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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Vital to all, but getting no respect

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.