By Sarah Marshall
Amherst voters have a big appetite. We want:
- open space with trails and amenities
- excellent schools
- lively business districts
- more housing at a variety of income levels
- a community responder program in conjunction with a reduced police department
- the traditional look and feel of our village centers
- updated/rebuilt/renovated public buildings
- diversity and outreach programs
- more and/or easier parking
- an expanded public art program
- wide sidewalks
- an economic development director
- updated and well maintained parks
- updated and well maintained recreational and athletic facilities
- capital investments to mitigate climate change
- a robust reparations program
- efficient delivery of public services
- well paid public employees
- roads in good condition
- prompt responses from emergency services
- . . . .
The Amherst money pie is not large enough to satisfy all these wants, reasonable as they may be.
Last winter and spring, as the pandemic began to ease, the Town began to form its annual budgets for town operations, the regional schools, capital expenses, and other functions for the fiscal year now in progress. The pandemic devastated several of the town’s income streams, such as from hotel and restaurant taxes, parking receipts, excise fees, and growth in new taxable properties (that is, from new construction). In addition, anticipated contributions from the state to the schools and directly to the Town decreased. The budget decisions for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2021 (FY22) were extremely painful. The regional schools budget was forced to cut teachers and services. The elementary schools were forced to give up some art and music teachers. All town departments were held to 2.1% increases to their budgets.
We need a bigger pie.
I listened to searing public comments at School Committee and Town Council budget hearings, begging for money to be moved to the schools, or moved to a new community responder program, or to preserve other services. Now, as Town Hall and Town Council begin developing next year’s budget, similar public comments are being offered, and the Town is likely to propose even more funds for community responders, perhaps additional funds for a reparations program, for a BIPOC youth center, for climate sustainability projects, and more.
Where will the money come from?
A couple of months ago, I listened to the presentation of financial indicators for the next fiscal year, and while some of the news is good (meals and hotel/motel taxes are recovering, for example), other news is not (essentially flat state aid, rising health insurance costs). Painful decisions await the Town Council that will take office on January 3.
We will be fortunate to have almost $12 million in ARPA funds to spend on many aspects of our budgets, including some new endeavors. But in a few years, either these efforts will end when the ARPA funds run out, or we will need to shoehorn them into ongoing operating budgets. Without enlarging our annual revenue streams, projects, departments, wants, and needs will be pitted against each other in a zero-sum contest.
The revenue stream over which Amherst has the most control is property taxes, which can be increased by promoting, or at least allowing, new construction – of houses, apartments, commercial buildings, and accessory dwelling units. Every new construction increases the value of the property it sits on, and therefore the property taxes paid by the owner for years to come. Other options for increasing our revenue include a Proposition 2-1/2 tax override, which permanently increases our tax rate, or selling off open space for development. If we don’t increase our revenues, we will need to decrease our expenses, and cross some items off the list above.
Councilors are responsible for setting the budget priorities for the Town Manager to follow as staff work out the details. Town Council needs to decide which of our wants are top priorities and which to eliminate or postpone. However, Council can also take a lead role in driving policy that increases our revenues, primarily by promoting – not just not discouraging – new construction and business development.
Of course, another option – especially if residents oppose new development – is to go a little bit hungry, that is, reduce programs, services, personnel, benefits, asset purchases, and the like. But I rarely hear any proposals to cut specific programs or services with the aim of reducing our total expenditures.
What do you suggest? I am truly interested in your thoughts.