Columnist Johanna Neumann: For Amherst, this is the moment

  • Amherst Town Hall. gazette file photo

Friday, March 05, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the first of a five-part series outlining the four major building projects on the table in Amherst. This column is an overview, while the remaining four will dive into each project — a new elementary school, renovation and expansion of Jones Library, a new Department of Public Works headquarters, and new fire station in South Amherst.

For Amherst, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Here’s why.

When I moved to Amherst, I didn’t pay much attention to town politics. To a new arrival like me, everything seemed fine. There was lots of open space to enjoy. The town was walkable compared to the small town I had grown up near. It had decent public transit options. It boasted coffee shops where you could bump into friends and neighbors — and even an independent movie theater across from the farmers market, which itself is kitty corner to our iconic town hall. Just fine.

My sepia-tinted perceptions of Amherst took a mortal hit in 2016 when Town Meeting voted to turn down more than $34 million in state funding to replace two failing school buildings — even after voters supported a ballot initiative for doing so.

At the time, Amherst’s Select Board, School Committee, and Finance Committee had all urged Town Meeting members to support the project. They knew that the town had been working on this plan for years, and that Amherst desperately needed state funding for the school in order to free up town borrowing for other major capital projects that had been put off for decades.

In fact, before the Town Meeting vote, Finance Committee member Tim Neale was quoted in the Daily Hampshire Gazette saying “should the town not approve this article there would most likely be significant additional costs.” He said the cost of borrowing is expected to increase, adding that there is no guarantee of state funding in the future. The night of that doomed vote, the future of Amherst’s capital projects looked bleak.

That was five years ago. So much has happened since then.

Most notably, in 2018, fueled in part by outrage about the schools vote, Amherst changed its form of government. Instead of a 240-person representative town meeting that meets twice a year, we now have a 13-person Town Council that meets at least weekly.

Plus, a half decade later, today there’s renewed hope around our capital projects.

This year, after four years of applying, Amherst was accepted back into the Massachusetts School Building Authority program that, if we follow their protocol, will provide us with matching funds to replace our flawed and failing elementary school buildings.

And this July, Amherst is in line for a state grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to renovate and expand the iconic Jones Library.

It’s exciting to see Amherst once again poised to move on a comprehensive capital improvement strategy — one that has literally been decades in the making. Our former select board, our town finance directors, and town managers, from the late John Musante to current Town Manager Paul Bockelman have all been stewards of this plan, waiting for the state funds to align with interest rates we can afford. We have a AAA bond rating, a very low debt load, and interest rates for borrowing are at historically low rates. This is the moment.

Here is the basic financial breakdown of the capital projects: The plan, presented by Finance Director Sean Mangano, has Amherst investing $90.8 million to activate $61.5 million in state matching funds, for a total of $151.3 million spent on four independent building projects.

The four projects are:

■A $36.3 million expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, for which the town would cover $15.8 million.

■A new $80 million elementary school building, for which the town would cover $40 million of the cost. (That’s $7.2 million more than we would have paid in 2016 — Tim Neale’s warning was right.)

■A new $20 million Department of Public Works headquarters for which no state matching funds are available.

■A new $15 million fire station in South Amherst, which also doesn’t have a state matching fund program.

Three of the four projects can be paid through borrowing and state money. But, to cover Amherst’s share of the cost of the new elementary school building, voters in town will need to approve a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override, just like they did in 2016, that then wasn’t used. As proposed, the owner of a $250,000 home in Amherst would see the annual property tax bill rise between $181.76 and $244.17, while the owner of a $650,000 home would see the property tax bill go up between $472.59 and $634.84.

As a homeowner and taxpayer in Amherst who has two children in public schools, that’s an investment I’m looking forward to making and I’m excited to explain why. Starting this week and over the course of the coming four weeks, I plan to write about each of these projects, starting with the financial case and then the substantive case for each of these buildings.

My hope is that this column, and the four that follow, will help our Town Council and our community connect the dots and realize that these buildings and the financing plan represent are a smart investment to keep Amherst moving forward.

Johanna Neumann is a 10-year resident of Amherst. She was the president of the Vote Yes for Amherst ballot committee, which worked to overturn Town Meeting’s decision on the elementary school building project and the Amherst for All campaign to update Amherst’s form of government. She currently serves on the Amherst Planning Board.