Amherst should get more money from UMass and the colleges

By George Ryan and Nick Grabbe

When a UMass student leaves the campus and gets in trouble, the Amherst Police Department, paid for primarily by Amherst taxpayers, deals with him.

When an Amherst College student goes to Town Hall to register to vote or get a passport, the salaries of the clerks who help her are paid through Amherst property taxes.

When a Hampshire College professor gets in a car, the cost of paving the roads, clearing the snow and maintaining the stoplights comes mostly from the budget of the Amherst Department of Public Works.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

And yet Amherst receives very little from these three institutions to help pay these necessary expenses, which run in the millions of dollars, because their land and buildings are exempt from local property taxes. This is one of the main reasons why the average residential tax bill in Amherst is among the highest in Western Mass. And next spring, residents will be asked to raise their taxes even further to pay for a desperately needed new elementary school.

Meanwhile, the previous Town Council has made substantial commitments that will have big financial consequences. They include:

  • Creating two new departments;
  • Implementing efforts to realize our energy and climate goals;
  • Exploring reparations for African American residents harmed by past injustice;
  • Addressing long-delayed infrastructure and capital needs;
  • Funding four major building projects.

In addition, Amherst is committed to maintaining the high level of Town services that residents have come to expect. All these commitments will put serious pressure on the Town’s budgets for the foreseeable future.

Difficult and painful decisions will have to be made. Some staffing goals have been deferred and may have to be abandoned, such as funding a staff position to oversee downtown parking, hiring an economic development director, or increasing the number of inspectors to enforce a stricter rental registration bylaw.

New sources of funding will be essential if we are to meet these ambitious goals. One key will be continued new growth, to enable the Town to raise revenue beyond the limits of the state’s tax-limit law. And that will mean more development, especially downtown and in village centers, and that in turn will require zoning reforms such as allowing duplexes by right.

But that will not be enough. Amherst needs to engage at the highest level with the three academic institutions in town to identify ways they can contribute to the Town’s long-term flourishing. It is in their interest, in terms of attracting faculty and students, to have a host community that people want to live in. The quality of Amherst’s schools, roads and cultural activities are important to those decisions.

Town officials are already having “productive conversations” with campus representatives, said Finance Director Sean Mangano. Town staff are also comparing the financial contributions of the three campuses with those of Williams College, UMass/Dartmouth and UMass/Lowell, and the Universities of Connecticut and Vermont to their host communities, Mangano said.

And the Town Council has made developing strategic partnership agreements with all three institutions a key goal for the town manager in 2022. He is tasked with entering into agreements that will seek to mitigate the financial and social impacts the three campuses have on the Town and also exploring possible collaborations in areas of mutual concern, such as housing, economic development, and the long-term financial viability of the Town.

In addition, there are efforts to get state legislation to formalize payments to towns that host state facilities. Amherst’s Finance Committee is working with the principal assessor to estimate the value of land and buildings on our three campuses.

Credit Ryan Mercer, Burlington Free Press

What are some examples of town-gown collaborations? Burlington, Vt. is especially noteworthy. In 2019, the city received $1.38 million from the University of Vermont to help pay for municipal services, and $94,000 to pay for police patrols near the campus, according to vtdigger.org, an independent news source. The city also received a commitment of $8.9 million over 20 years to cover the debt service on a sustainable infrastructure plan.

The University of Iowa contributed $200,000 to a city-sponsored program that bought properties and resold them to individuals who met certain income guidelines. The University of West Virginia provided forgivable down payment assistance for its employees who participated in a city home ownership program. Lehigh University agreed to share the cost of the salaries for code enforcers to ensure that their students were living in safe, healthy off-campus housing. Duke University bought, rehabilitated, and sold 40 houses to faculty and staff.

So what sorts of payments do our three institutions of higher learning currehtly make to the Town? This past year, after many years of negotiations, UMass contributed $185,000 to the elementary and regional schools to help pay the cost of educating children who live in its tax-exempt housing. In addition, it makes an annual payment of $160,000 as “occupancy fees” in lieu of an occupancy tax at the Campus Center Hotel, and it reimburses the Town for police and fire support; in 2021 that was $400,000.

Amherst College, which has an endowment currently valued at $3.7 billion, recently made a one-time gift of $200,000 to help support the Jones Library expansion and renovation project and to help pay the costs of the Drake, the live performance space (though assistance the Drake doesn’t help the Town budget). Amherst College also makes an annual contribution to the local schools (in 2021 it was $75,000) and, unlike UMass, it does pay property tax on some of its properties in Town, especially off-campus faculty residences. In 2021 that property tax bill came to $649,449. And like UMass (whose statewide endowment in 2021 was $1.2 billion), it reimburses the Town on an annual basis for ambulance and fire calls. In 2021, that annual “support fee” came to $140,000.

These payments, while welcome, are not adequate to meet the demand that our academic institutions place on Town services. Amherst College or UMass could show what good neighbors they are, and get much favorable publicity, by paying some of the costs of making our new elementary school zero-energy, for example.

And while Hampshire College’s financial situation might preclude contributions, it does have substantial land holdings in South Amherst and could be a key player in increasing housing opportunities and economic development in that part of town.

All three institutions also possess vast reservoirs of intellectual capital and youthful idealism that could be put to work in our schools and in the larger community. They are essential partners in keeping Amherst flourishing and financially sound. These conversations will not be easy, but they are vital to the future well being of our community.

Rental bylaw, garage decisions on Town Council’s to-do list

By George Ryan

Our Town and its elected bodies face numerous significant challenges, some of which I have described in two earlier posts. In my third post in this series, I discuss the impact of rental housing and a destination parking garage.

Rental Registration Bylaw. Since January 2014, owners of rental housing have been required to register with the Town on a yearly basis. They must secure a rental permit for each rental property that they own. The permit program makes clear who owns and manages rental properties and clarifies for the owners and renters existing health and safety codes, occupancy limits, and noise and nuisance bylaws.

The bylaw also gives the Town the authority to suspend a rental permit for “egregious and persistent non-compliance.” To the best of my knowledge, this has never happened, in large part because our Inspections Department simply does not have enough bodies to both administer the program and enforce it. Owners self-inspect their properties and Town inspectors become involved only if there is a complaint.

What we have seen since the program’s inception is a steady decline in the number of permits issued. In 2015, 1,281 permits were issued, but that number has fallen every year, to 1,150 in 2020. There is suspicion that this steady decline reflects a trend of landlords opting out of the program and not a decline in the actual number of rental properties.

After eight years, there is clearly interest in Town Hall and among a number of Councilors to revisit the Rental Registration Bylaw.  What form this will take remains to be seen, but the underlying goal will probably be to require more regular and vigorous inspections of rental properties and a more robust enforcement system that will hold landlords accountable when they do not play by the rules.  The challenge is that our system currently is a complaint-driven system, and for it to work, residents need to speak up when they see potential violations.  Such a system is not very effective.

SFD: single-family dwelling

An inspection-driven system, while attractive, would face the obstacle of cost.  The Town can revise the bylaw as much as it likes, but without adequate enforcement, the changes would not have much impact.  But enforcement requires people and people cost money.  Since the Town has just committed to hiring 12 new people to staff two new Town departments (CRESS and a Department of Equity and Inclusion), I think it is unlikely that there will be funds available in the budget for other staff hires.

One possible solution is to pay for new inspectors through an increase in permit fees. The problem with that is that most permits are taken out by individuals and a sizable increase would likely prove a financial burden to those landlords and lead to further reductions in the number of permits applied for. That would defeat the whole purpose of the program. And none of this actually addresses the deeper problem – how to discourage the conversion of single- and two-family homes into rentals in the first place. That is something I plan to address in a future post.

A destination parking garage. Given the previous Council’s vote to rezone the Town-owned lot behind CVS, at some point in the coming year there should be an RFP (Request for Proposals) to see if there is, in fact, any interest in the private sector in building a destination garage on that site. The RFP would require Town Council approval before its release.

One repeated objection has been that this garage is intended to provide parking for the new multi-unit apartment buildings downtown.  This objection ignores the fact that such a use can be restricted (or even prohibited) through the Request for Proposals that the Council must approve.  It also overlooks the repeated statement by the sponsors that this proposal has been driven by a desire to support the downtown business community and has been made in response to current and planned economic development in our downtown, including:

  • an expanded and renovated Jones Library;
  • improvements to the North Common;
  • an outdoor performance shell on the South Common; 
  • The Drake, a live performance venue slated to open in March;
  • a world-class independent cinema.

A destination garage is meant to encourage people to come downtown to shop, dine, see a film, attend a live music performance, hang out on the Town Common, or take the kids to Kendrick Park Playground. And if you are just coming downtown for a few quick errands, the first hour of parking could be free. The RFP could (and probably should) restrict the number of year-round spaces available for rent. It could even prohibit them outright, though I think that would be unwise.

And yes, there are legitimate questions about traffic and safe access into and out of the site. But without an RFP and the required traffic studies that would go with it, these questions can’t be properly addressed. A well-crafted RFP would go a long way to addressing this and other concerns of neighbors.

My hope is that a majority of Councilors support a dynamic and active downtown and are curious enough to see what might be possible through a public/private partnership. Our downtown business community is in need of all the support we can give it.

Parking permit fee increases proposed to Town Council

By Nick Grabbe

Town officials are recommending big increases in parking permit fees, including steep ones for residents who don’t register their vehicles in Amherst.

Parking permits enable downtown residents and employees to use designated spaces on the outskirts of downtown. The system is intended to make more downtown spaces available to shoppers and restaurant patrons.

The Town Council is scheduled to receive a report on the proposals for higher fees at tonight’s meeting and may vote on them.

Town Hall currently sells 236 parking permits for only $25 a year to people who don’t pay excise taxes to the Town because they register their vehicles elsewhere. Under the proposal, those fees would increase sixfold, to $150, next year, and then to $300 the year after that and $400 the following year.

The excise tax revenue lost “is substantial and helps support the overall budget, including capital that goes to maintain roads and sidewalks,” according to a memo from Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Finance Director Sean Mangano and Treasurer/Collector Jennifer LaFountain. Other Massachusetts cities and towns that also host state institutions and have comparable populations collect far more excise tax on vehicles than Amherst does, they pointed out.

“The parking permit program is long overdue for a significant update,” they wrote to the Town Council. “The current version was adopted in 1999 with updates in 2002 and 2005.” Fees were kept low when the program started to encourage residents and employees to participate.

The 79 people who currently do register their vehicles in Amherst and buy parking permits for $25 would see more modest increases. Under the plan, these permits would cost $50 next year and $100 the year after that.

There are also 482 people who buy employee permits for $25 a year. Those fees are due to increase slightly, to $35 next year and $45 the following year. Twenty people reserve parking spots for $1,000 a year and would see $100 increases each of the next two years.

The total amount collected from parking permit fees annually is scheduled to increase from the current $39,925 to $155,350 in three years.

Permit fees go into the Transportation Fund, along with revenues from parking meters and violations. The fund is supposed to pay for all related expenses without drawing on tax revenue, expenses that include salaries for enforcement officers, PVTA surcharges, the Town’s assessment to the Business Improvement District, meter and kiosk maintenance and parking lot improvements.

But the Transportation Fund, which spends about $1.1 million a year, has been running a deficit that is projected to be eliminated with the fee increases. The goal is devote 15 percent of the Fund’s revenues, or $200,000 a year, to capital and debt. “We envision a fund that can be fully self-sustaining, support regular maintenance, and save up for larger capital improvements,” the town officials wrote.

The Town Council will also consider a proposal to implement high-visibility signage in key locations and update the Town’s parking web page to make it more user-friendly.

New signs are needed at each public parking lot to identify hours of operation and other information, and a plan is expected to be ready later this year. Town officials have started work on the web page to make it more helpful “while at the same time de-emphasizing the punitive elements of the parking system,” according to the memo. The web page will include a feedback form so that residents can make comments about the system.

Town officials are not recommending the creation of a dedicated parking management position to coordinate all this.

“At this time, there are insufficient resources to create this position and ensure that it could be funded each year going forward,” according to the memo. “The pandemic has significantly diminished the revenues going into the Transportation Fund and highlighted their volatility.”

Bigger pie, or smaller appetite?

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.

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.

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.]

So Many Budgets!

By Sarah Marshall

In my family, we have only one budget that accounts for all the money that comes in and goes out, and we have (almost) complete control of it.  I think that Amherst residents tend to assume that Amherst’s public budget is similar – there is one big pot of money and we have complete freedom to decide how to spend the funds. Certainly, this was my hazy assumption for many years. But it is not entirely true. If you have ever wished the Town spent its (our) money differently, it is worth reading on so you will know when and how to voice your opinion most effectively.

Amherst has, in effect, several budgets and funds.  Crucially, much of the money cannot be moved from one use to another during the fiscal year.  We have the Regional Schools budget, the Jones Library budget (which addresses all the Town’s public libraries), the Elementary Schools budget, the Community Preservation Act (CPA) fund, Enterprise funds (water, sewer, solid waste, and transportation), the Town (Municipal) budget, and a few others.  Adding to the confusion is imprecision in the term “Town Budget” – to some, it may refer to all aspects of spending on public services, while to others, it may refer to specific chunks of that spending that are within the control of the Town Manager.

Our local officials and managers make critical decisions early in the planning cycle, namely, what are the bottom-line contributions the Town proposes to make to the Regional and Elementary Schools and the Libraries.  It is at this point – generally in November – that significant shifts can be made instead of across-the-board increases or decreases. Once the elected leaders of those bodies – the school committees, for example – develop and pass their budgets, and they are subsequently passed by the Town Council, only those bodies have authority over their money.  The Town cannot take money out of the Elementary Schools budget during the fiscal year to buy new computers for the Department of Public Works, for example.

Amherst’s contribution to the Regional School budget (which funds the Middle and High Schools) depends heavily on the decisions made by Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, Amherst’s regional partners. Once Amherst votes its contribution, the Town has essentially no power to claw back money from the Regional Schools to use for, say, affordable housing. Similarly, the schools cannot reach into municipal funds.

The Enterprise funds represent the self-funded water, sewer, solid waste, and transportation operations. Even though they appear in the Municipal budget, these Town services are required to charge fees sufficient to cover their costs, and Enterprise funds cannot be raided to fund unrelated activities of the Town. Our water and sewer bills reflect the cost of those services.

The CPA fund receives a property tax surcharge, as well as some funding from the Commonwealth, that by law can only be spent on certain projects pertaining to historic preservation, community housing, recreation, and open space.  I recently heard someone complain that the Town was choosing to spend on the order of a million dollars on a renovation of the North Common and should instead fund the new Community Responder program.  Such a re-allocation is not possible, since the North Common renovation will be paid for almost entirely by CPA money that cannot be spent on town services.  In fact, the ability to apply CPA funds to the needs of Town buildings and properties frees money for services such as the Community Responder program, or at least avoids pitting these needs against each other.

During any fiscal year, the Town Manager has the authority to re-allocate funds within the Municipal budget, understood here to exclude all the operations and expenses discussed above.  For FY2022 (which began this July), that budget amounts to $25 million, out of the approximately $96 million that also includes the budgets for the schools, libraries, Enterprise funds, capital investments, and some other uses.

The relatively small fraction of total spending spent on municipal services managed by Town Hall can lead to problems of interpretation.  For example, I have heard people express dismay at the fact that our Public Safety Department accounts for 44% of the General Fund (the Municipal budget). That certainly seems disturbingly large if one assumes that public safety is simply police services.  In fact, comparable funds are spent on the Police and Fire Departments, the two major Public Safety services.  Furthermore, in comparison to our total public expenditures, Public Safety services account for just 12% of spending, with about 6% allotted to the Police Department.  Since our property tax payments and water and sewer bills contribute to all Town services, from police to schools to libraries to capital improvements, I think the latter comparisons are more informative.  Whether 6% is an appropriate level of funding for the Police Department is another matter.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

So, no, Amherst’s public budget does not allow nearly as much flexibility as my household enjoys. We can set our own rules and priorities and change them as we see fit but the Town is much more constrained.  Residents who want changes in the Town’s spending priorities need to figure out which elected body to speak to, and when.  Fortunately, in the fall, a budget calendar will be released, outlining the steps, responsibilities, votes, and opportunities for public input.  Anyone wanting to learn more about where our Town’s money comes from and where it goes can jump into the resources at https://www.amherstma.gov/78/Budget.  The calendar will also be posted there.  Residents can also email their Town Councilors, School Committees, Town Manager, and library Trustees at any time.