Second in a series of posts by former Town Councilor George Ryan on issues critical to Amherst’s immediate future.
In response to the death of George Floyd and the national expression of outrage at police violence aimed at people of color, Amherst has committed itself to the creation and implementation of the Community Responders for Equity and Service Program (CRESS), a program meant to provide an unarmed civilian alternative for situations that might otherwise require a police response.
In the coming months, the Town will need to hire and train eight community responders and a director and administrative assistant to run the program, at an estimated annual operating cost of $936,000. This new program will present significant challenges, including finding and training eight qualified (ideally, bilingual) candidates, and figuring out how they can work effectively with our existing public safety personnel (Police and Fire Departments and Dispatch). The staffing challenge will be compounded by regional personnel shortages in the social services and mental health fields.
Funding will also be a challenge. For the next fiscal year, the Town will use some of its federal Covid relief money to pay for non-operating and one-time costs, along with a one-time $450,000 Public Health Grant from the State and $200,000 reallocated from the Amherst Police budget by not filling two positions that are currently vacant.
Funding in FY24 and beyond will be a much greater challenge. Unless funding for other departments is reduced, or significant new revenue identified, the Town will almost certainly need to make use of reserves. These reserves have already been earmarked in the Town’s financial plan to help fund four major capital projects. The amount of reserves needed in turn will depend on union negotiations, health insurance premium changes and other major cost increases. There are a lot of unknowns here. Costs related to salaries, step increases, and health insurance will almost certainly go up.
There also will be pressure from some to cut police positions in order to fund this program in the long term. In my opinion, it would not be wise to further cut existing public safety positions. In communities where such civilian responder programs have been created, the programs have not been funded by cutting existing public safety budgets but rather by finding other sources of revenue.
A further challenge will be the need, for the foreseeable future, for higher annual allocations to the municipal budget, as opposed to the library system and the schools. In the past, all departments including the schools were given a yearly 2.5 percent increase (the maximum allowed under Proposition 2½) but increases beyond that were shared equally. The sense among Town departments that “we are all in this together” could be lost and create unavoidable tensions.
Here are two additional issues Amherst faces.
Finding a site for Public Works. For the past three years, the Town has been unable to secure a site for a new DPW facility. This failure has many causes and no single villain. Not surprisingly, neighborhood concerns played an important role in defeating at least one attractive proposal where the Town was to be gifted the land for a new DPW site. Given the high price of land in Amherst, a free site would be enormously beneficial to taxpayers.
In the coming year, this problem needs to be resolved because, without a site for the DPW, we cannot move forward with the new Fire Station at the current DPW site. Every year of delay increases the cost or constrains what we can build. Delay also has prevented us from fully implementing the financial plan that has been created to responsibly fund four major capital projects. Perhaps we will need multiple sites for the DPW – not an ideal solution, but at least we could move forward.
Homelessness and Transitional Housing. In its Town Manager Performance Goals for 2022, the Town Council reiterated its desire for the creation of a permanent, year-round shelter for homeless individuals. The Town Manager has allocated $1 million of federal Covid relief money to address homelessness and transitional housing. (Transitional housing is temporary housing, often including support services, that helps prepare individuals for permanent housing.)
At least three possible sites in Amherst have been identified. The question is whether anything will actually happen. While an informal working group was created by the Town Manager to address this issue, its membership, mandate, and progress remain opaque. It is also unclear what the Town Manager has in mind for “transitional housing” or how (and by whom) that will be addressed.
Coming, in the third part of this series – fixing the rental registration bylaw and deciding on a downtown parking garage.