By Nick Grabbe
What branch of Amherst government touches the lives of every resident, every day, and is housed in a deteriorating building – but gets less public support than the Jones Library and the elementary schools?
It’s Public Works, which keeps our water safe and plentiful, repairs our roads and sidewalks, mows the grass in our parks and athletic fields, and much more.
The old trolley maintenance barn off South Pleasant Street, where 45 Public Works employees work, would probably be condemned if it were a private building. Its physical problems are worse than the Jones Library or Wildwood or Fort River School, but they get less attention than these frequently visited buildings. The public seldom enters the Public Works building.
Instead of receiving support for a new building, Public Works is the target for a lot of citizen complaints. Here are some:
“These potholes! Driving in Amherst is like driving in a Third World country!”
“The plow didn’t push the snow back far enough!” or “The plow pushed the snow back too far!”
“Our teams are at risk of injury because you’re not mowing the grass often enough!”
“Why can’t you reopen the Take It or Leave It area at the transfer station?”
“You can’t put a new Public Works building near low-income people’s houses!”
(Responses to these complaints are below.)
Public Works also handles stormwater drainage, tree-trimming and removal, streetlights and traffic signals. It’s in charge of sewers, cemeteries, and even putting up those banners downtown over South Pleasant Street. That’s all a lot to ask of public employees working out of a substandard building.
The Public Works headquarters is more than a century old. The roof leaks, there are cracks in the brick masonry, there’s minimal insulation, and many of the windows have only one pane of glass. The building doesn’t meet code standards for safety and electricity.
Some employees who service the department’s 50 vehicles in the maintenance bays, which have inadequate ventilation, have reported elevated levels of iron in their blood, said Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring. And there isn’t adequate coverage for all the vehicles, leaving them exposed to the elements, shortening their life spans and requiring premature (and expensive) replacement. For photos showing some of these problems, go to https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/49521/1Pager-DPW-12-2-19?bidId=
Amherst officials have known for years that we need a new Public Works building. And now they have extra motivation, because its current site is the preferred location for a new fire station. “It’s a top priority,” Mooring said. But there have been two obstacles: funding and siting.
The original cost estimate for a new Public Works building was $38 million, but unlike the Jones Library renovation/expansion and a new elementary school, there will be no state money to help. All of it must be borrowed and paid back over time. (One sign of the lack of popular support for Public Works is that, unlike the school, no one is considering putting a new building to a vote.)
The projected cost has been reduced to $20 million, requiring a phasing-in of the new building. “We have a $38 million project and we’ve been told we have to put it into a $20 million box,” Mooring said.
The second obstacle is finding an appropriate site for a new building. Amherst College offered to donate a centrally located site, which would have saved a lot of money in land acquisition costs. But some neighbors objected to having trucks coming in and out close to their houses, so the Town Council abandoned that plan.
Officials then received four proposals from landowners who were willing to sell the Town a site, but each one had problems such as location, zoning and access, and all have been rejected. There’s a town-owned site off Pulpit Hill Road that is a Plan B, but it’s far away from South Amherst and has access problems, Mooring said.
“Locating a Public Works facility is challenging because of the needs of the facility – both size and location, zoning requirements, and the sensitivity to our many neighborhoods,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.
Amherst has been spending more money on road repair each year, but now those gains are offset by higher prices for asphalt, fuel and labor, Mooring said. Some extra money could come from the federal infrastructure bill. Roads that get the most traffic typically get the highest priority, but Mooring hopes to repair more neighborhood roads this next year.
The snowplow complaints frequently come from people who are new to town, and relate to access to mailboxes and plantings near the road, he said.
The record amount of rain that fell in July caused the grass to grow more quickly on soccer and Ultimate fields. So Mooring asked the parks crews to increase the frequency of mowing.
While the book shed at the transfer station, closed during the pandemic, has reopened, the Take It or Leave It area is not coming back, Mooring said. Too many people have been abandoning electronics and dirty kitchen appliances that have to be thrown out at a cost to the town, he said. (The solid waste fund, unlike the water and sewer funds, ran a surplus during the pandemic because so many people were throwing things out.)
At least Mooring isn’t hearing many complaints about a recent increase in water rates. Although the reservoirs and wells that supply water are now resupplied, there’s always the threat of a future drought. In the fall of 1980, the University of Massachusetts sent all its students home because the town couldn’t provide enough water. To remind employees, a shirt is displayed at the Public Works building reading “I survived the great Amherst water shortage.”
To a certain extent, complaints about Public Works come with the territory. My complaint is about the building we ask employees to work in.