Fact check

We’re fact-checking claims made by candidates or groups in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election. Please email us if you read or hear, first-hand, incorrect or suspect public statements from candidates or groups. You must be able to document who, what, when, and where, and provide your name, and if you can document the correct information, please send it also. Be sure to distinguish statements of fact and statements of opinion, and allow for some campaign hyperbole. No anonymous tips! (But we won’t post your name.) And no guarantee that we can or will choose to respond. Finally, if we make an error, please let us know ASAP.

Claim 10: At-large Councilor Andrew Steinberg voted against the zero-energy building bylaw.

Assessment: Misleading. The original bylaw was presented to Town Meeting by petition in the fall of 2017. The Select Board, which included Steinberg, unanimously opposed it because it was considered to be too unclear to implement. The board moved to refer the article, with the goal of working with the petitioners on a revised bylaw for the spring. The Select Board motion was defeated and the article passed.

Steinberg explains what happened next: “Immediately after the meeting dissolved, the sponsors approached us about revising the bylaw through a collaborative process to present to the spring Town Meeting. We were delighted because it addressed the same outcome that we were trying to achieve with the motion to refer. A working group of eight, four from the town and four from the sponsors, met over several months. We came to an agreement on a much improved bylaw that could be interpreted and enforced, and submitted it to the spring Town Meeting. That was  Amherst’s last Town Meeting, since the charter had passed. The bylaw was enacted by almost a unanimous vote. All members of the working group were delighted with the process and the outcome. We were invited to make a presentation in Boston to a state energy task force that considered it a model.”

For the Amherst League of Women Voters’ position, see https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/44497/Articles-29-and-39-Green-Energy-May-2018—LWV?bidId=

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Claim 9: Town Councilor Darcy Dumont asserted, in an article published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette today, the following: “[Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, Evan Ross, and George Ryan] blocked attempts to put forward the most impactful means of providing affordable housing – inclusionary zoning  – for two years. Inclusionary zoning would require developers to provide a certain percentage of affordable units in all new construction. Hanneke and Ross again led the charge. The Council’s list of zoning priorities submitted in January of this year still did not include inclusionary zoning. All four did finally vote for inclusionary zoning but only after our planning department insisted on adding it.”

Assertion: False and malicious (or, possibly, mistaken).  Councilors Evan Ross and Andy Steinberg provided the responses below, with which Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke agrees.

Evan Ross told us the following: “when CRC [a subcommittee of Town Council] was deciding on their recommended zoning priorities for the Council, IZ [inclusionary zoning] was discussed but Planning Department staff said they felt it would require hiring a consultant, which would require funds to be allocated in the next budget for that. So CRC listened to the staff. Here is an explanation from a CRC report to the Council:

INCLUSIONARY ZONING

Several Councilors mentioned inclusionary zoning’s absence from the report. When CRC was considering the priorities for the next 3 months and the next 6-12 months the committee considered only those measures that the Planning Department identified as possible to do in house by staff. The Planning Department suggested that revising our inclusionary zoning bylaw is complex and would likely require consultant support to get it right. As a result, that was not included in this set of recommendations as it would require additional funds that are not currently available.

If the Council wants to add inclusionary zoning to the list of zoning priorities it also needs to allocate funding to hire a consultant for that endeavor.

“So the members of CRC were surprised when staff brought a proposal forward, as that was in conflict with what staff had earlier stated. But we certainly weren’t opposed. To say that us four blocked attempts to move on IZ is just false. I am not sure where “two years” comes from.”

Andy Steinberg writes,

“The motion to adopt a list of zoning provisions for which we requested action by the Town Manager was passed on December 21, 2020. I read the minutes of that meeting. There was no mention then about inclusionary zoning.

“The first reading on that motion was on December 7. I also looked at the minutes of that meeting. Cathy [Schoen] is quoted as asking about inclusionary zoning and one other issue. Darcy is quoted as agreeing with Cathy. During the discussion [Planning Director] Chris Brestrup is quoted as saying that the town cares about inclusionary zoning and needs it to work better but consultation to figure out how to make it work better may be needed.

“No one else from the Council spoke about inclusionary zoning at either meeting. It is unreasonable to conclude that anyone was not in favor of strengthening inclusionary zoning based on that discussion. If Darcy thought it was so important, she could have made such motion.

“On December 21 there was a motion to to postpone discussion of the motion regarding the list of zoning changes until January 25. It was defeated 3-10 with Darcy, Cathy, and Dorothy voting yes.”

This editor notes that Councilor Dumont failed to point out that all four Councilors she criticizes did vote in favor of the affordable housing project at 123 Northampton Rd. George Ryan, in particular, may suffer in his district for so voting, whereas his colleague Dorothy Pam abstained from that hard call, a fact that Councilor Dumont overlooks.

Claim 8 (implicit in an illustration): A wrecking ball will demolish the original Jones Library building if the ballot measure passes!

Assessment: False. This is fear-mongering and disinformation at its worst. The original, historic 1928 building will not be attacked by a wrecking ball or any other method of demolition. You would do well to be suspicious of any other claims made by the group that distributed this inflammatory illustration.

Claim 7: A more modest approach to fixing the Jones Library was never studied but could have included making necessary immediate repairs, repurposing interior space, replacing the HVAC system with a fossil-fuel alternative, and improving energy efficiency.

Assessment: False. A more modest approach was studied. At the request of Town Council, the Trustees asked for cost estimates for “the bare minimum.” The result – $14-16 million for immediate repairs plus the ADA upgrades required by law. Multiple studies as recently as 2020 from several firms address these plans and costs. Fundamentally, it is not possible to repair at substantially less expense to the Town because the basic repairs will trigger the ADA requirements. As for repurposing interior space, that was accomplished some years ago on the advice of an MBLC consultant.

Claim 6: Town Council is raising our property taxes.

Assessment: Misleading. The average annual tax bill for a single-family home in Amherst is going up this year by more than 2.5 percent, but not primarily because of action by the Town Council. The average tax bill is estimated at $8,608, or 5 percent more than last year (but, as they say, your experience may vary). The reasons for the tax increase have to do with budgeting, new construction, and increasing residential property values.

Municipal expenses rise every year, mostly for previously negotiated salary hikes for staff. State law places a 2.5 percent cap on the annual increase in the total amount of property taxes a town can collect, plus the amount of tax revenue derived from new construction in the previous year. Tax revenue usually goes up each year by the maximum amount allowed.

Why are residential taxes going up by an average of 5 percent and not 2.5 percent? It’s partly because of that additional amount of money that can be raised by taxation because of new construction, and partly because residential property values have increased at a higher percentage than commercial values.

Why are residential taxes in Amherst so high? It’s because we have high expectations for municipal services but a very small commercial sector and a very large amount of tax-exempt land. Residents pay 89 percent of all property taxes, a much higher percentage than in Hadley or Northampton.

The Town Council COULD take action to reduce the average annual tax bill slightly by voting to establish a “split” or differential tax rate, one that is higher for commercial and industrial property than for residential. Two-thirds of Massachusetts cities and towns, including Hadley and Northampton, have single tax rates, and the Council and previously the Select Board have always chosen this option. “Split” tax rates result in much higher taxes for commercial and industrial property, and are typically recommended only when towns have an industry that is difficult to move, such as a power plant or a shopping mall.

The Town Council adopted the budget for the current fiscal year last June. It could have adopted a budget that increased property tax revenue less than the allowable amount, probably involving a cut in services and/or staff. Or it could shift more of the burden to our small commercial sector.

The Town Council has voted to support the Jones Library expansion and renovation, but this project will not cause tax increases because the funding comes from a state grant, general revenue, and private fundraising. However, when plans for a new elementary school are complete, voters will likely be asked to raise their taxes to help pay for the project, through an override of the state’s tax-limit law.

In Amherst, the average value of a single-family house is now estimated at $404,700, up from $375,507 last year, a result of the hot real estate market. When values go up that sharply, the tax rate goes down, like the two sides of a seesaw. In fact, the tax rate is projected to decrease from $21.82 per $1,000 of a house’s value last year to $21.27 this year.

Claim 5: Councilors Hanneke, Steinberg, Ryan, and Ross “are pledged to support landowners and developers.”

Assessment: How about falsemalicious, and cowardly? This text appears in anonymous handouts being distributed in town. We reached out to the four candidates for comment and received the following responses.  From Evan Ross: “As the only renter serving on the Council and someone who has been a voice for our renter community and an advocate for housing affordability, it is absurd for anyone to suggest that I am pledged to represent landowners. Quite the opposite: I have worked and will continue to work to support and empower our marginalized and underrepresented renter community. My deliberations on the Council are rooted in my research, my experiences, constituent input, and my values. I am pledged to no organization or interest. I vote my values.”  From Andrew Steinberg:  “Not only am I not pledged to any developer, I don’t have any communication with a developer.  Councilors would benefit from such communications.  We value town services including our schools and libraries, and new initiatives such as the CRESS program and achieving our climate action goals.  What we can spend is limited by our budget.  The largest source of revenue for the town is the property tax which cannot increase by more than 2.5% each year, barely enough to maintain current efforts, unless voters approve an override of that limit.  The only other means to increase property tax and the size of the budget is new growth.  The center of the town provides the best opportunity for growth.  Development must fit our vision of downtown.  Developers can tell us what risks they are willing to take.” From George Ryan:  “It’s nonsense – what can I say? I talk to many people but work for no one.”  Mandi Jo Hanneke writes: “I have spent the past three years on the Town Council reading information provided to me prior to votes, listening to residents, and working towards the goal of a better Amherst. In that time, I have advocated for a variety of zoning changes in order to address the housing crisis Amherst faces, the need for more affordable housing in Amherst, and the goal of vibrant, walkable town centers. I have never hid from my positions. But they are just that – positions. When I am faced with an actual proposal to change the zoning bylaws, modify the Common, or fund a project, I listen to residents, investigate options, ask hard questions, then make a decision. That decision is an independent one, governed by the circumstances at the time, the information provided, and my understanding of the needs of the Town. To be clear, I am not “pledged to represent landowners and developers” any more than I am “pledged to represent tenants, children, or families”. I was elected by the residents of Amherst to represent all of their interests in all decisions I make and I strive to do just that – represent residents who live near village centers (whether they own or rent), residents who live far from village centers (whether they own or rent), business owners, visitors, students, children, families, employees – in other words all residents in Town, no matter whether they rent or own their home, whether they own a business or patronize businesses, or whether they have children in the schools or not. “

We also reached out to two candidates that the same flyer urges voters to support and heard from one. Cathy Schoen has “No idea!” who authored and is distributing the flyer.

Since the author of the anonymous flyer may be required by campaign finance regulations to report an in-kind contribution to the favored candidates, perhaps the author’s identity will be revealed in the reports to be filed by October 25.

Claim 4: Hadley’s new library cost $8.2 million and was offset by a $3.9 million grant from the state.

Assessment: True. In Amherst, the expansion and renovation project for the Jones Library will cost $36.3 million. That is, the Amherst project will cost more than 4 times the Hadley project (Hadley’s old library could not be affordably renovated or expanded). But is Hadley’s experience relevant to Amherst’s situation? Is our project cost unreasonable? We think not. Amherst has about 8 times the population as Hadley, per the 2020 census.  According to the most recent statistics, the Jones Library had 14 times as many visitors as Hadley’s Goodwin Memorial.  Amherst’s town budget is more than 4 times that of Hadley for fiscal year 2022, $86 million vs $18 million. Moreover, the MBLC is providing 54% of our project cost but provided 48% of Hadley’s. Finally, it is always cheaper to build from scratch, as Hadley did, than to renovate and expand an existing historic building, as we plan to do in Amherst. We also note that, in Central and Western Massachusetts, only the Worcester and Springfield libraries have a circulation larger than the Jones.

Claim 3: The branch libraries will close if the Jones project proceeds.

Assessment: False. The branches will not be shut down because of a renovation and expansion. There have never been any discussions about closing the branches. The Town of Amherst owns both the North Amherst Library Building and the Munson Memorial Building and the library provides services out of those two buildings. In fact, both buildings were given to the Town on they condition that they host a library. The library will continue to offer services out of both buildings even after the building project is completed.

Claim 2: The library project will send tons of building debris to landfills, which is a negative for climate.

Assessment: Misleading. One element of a project does not determine the net impact of the complete project on carbon emissions. An independent sustainability study of the project found that the expansion and renovation project, as a whole, including demolition, will be markedly more “green” than continued operation of the Library in its current form. Even including demolition and the carbon emissions from the construction of materials, the expanded library will emit less carbon overall over its lifetime than would the existing library over the same period, and will be markedly more efficient on a per-square-foot basis. See page 27 of this presentation. You can learn more about the sustainability aspects of the project by watching the September 3, 2020 video in this list, beginning at minute 20 for the discussion of the Whole Building Life Cycle Analysis specifically. Or, if you have a Vimeo account, you can see the video here.

Claim 1: The Jones Library project includes a $400,000 materials sorting equipment, which will cost staff their job(s).

Assessment: Half-true, half false. We checked in with Sharon Sharry, Library Director, and Alex Lefebvre, a Trustee. They both tell us that, yes, the plan includes an automated materials handling system, but no, staff will not thereby lose jobs. In fact, the Library expects to add a staff position. They pointed us to the following text, which appears in a document the Trustees prepared for Town Council:

“We anticipate that the Expansion & Renovation project may require one additional staff position of a Custodian. Despite the larger square footage, we do not anticipate needing other additional staff because of the improved, open and efficient design which will allow for clear sightlines, combined with the installation of an Automated Materials Handling System, which will allow staff to remain focused on forward-facing customer service tasks. These gained efficiencies will allow staffing to remain level as we are able to use our existing staff much more efficiently than is possible in the current building.”

In response to a question from the Finance Committee asking for evidence that the materials sorter will improve efficiency, the Trustees stated:

“What other Librarians across the state say about their Automated Materials Handling Systems:

“’I’ve now worked at two libraries that have used AMH machines, and I can definitely attest that they save staff a considerable amount of time. The two libraries I’ve worked at that used them have extremely high return volumes. So it basically frees up one or more staff people who would otherwise be sorting materials the entire day. Depending on their size, the [bins] can have different levels of sorting…it does a pretty good job of eliminating most of the sorting required by humans.’

“’It is definitely a positive impact on what your staff can do. I never made the argument that it would permit reduction of staff hours, but that it would allow us to shift staff from mechanical rote tasks to more patron-facing service tasks.’

“’Our AMH system does save staff time, especially when it comes to processing library delivery – allowing us to schedule staff more effectively. Furthermore, I believe it helps to lengthen the lifespan of library materials, minimizing the typical damages found in traditional drop boxes, and reducing stress on staff budgeting.'”

And elsewhere in the same document, regarding the Jones: “As a high-volume library circulating over 400,000 materials annually, significant hours are spent managing returns, check ins and getting everything back on the shelves or directed to the next patron on a list.”