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Amherst looks to cut capital spending by half

  • Amherst Town Hall photographed on Saturday, March 14, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2020

AMHERST — Much of the planned spending on building improvements, vehicle purchases and other equipment for the town, schools and libraries may have to be postponed at least a year as Amherst officials contemplate cutting spending under the projected capital plan by half.

The Joint Capital Planning Committee, made up of members of the Town Council, School Committee and trustees for the Jones Library, is weighing the possibility of scaling back the capital plan for fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1, to road and sidewalk projects; an emergency reserve fund for certain building, vehicle and equipment needs; and paying down the debt on previous projects.

That means some of the items that had been included in the capital spending plan unveiled over the winter would not be purchased for at least another year. Among them:

■$1.4 million in borrowing for a ladder truck for the fire department.

■$750,000 in borrowing for renovating the North Common and Main Street parking lot.

■$220,000 to buy new cruisers for the police department.

■$154,000 for a dump and sander truck for the Department of Public Works.

■$148,100 for computers and technology for the schools.

Finance Director Sean Mangano told the committee at a recent meeting that the revised plan would mean reducing the town’s capital plan spending to $2.78 million, or about 5% of the town’s $56.8 million levy limit. Previously, the town was hoping to set aside 10% of this levy limit for capital spending, but is changing course due to a projected $3.6 million to $7.7 million drop in anticipated town revenues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest plan would allocate $200,000 to sidewalks and $900,000 to roads. Mangano said these can be retained as capital projects because there is a significant backlog in road maintenance.

“Roads have been front and center for a while. We’ve heard a lot about it,” Mangano said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said roads are also time-sensitive in that there is a limited season for doing the work, and having the money in hand will allow the town to go out to bid for various projects.

An additional $306,651 in the capital plan would go to the emergency reserve and $62,000 would be targeted for downtown improvements, including sidewalks, lighting and kiosks, with the source of this funding a new fee from ride-sharing services such as Uber.

The reserve would be for critical, urgent needs, Mangano said. By having this in place, the committee wouldn’t have to make choices between the needs for various departments until an emergency develops.

The original plan, unveiled during the winter before the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on towns’ income, had been to allocate $5.7 million for capital spending.

State aid from sources such as Chapter 90, which is dedicated to roads, could amount to $841,883 and bring the capital plan spending up to $3.69 million.

The committee is expected to make a recommendation on the capital spending plan by July 1, a two-month delay from the original timeline.

Later in the year, town officials will learn how some of the $3.4 million earmarked for Amherst from the federal CARES Act can be used, with the possibility that school-related items, building improvements and other projects related to the pandemic can draw from this. Amherst is also expected to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency funding for similar projects.