaction and inaction is the only wrong move today. . . Something that Sarah talked about, and we are hearing from a lot of residents, is the high property taxes and the burden this would put. As George has mentioned, we have a plan, and yes it could go off, but we do have one plan. And the other part is the library is part of that vision, it is part of the solution, it is not going to increase our property taxes. We need to solve that problem of high property taxes but not by saying no to the library. . .

Lynn Griesemer

While this may come as a surprise to many of you, I began the process of reviewing the Jones Library proposal to the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners as a skeptic. However, after two years of helping to manage the process of bringing this vote to the Town Council, I have become supportive of accepting the MBLC grant, allowing the Jones Library to do a much-needed renovation and expansion. . .  I want you to make sure you hear this message loud and clear, let me state it without equivocation, that as long as I have anything to say about it, there will be no more money than what we are voting tonight. This is all you get. And, we will not favor you in future operating budgets. The Town will not allow cost overruns. . .

Alisa Brewer

[I want to share a] direct quote from one of the many emails we have received which I thought summarized things extremely well from my point of view. Which was that to refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective. . . We are not expecting Friends of the elementary school,  Friends of the DPW, or Friends of the fire station to raise a single penny towards any of those facilities. Yet the Friends of the Jones Library has made a large commitment, has already seen quite a bit of results with that commitment even without our vote . . .

Moving Amherst’s 6th-graders is a good idea – and gets us a new school

By Anastasia Ordonez

“I’ve been hearing rumors that the district might be moving the 6th grade to the middle school. What’s the big deal, and why now?” 

The rumors are true, and it’s a fair question posed to me recently by an Amherst parent as we walked our dogs through Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. Questions like this have been popping up lately as people are reminded of key decisions the School Committees must make soon to reduce crowding in our elementary schools and prepare for a new school building project.

Personally, I’m thrilled by the idea of my fifth grader joining his brother in middle school and getting three years there to learn the ropes instead of just two. Middle school is hard, and right now, our district’s kids only get two years to figure out how to manage more homework and independent study habits before they get pushed into high school. But I also get that some parents are worried and feel like the timeline for this decision is too quick, even if they agree with the basic idea of a move. 

Thankfully, this conversation is not new, and our district has done a lot of work to get to this point. (Note that this upcoming decision only affects Amherst schools – each town in the regional district will eventually make its own decision about whether to move their sixth grade to the middle school.) The question was first examined publicly about ten years ago, when enrollment in the middle school had started to decline. More recently, the question came back up in relation to the proposed building project to replace both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools. The sixth grade must move if we a) want a new, but smaller, building to replace both schools, and b) we want the state’s Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help pay for it.

The MSBA confirmed this last December when they said they would approve either one kindergarten through sixth grade building of 320 students, or a kindergarten through fifth grade building of 575 students. The K-6 option of 320 students is basically a replacement for just Fort River at current enrollment levels, whereas a K-5 option would replace both Fort River and Wildwood schools simultaneously. 

There are several reasons why we shouldn’t want a 320-student building. A Fort River-only replacement won’t work because we cannot afford to replace Wildwood on our own without state aid. And who wants to make Wildwood students and teachers wait years to replace their failing school building when we have a great alternative now? 

Also, a building for 320 students is simply not big enough to accommodate our needs. Caminantes, the new Spanish-English dual language immersion program at Fort River, requires two Caminantes classes and at least one non-Caminantes class per grade, which translates into 420 students for a K-6 building. And Fort River and Wildwood have lost usable class space due to COVID social distancing requirements, as discussed this summer (page 13) by the School Committee.

Since the question of moving the sixth grade has come up in the past, the district undertook a feasibility study in 2019 to research whether there would be enough room at the middle school to add the sixth grade and how much it would cost. They even examined the high school as an alternative, but ultimately found that the middle school made more financial sense and would be cost-neutral.

Moving the sixth grade to the middle school has several developmental benefits for our students, too. 

A Middle School Grade Span Advisory Group — consisting of teachers, parents, and community members — was formed in 2019 to study the educational and social-emotional needs of middle schoolers, and their final report was shared with the Regional School Committee. The report shared the pros and cons of a move but highlighted support from teachers, who know that the educational and developmental needs of middle school-aged children are better met in a dedicated middle school environment. Also, a 6-8 grade span is what most districts have in Massachusetts, meaning stronger curriculum options. 

Simply put, our students benefit from more time in middle school so they can get proper advising and educational support to transition to high school. Two years just doesn’t cut it for many kids, especially those with special needs or who just need more help.

Next Tuesday, the Amherst School Committee will hold its second public forum to hear from community members about whether they support this move. The Committee will then formally vote on Oct. 5 on whether the move should happen and when. Public comments should be made by 3 p.m. on Sept. 21 via email at mcdonalda@arps.org or by leaving a voicemail message for School Committee Chair Allison McDonald at 413-345-2949. You can also choose to make your public comments live during the public forum via Google Meet (watch agendas here for meeting link and instructions).

Change is hard. But we know after years of discussion and study that our current and future students need us to act decisively now to move these projects forward. I hope that you will join me in asking the Amherst School Committee to vote in favor of a sixth grade move on the timetable that best serves students, so that all our children can finally benefit from healthy school environments.

Housing for all – can we thread the needle?

By Sarah Marshall

Skyrocketing prices for buying or renting a home; a decreasing number of owner-occupied dwellings; scant opportunity for people in lower income ranges to live in Amherst; limited land on which to build any kind of housing — what can be done? Should something be done?

In mid-August, Amherst’s Town Council began discussing a proposed Comprehensive Housing Policy.  The draft policy (which you can read here) was developed over two years with the involvement of several Town committees and local housing experts. 

The proposed policy lays out five goals:

  • Promote greater pathways to home-ownership and integrated communities through increased supply of a diversity of housing types;
  • Increase the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing;
  • Create, update, and maintain safe, secure, and environmentally healthy housing;
  • Address climate sustainability and resiliency of housing stock, location, and construction;
  • Align and leverage municipal funding and other resources to support affordable housing.

The draft policy lays out numerous strategies to make progress towards these goals and describes how to measure progress.  The possible strategies include:

  • Enact zoning changes to permit or encourage lot division, cottages, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes, or redefining “family” and “unrelated individuals” within the bylaw;
  • Provide incentives for meeting energy efficiency standards in new construction;
  • Waive, reduce, or rebate various fees for construction of affordable housing;
  • Adopt a derelict house bylaw and/or strengthen the rental registration bylaw;
  • Develop funding so that existing housing can be made permanently affordable;
  • Use Town funds to buy private land for affordable housing projects;
  • Encourage UMass to increase on-campus student housing.

Councilors raised technical concerns, such as who would have responsibility for promoting and implementing the policy, whether zoning strategies are effectively endorsed by Council if they are listed as possibilities, and whether sustainability strategies are consistent with the recent report of the Energy and Climate Action Committee.

But much of the Council’s conversation addressed difficult and complex questions such as:

  • How big should Amherst get? Besides changes to the town’s “look,” how might the cost of services grow if the population increases substantially?
  • What are the cost implications to the Town budget of the suggested strategies?
  • The Town has little to no power to require UMass to build housing, so how useful is asking UMass to move more students from market-rate housing onto campus? Should we pressure the state legislature to devote more funds to UMass housing?
  • Most of Amherst’s open space is either owned by colleges and the University, protected conservation land, or too wet to support housing. Can we only add housing by densifying in existing areas?
  • If zoning choices of the past have inadvertently promoted conversion of single-family homes to rental units, what share of blame can be fairly put on UMass?
  • Should we just accept that Amherst is, or will be, affordable only to students and the very well off?

I am on record as favoring changes that increase the density of housing in village centers, consistent with our Master Plan. Many of these can be achieved at little cost to the Town yet would significantly increase our property tax revenue and increase the customer base for our local businesses.

But the goals and strategies regarding affordable housing (broadly defined) present more difficult decisions.  I think it is fair to say that for-profit developers (and property owners) will not deliberately lose money. The more expensive the Town’s requirements for new construction or rental properties, the less likely it is that rents or purchase prices can be held below the desired profit margin, or even cost, and the less likely the housing is to be “affordable.”  Laudable as the goals are of ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, lives in safe, well maintained, energy-efficient construction near public transportation, it seems to me pointless to depend on for-profit developers to build large numbers of such units. We can certainly impose many progressive requirements, so that any housing that is built or renovated meets our high standards, but the high cost may merely drive construction to less-demanding cities and towns, defeating the fundamental aim of a Comprehensive Housing Policy.

Because the great majority of affordable housing units are built and/or operated by non-profits and government agencies, or are poorly maintained private properties, perhaps some goals of the proposed policy would be most directly attained by devoting an increasing proportion of Amherst’s tax dollars to housing built, operated, purchased, subsidized, deed-restricted, or retrofitted by the Town, either on land purchased by the Town or re-purposed Town-owned property.  Two recent examples: the Town has purchased property on Belchertown Road with Community Preservation Act money to offer to a developer for affordable housing, and has declared the old East Street School to be surplus Town property that can also be made available for affordable housing.  But whether voters would support a greatly increased commitment at the ballot box is questionable, in my mind, especially when we want to ramp up spending on other Town priorities, such as climate change mitigation and a community responder program.

I do not know if Amherst’s combination of open space, buildable land, charm, and educational institutions makes it unique, but those factors definitely create enormous challenges to enlarging the spectrum of housing types and price points. Whether we can thread the needle to our satisfaction remains to be seen.

Policing alternative: how it would work

Editor’s Note: A public forum on this program will be held this Thursday, Sept. 9, from 7 to 9 p.m. See end of this post for Zoom information.

By Bernie Kubiak

In response to concerns about policing in Amherst, a Community Safety Working Group was convened by the Town Manager and endorsed by the Town Council. The group’s charge is to study the public safety services provided by the Amherst Police Department to ensure racial equity, recommend reforms to organizational and oversight structures, and examine existing Town funding priorities for community safety. Underpinning the committee’s work is a research report prepared by the 7 Generations Movement Collective (7GenMC), contracted for by the Town.

The working group’s intention is to make recommendations that are anti-racist and equitable, and propose preventive services that reduce the need for public safety involvement. Their initial report contains several recommendations, among them:

  1. Create a “Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service” (CRESS) program;
  2. Create an Amherst Resident Oversight Board;
  3. Create a Town Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion;
  4. Develop a Youth Empowerment Center and a BIPOC cultural center;
  5. Reduce the size of the Amherst Police Department; and
  6. Continue the Community Safety Working Group.

One recommendation under active development is the CRESS program, a variation on the theme set by CAHOOTS in Eugene, Ore. In operation for almost 30 years, CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) is a mobile crisis intervention program that assists the Police Department by taking social services calls, including crisis counseling, where there is no apparent need for an armed officer.

CAHOOTS is funded through the police budget. There is widespread agreement that CAHOOTS, by providing trained crisis management staff, has worked to reduce police violence, and it is supported by local law enforcement. Eugene has a population of around 170,000, and the program’s budget is $2 million a year.

The CRESS proposal, which is seen as helping to dismantle systemic racism, sets out a number of elements: two two-person multi-racial teams, available on a 24/7 basis, operating independently of the Police Department but cooperating with it. CRESS teams could be sent out either from the Town’s Communications Center or by a separate CRESS-staffed dispatch center. Team members are to be Town employees, supported by program supervisors and a director.

CRESS teams would be the first responders in situations that do not involve violence or serious criminal activity. They would address homeless individuals, intoxication/substance abuse, mental health crises, trespassing, and wellness checks. They would be available to intervene in the schools as well. The responders could not order treatment or compliance and would rely on the police if violence occurs.

The working group’s report calls for the program to be fully operational by 2022. Both the Town Manager and the Council support the goal, but putting the program as described in place will be a challenge. The most obvious difficulty is the program’s proposed first-year cost of $2.8 million for 26 staff, 12 of them responders (at four staff per shift). The proposal also calls for a separate 24/7 dispatch operation that would add to the overall costs. While the Town’s pay scales were used to determine salaries, no explanation was given as to how salary levels and step raises were determined.

But only $475,000 has been identified to fund a startup, with $180,000 reallocated from the police budget (two unfilled patrol positions) and targeted for initial staff hires (program director and four responders). Planning, training, consults, and equipment are budgeted at $250,000 from Rescue Plan Act funding. An estimated $45,000 for benefits would have to be made up, and may be covered through a $90,000 earmark in the recently passed state budget.

The Town Manager is optimistic that grant funds can be obtained, and the Council insists that a way to fund eight responders be found. One way to fund the program would be to reduce the size of the Police Department. The 7GenMC report suggests moving from a staffing level of 44 to 25 over five years, by abandoning the community policing model and shifting to a more reactive approach.

The CRESS teams are projected to reduce the number of calls managed by the police. The question is how much of a reduction would actually occur, given that no substantial assessment of police activity was available when the report was written. That assessment was promised but has yet to be published. The current year’s operating budget for the police (not including facility or communications center costs) is $5.18 million, so a fully functional CRESS program would amount to slightly more than half of the police budget.

There is much to be worked out to bring a community responder program into operation. Costs can be reduced by eliminating the proposed separate dispatch system. The Public Safety Communications Center could be used to dispatch non-police teams, eliminating the need for staffing a second center (and the confusion that could come from having two). Having comprehensive job descriptions for CRESS staff would allow an accurate determination of salaries. Agreement on the nature of CRESS activities and the impact on police operations would allow a more precise determination of staffing needs. Purchasing the services rather than creating a new town department might be considered as well.

The Town Manager envisions an implementation team composed of the Police and Fire Chiefs, Finance Director, Human Resources, working group representatives and others. The team, Town Hall, and Town Council have a considerable amount of work to do to implement a community responder program and find a path to financial sustainability.

To participate in the Sept. 9 forum, go to: https://amherstma.zoom.us/s/85733815330#success Or join by phone: 253-215-8782 or 346-248-7799 Webinar ID: 857 3381 5330
Amherst, MA 01002

Editors’ note

We will launch a new page, Candidate Information and Events, next week.  Since the nomination period has not yet closed and campaigns are just getting started, content will be light at first but will grow over time. Candidates and groups are invited to submit information to us (theamherstcurrent@gmail.com) that meets requirements detailed on the page. For example, we will list events that are open to all candidates (for Town Council, at least all candidates for a district), candidate web pages and social media links, and links to any surveys sent to all candidates.

Deciphering downtown parking

By Nick Grabbe

Visitors to Amherst often drive up and down North Pleasant and Main Streets looking for a parking space, not knowing that less expensive spaces are often available on Spring Street.

Residents going out to a restaurant can get frustrated looking for a parking space, not knowing that the blue-sign spaces on the periphery, reserved for those with permits, become available to anyone after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

And many business owners want to see a garage built behind CVS, in spite of the fierce battles over the Boltwood Walk garage in the 1990s and the difficulties of design, financing and operation.

Parking rules in downtown Amherst can be hard to understand. There are five categories of public parking, with different rates per hour, time limits and enforcement hours. Many visitors don’t know what the rules are for the places they’ve parked until they look at the places to pay. Parking is also controversial, with multiple constituencies, all pushing for their own interests.

So, with downtown traffic returning to something resembling “normal” in September, I consulted several local experts to get answers to some common questions.

Q. What are the five areas with different parking rates, time limits and enforcement hours?

A. Meters on North Pleasant, Main and Amity Streets charge $1 an hour, with a two-hour limit from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The lots at Boltwood Walk, Amity Street and Main Street are similar, but with four-hour time limits. To see those areas and the three other categories, check out this map:

Q. Why the differences? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have the same rates, limits and enforcement for all public parking spaces?

A. The system provides incentives for parking in underutilized lots and spreads out parking demand by charging more for the more desirable spaces close to downtown. There is some evidence that the system has been successful in doing this. But town officials recognize that the complexity can be confusing, and are planning to recommend changes next year, or at least better ways to explain the rules.

Q. Where are the parking spaces that are often available but most people don’t know about?

A. The “Ann Whalen lot” off Kellogg Avenue, Sellen Street, the Town Hall lot and the lower level of the Boltwood Walk garage are four. You can nominate others by posting a comment below.

Q. Will there be a move to build a parking garage behind CVS?

A. The Planning Board and a Town Council subcommittee are expected to make recommendations to the full Council as early as mid-September about a zoning change that would enable a garage there — but would not cause it to be built.

Q. Are there problems in building a garage there?

A. Many. Finding private companies interested in building it and operating it. Figuring out how to avoid having cars waiting in line to enter the garage backing up onto the sidewalk on North Pleasant Street. Avoiding the privately owned land directly behind CVS or acquiring it. Persuading or overruling opponents living on North Prospect Street. The Amherst garage wars in the 1990s were particularly nasty and resulted in a compromise on Boltwood Walk, a project with a very high cost per number of spaces gained.

Q. Why have a second garage at all?

A. Some business owners feel there’s a perception among visitors that parking is scarce, and fear that shoppers will prefer to use the Hadley stores that provide free parking. And downtown is due to lose parking spaces with the redesign of the North Common.

Q. At what times is it hardest to find a parking space?

A. A survey showed them to be 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, when UMass and the colleges are in session.

Q. Aren’t there a lot of private parking spaces downtown that are underutilized?

A. There are an estimated 1,962 private spaces. Town officials have approached landowners to see if there’s a way to incentivize sharing some of these spaces with the public.

Q. What cultural change would make it easier for everyone to find a place to park?

A. A willingness to park in a place that requires a short walk to one’s destination.

Q. What’s the purpose of the 356 parking spaces that require permits?

A. Partly to convince downtown employees to park on the periphery weekdays by charging a very low annual fee. Some still insist on parking on the street near their destination and “feeding” the meter beyond the time limit. Town officials are seeking data on whether Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant St. have stressed the permit parking system.

Q. Does money from parking fees, permits and tickets support other parts of Amherst’s government?

A. Parking is an “enterprise fund,” like the water and sewer funds, with costs paid by users and not taxes. The costs include enforcement personnel, maintenance, insurance and software.

Q. What do I do if I get a parking ticket?

A. You have to pay it within 21 days, either online, through the mail, or at the drop box outside Town Hall or on the first floor. You can also appeal it.

Q. What reasons do people give for appealing a parking ticket?

A. They say they typed their plate number wrong when paying at the kiosk, or they chose the wrong plate in their Parkmobile app. Some people say they didn’t see the signs saying they had to pay.

Q. Do the police ever immobilize cars that have outstanding parking tickets?

A. “Booting” was suspended during the pandemic but is due to resume soon. Cars with five tickets could be booted, and their owners have 24 hours to pay the tickets and a $25 removal fee, or the car is towed.

Q. What’s with the angled, back-in parking on the east side of North Pleasant Street?

A. It’s a trial designed to test back-in angled parking and help drivers become familiar with it before back-in parking is implemented on Main Street. The Town Council approved back-in angled parking on the south side of Main Street as part of the redesign of the North Common. The North Pleasant Street angled parking spaces were approved by the Council and will be removed in November. There is a proposal by the town manager and the Public Works department to add some angled spaces just west of Kendrick Park on North Pleasant Street to provide extra parking for the park.

These answers were based on information supplied by Finance Director Sean Mangano, Senior Planner Nate Malloy, and Transportation Advisory Committee Chair Tracy Zafian.

Can we afford four building projects? Yes! Here’s how

By Sarah Marshall

What is the Town’s plan for paying for the Jones Library expansion and renovation, a new or renovated elementary school, a new fire station, and a new DPW facility, all to be constructed over the next 10 years? Are we in for huge increases in our property tax bills? How can Amherst afford this infrastructure push? [Answers: Read on, No, and Read on.]

If you are nervous about undertaking so many significant projects, and worried about the Town Council’s appropriation of $35.3 million for just the Jones Library, or if you wonder whether we can build a school if we pursue the library expansion, please read to the end, because you should have a clear understanding of the ballot question you will see on Nov. 2.

First, a quick explanation of the Council’s April 2021 vote to appropriate $35.3 million for the Jones Library renovation and expansion project, which we will be asked to affirm on Nov. 2.  Much erroneous information has circulated about that vote, so it is time to set the record straight. Council’s “appropriation” amounts to authorization for the Town to borrow up to that amount of money. The “appropriation and borrowing authorization” language is standard for large construction projects – Town Meeting voted on such matters in the past. In addition, appropriated money is not limited to tax revenue but can include grants, donations, and other funds.

But why would the Town need to borrow $35.3 million, when the ultimate cost to Amherst will be $15.8 million?  First, Amherst will probably not borrow that much, but the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), which has granted almost $14 million to the project, asked Town Council to authorize borrowing for the total project cost. Second, because some funding may arrive after the bills are paid (for example, private donations and receipts from the sale of historic tax credits), the Town may need to borrow some money for which it will later be reimbursed. The Town will not be on the hook for a $35.3 million library project. Here is the table showing who will pay what, in the end:

Appropriation & Borrowing Authorization Order FY21-06C

  • MBLC Grant Contribution $13,871,314
  • Jones Library Inc. Trustees $ 5,656,576
  • Town’s share $15,751,810
  • Total $35,279,700

It is this set of numbers that you will see on the ballot.

But what about the Town’s share, $15.8 million? How will that be paid for? Will it prevent us from undertaking other projects?

Here it is useful to have a basic understanding of the plan developed by the Town’s Finance Department and presented to the Finance Committee and Council in February 2021. Town Council requested that Town staff develop a plan for financing all four major projects in a timely fashion, specifically to learn whether it is feasible for us to undertake them all in a way that voters are likely to support.

The ensuing financing plan (which indeed makes many assumptions) shows that the Town can afford to build the four projects without severely constraining our public services or ability to fund smaller capital projects such as sidewalk repairs and snowplow purchases, or by unreasonably burdening taxpayers. Basically, the plan is to borrow funds for three of the projects (Jones Library, Fire/EMS station, and a DPW facility) and to pay off the debt over time from our existing revenue streams, including grants and donations; only for a school project will taxes be raised for a limited time. We may have a couple of years of tight budgets, to be sure, as the projects begin, but several factors will work in our favor:

  • Low interest rates for loans overall,
  • The Town’s strong bond rating and financial record, which let us borrow at advantageous rates,
  • The Town’s strong cash reserves (i.e., savings), which can ease some of the early spikes in debt payments and, if necessary, contribute towards annual operating budgets,
  • Very low levels of Town debt currently, which will be entirely paid off within a few years,
  • Continued new growth in taxable real estate, which raises annual revenue and spreads excluded debt over more taxpayers,
  • Imposition of cost caps on each project, so that we know in advance what our total payments of principal will be,
  • Disciplined policy of directing a portion of property tax revenue to capital expenditures,
  • Conservative annual budgeting, which means that the Town typically has cash on hand at the end of the fiscal year that can be placed in reserve.

For a new elementary school, the financing plan envisions a debt exclusion override for the Town’s contribution (approximately half of the total cost will be contributed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority). This type of override raises property taxes only for the period while the debt is paid off; it does not permanently raise property taxes. Why an override for the school borrowing? Because voters approved an override for an elementary school project in 2016, and a majority of voters (but not the required 2/3) again supported the override after Town Meeting would not agree to the necessary borrowing, planners feel they are likely to support an override in the next year or so.

Delaying projects any further is likely to cost us more in the end, or give us less for the same price. The Finance Director, Sean Mangano, noted that an elementary school project, when it finally begins, will cost us substantially more than the project that was rejected several years ago. He also noted that continued delays require us to spend large sums on repairs to buildings that are at the end of their useful lives. The Town also should get the present projects completed and paid off before other parts of its infrastructure need to be significantly renovated or rebuilt several decades from now.

From a fiscal standpoint alone then, prudence demands that we voters stop arguing over design details, agree to compromise, and step up to our civic responsibility to maintain our public infrastructure, parts of which have deteriorated to dangerous and shameful degree. We need to say “Yes” on Nov. 2 to affirm Council’s vote to proceed with the Jones Library project and “Yes” in a year or so when a debt exclusion for the elementary school is put on the ballot. Financially, there is no better time to undertake this work.

[Note: You can find more information about the plan by clicking on the “Overview of the Four Major Capital Projects” page on the “Town Government 101” drop-down menu on this website.]

Students face housing squeeze

By Nick Grabbe

Joshua Driscoll has been searching for an apartment since April so that he can continue his master’s program at UMass in environmental conservation. He hasn’t found one.

“If you don’t respond within the first five minutes, it’s usually gone,” he said. “And even if it isn’t, there’s probably five or six other people looking at the apartment.”

Finding housing in Amherst in August is difficult, but this year is different. Frustrated students are staying in bed-and-breakfasts or hotels, looking for housing in Springfield and Northampton, making cold calls to apartment complexes and knocking on doors. Some have even offered more than the advertised rent or canceled plans to attend classes because they have no place to live.

Town Councilor Steve Schreiber brought up the problem at Monday’s Council meeting. He chairs the Architecture Department at UMass, and said he knows of a student who will not be able to start classes next month because he hasn’t been able to locate a room.

“It’s very alarming,” he told me. “In 16 years, I’ve never seen that.”

In addition to the lack of availability, many students are paying higher rents, an unsurprising development whenever demand exceeds supply.

I became aware of the situation when I received 78 email inquiries about a tiny room we rent out in our house a mile from the campus. So I asked some of the 77 students I didn’t rent it to about their housing search, and I tried to locate the reasons for the squeeze.

I learned that the challenges are most intense for graduate students coming to UMass from abroad, those seeking housing for just the fall semester, and those unfortunate souls who began their search this week.

Semih Boz is in the second year of a doctoral program in management, and spent last year taking classes remotely in his native Turkey. He arrived in Amherst a week ago, but has been looking for housing online every day since June. Landlords are reluctant to rent to anyone they have not met in person, he found.

He reached out to 30 to 40 people who were looking for a roommate, but found that more than 20 people were applying for each room. He suspects the problem is related to the pandemic, with students who were admitted last year but are just now coming to the area.

“I shouldn’t be dealing with all this because I have a very important exam next week that would define my fate in this career path, but I cannot find enough time to study,” he said.

William Harmelink said he applied to over a dozen places and did not hear back from any of them. “I actually had to withdraw from UMass this semester because the dorms are full and there’s nowhere to live off campus,” he said.

Shalom Sara Thomas is a visiting scholar who plans to be here for just the fall semester, and has found that property owners don’t want short-term renters. “I strongly believe that the UMass administration should take the initiative in creating a community that is more welcoming and student-oriented,” she said.

Josue Vaquerano, a Japanese major here for just a semester, has contemplated paying for 10 to 12 months of housing even though he needs only four. “It’s gotten to the point where that’s my only option or spend double that on a hotel or Airbnb,” he said.

“The situation with housing is extremely shocking, stressful and disappointing,” said a doctoral student from Uzbekistan who asked that I not use her name. She’s been doubling up with another international student in a tiny room while looking at apartments as far away as Springfield and Southampton. If she had known about the scarcity of housing, she would have accepted an offer from another university, she said.

Besides the pandemic, one likely cause for the housing squeeze is the UMass decision to demolish family housing at North Village and Lincoln Apartments. UMass is planning to create about 200 beds of graduate student housing on Massachusetts Avenue in 2023, and about 120 family housing units at the North Village site in 2022, according to spokesman Edward Blaguszewski. In addition, the Massachusetts Avenue development will include about 600 beds of undergraduate housing, he said.

There’s a trickle-down effect, said Schreiber, as graduate students with families take rentals that can’t then go to other students. And just as the pandemic has caused many people to reevaluate their jobs, it may have caused more students to seek out airy, less restricted places to live instead of dorms, he said.

It’s tempting to blame UMass for the shortage. But the reality is that it provides housing for 60 percent of undergraduates, Blaguszewski said. That’s a much higher rate than the Universities of Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. There just aren’t enough off-campus rentals.

He confirmed that the local housing market is “very tight this year.” He added, “Our Office of Off-Campus Housing is working daily with students and landlords to help identify housing opportunities, but it has been difficult.”

Blaguszewski cited the overall increase in housing prices, and the rise of remote work among new UMass graduates. “They may be staying in the area, having secured jobs that allow them to work remotely,” he said. “Other recent graduates may be extending their leases while looking for work.”

Another factor may be the many people leaving cities and moving to the area, said Tony Maroulis, the former UMass director of external relations and ex-Chamber of Commerce head.

Amherst is attracting more professionals, and more students want to live closer to campus instead of in Sunderland or Hadley, he said. Amherst needs more housing of all types, Maroulis said.

The dearth of housing validates the controversial Archipelago buildings at the northern end of downtown, he said. But the rents there are sky-high. A one-bedroom apartment at Kendrick Place, totaling 620 square feet, was going for an eye-popping $1,959 a month.

Still, Kendrick Place and the other Archipelago buildings, 1 East Pleasant Street and Olympia Place, are 100 percent “leased up,” according to a spokeswoman.

The housing squeeze, besides leading to longer commutes for students and less spending money, increases the incentive for speculators to buy houses and rent them out.

So the problem affects longtime residents as well as students, Schreiber said. “UMass is our biggest employer, and if that employer suffers, we all suffer,” he said.