December 10, 2009
Amherst is facing a long winter of discontent. We can expect passionate defenses of programs threatened by the budget ax, worry by public employees about layoffs, and vows to resist tax increases.
Not unlike other communities, Amherst faces a gap between maintaining the same level of public services next year and anticipated revenue. That gap is currently estimated at $4 million. After the budget cuts last year, it is not possible to trim here and there and expect to save that amount. Asking voters to approve tax increases to cover the entire gap would be a divisive, uphill battle when Amherst's average annual bill is among the highest in Western Mass.
As residents struggle with their own personal budgets, it will be hard for many to put the town's general well-being ahead of their own.
The challenge is how to reach a consensus. In the past Amherst has tried different strategies. In 2007, the Finance Committee proposed a multi-year plan that tied a $2.5 million override to a pledge of no more overrides for three years and the promise that town officials would advance an economic development strategy and press for more financial assistance from the colleges. Voters rejected the override. Selectmen have held January forums to jump-start budget discussions. Amherst school leaders this year are convening a focus group to weigh in on different budget scenarios.
In the end what's needed is an alternative to the all-or-nothing mind set that too often drives budget discussion. What's needed is a grand compromise, in which all interest groups give up something and no one gets everything they want.
The compromise requires some cuts in programs and services, employee unions' acceptance of lower raises, the town's financial wizards agreeing to spend down some cash reserves, and majority support for a modest override on March 23. The compromise assumes that everyone would be willing to sacrifice a little for the good of the whole town, but that no one - neither unions nor fiscal conservatives - wants to feel like they are being asked to bear the whole burden.
The reduction in services is a given. Town boards have been and will continue to make cuts in programs and operations. Amherst needs to accept that it has been living beyond its means, but that few people want to change the fundamental nature of the town. The School and Finance committees are looking at ways to maintain educational standards and deliver public services while spending less money. Residents defending specific programs out of self-interest should propose alternatives or risk losing credibility. School employees are due to receive raises averaging 4.5 percent next year, with municipal employees receiving smaller hikes, costing $1.31 million and $430,000 respectively. Since many residents have gone without raises in the past year, an insistence by unions that "a contract is a contract" is a recipe for massive layoffs and bigger workloads. Administrators and unions are already in discussion on adjustments to contracts that turned out to be more generous than the town could afford. If employees could live with half the raises they're expecting, it would save about $870,000.
Amherst has about $4.1 million in municipal reserves. The town's financial leaders are reluctant to see those rainy days funds drop and risk lowering the town's bond rating. But families struggling to meet their household budgets tend to look at reserves and wonder why they're being asked to pay higher taxes. The key to any plan is spreading the pain as widely as possible, so it makes sense to spend some reserves.
Those who say no to any added property tax must also be on board. They have legitimate concerns over town spending and Amherst's high tax level, but they also must understand how changes in state and federal tax and revenue sharing policies have hamstrung all communities. State aid for Amherst is expected to decline in the next fiscal year. If Amherst approved a $1 million override (a quarter of the anticipated shortfall), the average tax bill would increase by only about $3 a week.
Getting buy-in from taxpayers will require showing that the burden is shared broadly. More specifics are needed, but one approach would be to cover the $4 million gap equally from budget cuts, reserve reductions, wage reductions and a tax increase. We've had winters when the town gets divided up into pro- and anti-override camps. Assuming that Amherst would prefer to come together than be torn apart, it is time to try a new approach.
Our holiday wish list: Town leaders willing to stand up and do the hard bargaining necessary to make this type of compromise work.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.