Amherst’s budget starting point: Tight

Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2022

AMHERST — Renewing and revising strategic partnerships with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College could be vital to support municipal, school and library operations, according to town officials.

“These agreements are really critical,” Finance Director Sean Mangano said during the hourlong financial indicators presentation to the Budget Coordinating Group on Monday.

The meeting, bringing together the town’s financial team and members of the Town Council, School Committee and trustees for the Jones Library, serves as a kickoff for the development of fiscal year 2024 budgets.

Mangano said with the partnership agreements still in negotiations, an ongoing difficulty for the town is providing services for a population of nearly 40,000 with only 20,000 to 25,000 of those as taxpayers, while having significant amount of land and properties being tax-exempt.

“That’s a unique challenge Amherst has,” Mangano said.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said councilors need to explain to the public what it means to have so much of the town’s total area be untaxable, and how this constrains town officials in developing budgets.

“It’s important for people to know what a box we’re in,” Schoen said,

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, though, said the town is in a solid financial position and has seen slow and steady growth, while there has been a disciplined effort to build reserve accounts as part of a plan to pay for the four major building projects: the expanded Jones Library, a new elementary school, a fire station and a Department of Public Works headquarters.

The presentation shows a $92.6 million spending plan, up $2.23 million from this year’s $90.4 million in spending, which includes operating and capital budgets along with assessments, such as to the Hampshire County retirement system. Mangano said at the moment the projections show a $199,612 shortfall from what the town aims to spend and the revenues it will have available.

Current projections call for a 2.5% increase in the operating budgets for the town and elementary schools, and 2.5% increases for the Jones Library allocation and the assessment for the regional schools. That would mean the town budget going up from$26.2 million to $26.8 million, or a $653,949 increase, the elementary school budget rising from $25.2 million to $25.8 million, or a $629,444 increase, the Jones Library support up from $2.15 million to $2.2 million, or a $53,726 increase, and the assessment for the regional schools moving from $17.3 million to $17.7 million, a $431,370 increase.

The budget is supported by $650,000 resulting from new growth; a bump in local receipts, including excise and motel and food taxes, in a return to pre-pandemic levels; and flat state aid in a year where there will be a transition to a new governor in January. But the budget also comes with uncertainty, including unsettled contracts for both town and schools workers, and a possible 8% increase in health insurance costs.

Developments including the mixed-use buildings on Spring Street, East Pleasant Street and south University Drive, along with housing going up on South East Street, Main Street and Olympia Drive, will enhance the tax base, though new growth is a ck below the $720,000 average in new growth over the past decade, based on information provided by Jennifer LaFountain, the town’s treasurer and tax collector.

Bockelman said wishes outweigh what is available at this time. “Going forward, we will manage our resources frugally,” Bockelman said.