Amherst Council seeks advice on tapping $10M in reserves for new elementary school

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-31-2023 8:12 PM

AMHERST — The Town Council is formally asking the Finance Committee to evaluate using more reserves to reduce the costs to taxpayers of the $97.5 million Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion for a new elementary school.

At a nearly four-hour meeting Monday, councilors voted 6-3 with four abstentions to ask the Finance Committee to consider using up to $10 million from reserves for the project. That is $5 million more than a previous request, by District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, for use of reserve funds that would be reimbursed through renewable aspects of the project.

The council could decide at its April 3 meeting whether to use reserves and, if so, how much would be applied to the school.

But the motion by At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker proved controversial because the agenda for the meeting had no action items and only a discussion about the plan for four capital building projects, which also include renovation and expansion of the Jones Library and construction a new South Amherst fire station and new Department of Public Works headquarters.

The school project will be subject to a vote on May 2, while the Town Council previously authorized $15.8 million in borrowing for the library. The other projects would be paid for with reserves or money within the town’s budget.

Walker said the council should prioritize the success of the school project vote, rather than worrying about future projects.

“We have this project in front of us right now, it’s ready to go right now, and I think we should help our residents, our constituents, right now,” Walker said.

Walker wants to double what Schoen is asking for. “I do not think $5 million with a rebate is the most we can do,” Walker said, pointing out that taxes are going to rise with the approval of borrowing for the project regardless.

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“This is never about savings,” Walker said. “Nobody is saving here: There will be an increase no matter what we do, people are paying more.”

Before her motion could be considered, councilors voted to overturn a ruling by Council President Lynn Griesemer that the motion was out of order. “We do not have action items posted on the agenda. It’s not what the purpose of the meeting was,” Griesemer said.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller appealed to take a vote on Walker’s motion anyway. Miller said it would be in good faith to recommend an action to the Finance Committee.

“We are making it so difficult for her to simply bring forward an initiative, a motion, that she feels is representing her constituents,” Miller said.

The final vote was supported by Walker, Miller and fellow District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, District 3 Councilors Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub and District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney, and opposed by District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis, District 5 Councilors Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne; while Griesemer, At Large Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg and District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes abstained.

Finance Director Sean Mangano showed a plan that, based on having $9.5 million in capital reserves, the current timeline for Amherst to have enough money to build a $20 million fire station is fiscal 2028 or 2029. Using the $5 million, if not reimbursed fully, would mean that the fire station is delayed by two years; while using the $10 million, if only half replenished, would delay a new station by nearly five to six years.

Griesemer said the four-building plan doesn’t account for the serious repairs buildings will need in coming years and added that the farther a project gets pushed out, the more expensive it will be.

Pam said councilors should prioritize making it easier for people to vote for the school project. She added that if the aim is to reduce the tax burden, Amherst College should step to the plate.

“One way to do that would be for Amherst College to give us a gift of $20 million,” Pam said.

Taub said property owners and renters are at a breaking point.

“My concern is not putting the elementary school building at risk, because that’s happening now, and we need that to happen now,” Taub said.

Hanneke said a political decision should be in the hands of the council, while the Finance Committee, which has three appointed, nonvoting resident members, should evaluate the money matters.

“I want a neutral recommendation from the Finance Committee about what they think is best for this town financially,” Hanneke said.

If reserves are used, the town will lose the ability to pivot and the flexibility needed for the four-project plan, Hanneke said. “That is a huge risk to take that flexibility away,” Hanneke said.

Bahl-Milne said she wants to understand how decisions would impact future projects, noting that people overwhelmingly voted for the library project when it was put to a vote in November 2021. “All these four projects are part of this planning process,” Bahl-Milne said.

DeAngelis was more critical of Walker’s motion. “I don’t think it’s fair to the public that there was an impromptu motion,” DeAngelis said.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t want the money,” DeAngelis said. “But damn it people, stop playing games.”

Residents who spoke urged councilors to be proactive in reducing costs.

“Please help residents afford this,” said Maria Kopicki of South Amherst.

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