Some balk at funding plan for alternative police services in Amherst

  • Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2021

AMHERST — A fiscal year 2023 budget that would include $300,000 for the full funding of a department that will serve as an alternative to police is included in a preliminary $88.76 million spending plan presented to elected officials this week.

But the idea of the municipal budget getting a significant increase to cover the operational costs of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service department, appears to be a concern for representatives from the schools who participated in a joint financial indicators meeting on Nov. 15.

“I think that looks really odd,” said School Committee member Peter Demling, adding that it’s a “weird look” for the town budget to get such a large increase compared to the educational budgets.

The proposed adjustment goes beyond the increases allotted to the elementary and regional schools and the Jones Library system.

“It is awkward,” said School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald. She observed that the town would be receiving a 3.7% increase while other entities settle for 2.5% increases.

The CRESS program, expected to have 10 full-time employees when in full operation sometime in 2022, would have $936,000 in operating costs, according to projections from Town Manager Paul Bockelman. The program, to provide responses to some calls now handled by police, is supposed to start on a smaller scale in February.

In addition to local tax support, CRESS is being funded through $250,000 from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and a $450,000 Department of Public Health grant the town was recently awarded.

Finance Director Sean Mangano said projections show that the town could have a $26.03 million budget, up $927,508, that its elementary schools could be funded at $25.05 million, up $665,079, that the regional school assessment could be $17.17 million, up $418,720, and that library tax support could be at $2.14 million, up $52,155.

Bockelman said that everything is a proposal at this point and that broader discussions will happen, possibly through the Budget Coordinating Group. That entity brings together elected representatives, as well as School Superintendent Michael Morris and Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry.

Mangano said that Amherst is in a strong financial position and has successfully weathered the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. The budgets are formulated through a 2.5% increase to the base tax levy, $600,000 in projected new growth and state aid that is flat but could grow.

The financial indicators meeting sets the stage for the Town Council discussing and then approving budget guidelines by the end of the year. Bockelman will use those guidelines to develop and then present his detailed budget proposal for May 1, 2022.