Columnist Jerry Guidera: Voting yes for all he loves about Amherst

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

People often ask me why I got involved in the “Amherst for All” effort to review our governance structure.

I usually talk about my personal history as a “townie” in Amherst, and how that informs everything I love about our town — and everything in our current governance structure that just doesn’t work.

When my parents moved our family here in the early 1980s, I attended our public schools, starting with Wildwood. In high school, I got a job washing dishes at Amherst College’s Valentine Hall.

I remember mountain biking around the Notch and swimming at the public pool. I’ve always loved the things about this town we all do, which is why I returned here 15 years ago to support the family business, and then stayed to raise my own family.

When I returned, I was eager to catch up with old friends and classmates who had, like me, decided to remain here in the Valley long after graduating. Some of them are police officers, firemen, teachers and town employees.

I remember being surprised at how many of my old friends lived outside of Amherst. We have great neighboring towns, but why not stay here in Amherst and raise your family where you grew up? So I asked them. Every one of them had the same response: “It just costs too much.”

I joined Town Meeting a few years ago without campaigning for a single vote. I assume my neighbors chose me like I chose the other 23 candidates from Precinct 9 — by picking those with addresses closest to mine. Most of my constituents probably don’t even know me.

But if my constituents did ask me about the issues over the years, they would find that I’ve been remarkably consistent on one issue: the outsized share of the tax burden shouldered by residents, as opposed to businesses, and how that contributes to the general unaffordability of Amherst. Ultimately, that’s why too many of my old friends, whose livelihoods are based right here in Amherst, can’t afford to live here.

Our taxes are more than 90 percent dependent on residential properties — no wonder young families can’t afford to live in Amherst and our schools face double-digit enrollment declines year-over-year.

At Town Meeting, I watched in shock to see how many of my fellow 240 representatives showed up at the old junior high auditorium absolutely unprepared to take on this affordability gap. The subject didn’t even come up in budget debates about the schools. In fact, I would argue that Town Meeting has shown a shocking inability to take on any of the big issues facing our town.

Just look, for example, at our legislature’s decision to reject the wishes of the majority of town voters by turning down $34 million in matching state funds to rebuild our crumbling elementary schools. Whether you supported that plan or opposed it, the fact remains that a system dominated by our form of representative Town Meeting is simply unable to find a way to accept $34 million in state funds for which we had competed and won. There was no alternative plan offered up — just a money-losing rejection.

And now, as the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported recently, taxpayers are going to be saddled with an estimated $1 million a year — and in four years, $3 million a year! — in building maintenance costs to prop up these failing buildings. Meanwhile, we still have no plan for replacing the schools.

Propping up these failing buildings is a symptom of a system that is itself propped up and falling short of expectations. Nobody knows who they’re voting for in Town Meeting, or where their “representatives” stand on the issues that are important to them. They don’t know how to reach them or hold them accountable. This group of mostly self-appointed part-timers are responsible for an $88 million budget — $88 million! — yet they’re accountable to nobody.

We only meet twice a year, and when we do, we spend hours debating picayune appropriations and global issues. Meanwhile, outside the auditorium in which Town Meeting convenes, the 38,000 Amherst residents we’re supposed to be representing are grappling with very real issues, from the high cost of living here to the quality of the services they receive from the town. For them, this whole thing feels like an opaque, closed-loop system.

Since we started this campaign in 2015, I’ve been amazed by the broad base of support we’ve received and the new friends I’ve made through this effort. Some tuned in to Town Meeting’s shortcomings in the wake of the school vote. Others are here because they’ve watched Town Meeting in action for decades and know we can do better.

For others, it’s about democracy and accountability — they want year-round democracy, not occasional government.

All want a bigger voice in how their town is run. All of us deserve it. And on March 27, we’ll be voting “yes” for everything we love about Amherst.

Jerry Guidera is a proud Amherst native and not-so-proud representative Town Meting member from Precinct 9.