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Amherst readies for public forums on town building projects

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman SUBMITTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 27, 2019

AMHERST — When forums begin next week focused on how Amherst moves forward with constructing or renovating at least four municipal buildings, participants will get information about the need for the projects and be able to offer input on what they would like to see in each.

But even though the likely costs of the projects — including a new elementary school and Department of Public Works headquarters, a renovated and expanded Jones Library, and a fire station south of downtown — will be in excess of $100 million, a detailed price tag is not going to be presented at thesessions, held on the afternoons and evenings of Dec. 3 and Dec. 9.

Although the costs of the projects are important, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said, the Town Council is looking to get comments that go beyond the financial impact.

“The listening sessions are less about money and more about the town’s values,” Bockelman said.

It also means that an interactive tool for the public to see how various funding scenarios for the projects will affect property taxes and the town budget will not be going live on the town website in advance of the forums. The tool was first unveiled last winter by Sean Mangano, the town’s capital projects manager,

The forums are scheduled for Dec. 3 at 3:30 p.m. in the Large Activity Room at the Bangs Community Center and at 7 p.m. in the cafeteria at Crocker Farm Elementary School, and for Dec. 9 at 3:30 p.m. at the Fort River Elementary School library and 6 p.m. at Wildwood Elementary School library.

Each of the sessions will kick off with a 15-minute video that outlines the major building projects the town will undertake in the coming years.

The video will have school Superintendent Michael Morris, Library Director Sharon Sharry, DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring and Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson discussing the projects, with Bockelman providing the context of what the town can afford and how the projects would be funded.

After the video is shown, overhead slides will present the circumstances at each of the current buildings, and how the departments would benefit from improvements.

A facilitator will lead the forums, in which a series of framing questions will be given to participants centered on the underlying core values of the town, and whether people are hopeful and excited about the projects.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said there is still a need for more clarity on the costs, observing that the studies for the projects were done at different times and cost estimates may be out of date.

There are also unknowns related to the cost of doing only renovations, rather than building new facilities.

Bockelman will explain how the building projects would be paid for through a combination of the existing budget, borrowing and Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion votes.

Griesemer said unlike a home mortgage, the costs of the projects to taxpayers will go down over time.

The information collected at the forums will inform what happens next with each of the projects, along with decisions that will be made by other entities.

On Dec. 11, the town will learn if the MSBA will support a school project, and in July 2020 the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners will decide whether to release money for the library.

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