Amherst residents pitch for priorities as budget discussions open

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-22-2023 6:11 PM

AMHERST — Better support for the public schools in Amherst and the town’s unarmed community responders program, as well as getting a youth empowerment center and a community center for Black, Indigenous and people of color established, are among priorities residents say should be included in next year’s municipal budget.

At a public forum Monday that serves as a kickoff to the preparation of town, school and library budgets for fiscal year 2025 over the next several months, residents described needs that should be addressed in the spending plans. Residents also offered input, both for and against, a nearly $10 million increase in the borrowing authorization for the $46.14 million Jones Library renovation and expansion project the Town Council could consider at its Dec. 4 meeting.

For next year’s budget, which begins July 1, Allegra Clark of Cherry Lane said that preserving school positions should be a priority, reporting that her child has been affected by the elimination of library paraeducators.

“The schools were significantly impacted with the number of cuts and how it has affected morale, so I would hope we can fight to keep our schools funded and positions intact,” Clark said.

The cuts came after the original budget proposal from the Amherst School Committee exceeded the financial guidelines set by the Town Council, and was rejected.

Vincent O’Connor of Summer Street said similar school requests should be honored in future years.

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To provide more funding, though, O’Connor suggested forming two new Town Council subcommittees. One would work with the School Committee to persuade Amherst College to provide a substantial contribution to the town’s education budgets, while the other would negotiate with the University of Massachusetts to get a direct payment for a new road repair fund. “I think the reason to do that is the elected councilors have the moral and political equivalent of the two legislators who represent this community in the state Legislature,” O’Connor said.

Jeff Lee of South East Street said he is concerned about the fiscal cliff the schools may face when pandemic-era Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, part of the American Rescue Plan Act,  are depleted. “I really haven’t heard a solid explanation for how we’re going to deal with that,” Lee said.

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service departments need to be fully funded, said Pat Ononibaku, who chairs the Progressive Coalition of Amherst political action committee. She said youth empowerment and BIPOC cultural centers are essential. “We should have our own space where we can feel comfortable to gather,” Ononibaku said.

Birdy Newman of District 3 said the town budget should prioritize racial justice, innovative public safety and community building through expansion of the CRESS department and devoting town resources to get the youth empowerment center and BIPOC cultural center off the ground. “It’s important to me that you know that we are still watching, we are still voting, and we will not stop advocating for an equitable and safe Amherst,” Newman said.

Clark agreed that the youth empowerment center should be a priority.“The CRESS department should be operational 24/7 and I would love to see, once dispatch is sending 911 calls to CRESS, what the impact of that is when we’ve evaluating public safety staffing.”

On other topics for the budget, Elizabeth Haygood, a member of the Human Rights Commission, said an increase from $2,000 to $10,000 for its work would support diverse cultural and heritage events. “They promote harmony and they allow community members to know who we are and what we can do for them, and it brings everyone together,” Haygood said.

Former Health Board Chairwoman Nancy Gilbert said the health department needs to be better supported, pointing out that it is underfunded compared to Northampton and Easthampton.

“I’m very concerned that if we have another pandemic or other crisis, that the health department will not be adequately staffed,” Gilbert said.

Although the Finance Committee has not yet made a recommendation on increasing the borrowing authority for the Jones Library project, with two meetings set for the last week of November, the Town Council also took feedback on that authorization request.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said thatfor the project to go out to bid, the full $46.14 million authorization is needed. Nine of the 13 councilors will have to approve that.

Among those supporting the increased borrowing authorization was Allegra Haupt of Precinct 7, who said the library’s value will only be improved with expansion and renovation.

“I don’t think the repairs would be sufficient to that end,” Haupt said. “I think we could create a town space that is more inviting and welcoming.”

Nancy Campbell of Middle Street, a member of the Friends of the Jones Library, said the project needs to go beyond patching up the current building, last expanded and renovated in the early 1990s. “I urge the Town Council to make this weighty but logical decision to vote yes, to authorize borrowing for the Jones Library expansion and renovation project,” Campbell said.

Inanna Balkin, a ninth grader at the high school, said the library is important to the community, including teens who otherwise would hang out in the coffee and bubble tea shops.

“My friends and I look to the library to meet our social needs, and we could rely on it even more if the project went forward,” Balkin said.

Voters gave the project nearly two-thirds support two years ago. “I am asking you now to support the will of the voters,” Balkin said.

Laura Draucker of Rosemary Street said the opposition to the project hasn’t changed, and the sizable majority of residents who supported the project means it’s not controversial.

“I’m really not clear when people are saying this is a controversial project where this data is coming from,” Draucker said. “64% is not controversial, that’s a strong mandate to the Town Council.”

Those concerned, though, note that projects like a new Department of Public Works headquarters and fire station may be delayed.

Peggy Matthews-Nilsen of Teaberry Lane said that town leaders need to balance wants with needs and what residents can afford.

“The Jones Library expansion was wasteful and extravagant when it was estimated to cost just $37 million,” Matthews-Nilsen said. “Now spiraling costs would require spending the obscene amount of $47 million, just to enlarge one of Amherst’s three public libraries.”

Amber Cano-Martin of Grantwood Drive. who ran unsuccessfully for Town Council, said better roads and sidewalks are demanded by voters, as well as by people on fixed incomes who want Amherst to be affordable to age in place.

“Saying no to this authorization is also a yes to a lot of other things people in this town want,” Cano-Martin said.

Ken Rosenthal of Sunset Avenue said the town has gone well beyond its $15.8 million commitment already, budgeting $1 million from the Community Preservation Act account and $8 million in interest. “I’d like the town to be a little more honest about how much town money is going into this project,” Rosenthal said.

“If you live in Amherst, you must know we need a working public works building, a fire station in the south, we need to make progress on our truly horrible roads,” said Ira Bryck of Strong Street. “How is it that this mega expansion that has grown in cost and shrunk in quality be taking up all the oxygen in the room?”