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Amherst town manager unveils plans to meet Community Safety Working Group's goals

  • STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • STAFF FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Monday, June 07, 2021

AMHERST — A better than threefold increase in funding for recommendations from the Community Safety Working Group, including creating new departments to provide policing alternatives and to promote anti-racism efforts in town government, were unveiled by the town manager last week.

After releasing a fiscal year 2022 budget that set aside $130,000 for the Community Response for Equity, Safety and Service, or CRESS program, Town Manager Paul Bockelman told the Finance Committee that Amherst could spend at least $475,000 on the pilot initiative, with additional appropriations to begin a department of diversity, equity and inclusion.

But as Bockelman presented a comprehensive plan the Town Council could enact by July 1 as part of next year’s town budget, leaders of the community safety panel expressed frustration they were left out from discussions for close to 90 minutes, with its two co-chairwomen describing this as “disrespectful” to the months of work they have done on behalf of making Amherst a better place for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

While leaders of the town’s police, fire and emergency dispatching participated in the meeting, members of the group proposing the ideas were left as viewers. When finally invited in as active panelists, co-Chairwoman Brianna Owen said she had found that “incredibly disrespectful” to leave the experts out.

Co-Chairwoman Ellisha Walker, too, expressed disappointment at not being allowed to participate during the town manager’s presentation.

At-Large Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Andy Steinberg apologized for what happened.

Even though the CRESS program could start next winter with nearly $500,000 to meet recommendations from the working group, Bockelman said he will have to look at adding significant funds in the following two budget years, with no clear path for beefing the program up to an around-the-clock, seven-day-a-week program.

The initial $130,000 to seed the program comes primarily from not filling two police officer positions. This would allow the program to have a full-time director starting in December and four CRESS responders in February.

An additional $250,000 would go toward data gathering and analysis, training and consulting, a vehicle purchase, and outfitting space in a town building, with that money to be allocated from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Bockelman said the initial year of the pilot program faces many unknowns, including the exact type of calls these responders will handle and when calls that don’t require armed police response come to CRESS.

The latest cost estimates provided by the working group to have a fully functioning CRESS program include $1.78 million for salaries and $165,000 for other expenses.

Meantime, the new department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion would be overseen by a director paid $90,000 using the previous salary for the economic development director.

“This is a difficult decision on my part because both are high needs,” Bockelman said.

This department’s budget would also include reallocating existing money and American Rescue Plan Act money to create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion coordinator, at a cost of $70,000, and taking $80,000 requested for anti-racism work that is already included in the town manager’s budget.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she is pleased Bockelman has taken to heart the recommendation and is using interesting approaches to fund them. District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said she is full of hope and excitement over what the town could accomplish.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said grant funding, including a $90,000 amendment inserted into the state budget by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, is an opportunity to build these programs.

But for some councilors, eliminating the economic development director is not a good idea.

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said this could be shortsighted as the town comes out the COVID-19 pandemic. District 3 Councilor George Ryan said he would lament this loss.

Brewer said Bockelman shouldn’t pit two positions against each other, while other councilors noted that the recent announcement of the Eruptor project in North Amherst, a high-tech research center, is being pursued without any involvement from the town.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said a position that can heal the community and bring people together is more important.

“We need to address racism,” DeAngelis said. “That has much more value than anything else right now.”

Left out of any funding are two other Community Safety Working Group recommendations that it estimates could $385,462 in salaries.

Bockelman is suggesting the town review options for a youth empowerment center in partnership with the public schools’ Family Center, and have the town’s recreation and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion directors, once hired, discuss and have a plan for this center developed by December.

A BIPOC cultural center, too, would be assigned as a priority for the new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion director with a goal of having viable options in December.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.