By SCOTT MERZBACH
Saturday, February 13, 2010
AMHERST - A $1.68 million override that would add $264 to the average tax bill, and retain jeopardized programs and positions, will come before voters at the March 23 town elections.
The Select Board Friday formalized the ballot question, which will only have one number for residents to vote up or down, but with specific allotments for the elementary and regional schools, town government and public libraries.
The unanimous vote in favor of the override came after the board voted 3-2 for a single ballot question, rather than providing a menu that would allow voters to approve or vote against specific budgets.
All members of the board said they supported the need for an override, which would preserve a portion of what would otherwise total $4.3 million in reductions from this year's budgets.
Board member Diana Stein said the town, schools and libraries have removed $7 million from budgets over the last two years. "I do not want the fabric of our community to be eroded by further cuts," Stein said.
At a cost of $264 for a person living in a $334,600 home, the average homeowner, Stein said, would be asked to pay less than a dollar per day in new property taxes. "Which is much less than a cup of coffee these days," Stein said.
Selectman Gerry Weiss said the override request is for a modest amount. "It's not like we're asking for thousands of dollars," Weiss said.
It is necessitated, in part, by continued contract provisions with employee unions that offer more than 2.5 percent a year, Weiss said.
Board member Alisa Brewer said she was satisfied with the overall size, but voters should recognize that the school numbers, in which $400,000 would be allotted to the elementary schools and $739,195 to the regional schools, are soft, though reasonable.
"I feel like it's quite crystal clear on the municipal side, not so much on the other sides," Brewer said.
Maintaining the services offered in the community is important, said board member Aaron Hayden, who thanked the firefighters and police officers for forgoing their cost of living adjustments this year to help support the community.
With approval of a new contract for firefighters Wednesday, featuring a 6.5 percent wage increase over four years, for an average of 1.6 percent a year, officials were able to reduce the override request by $85,000.
On the town side, the override would ensure preservation of one laborer position at the Department of Public Works, one emergency dispatcher, a customer assistant at Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, and maintaining all streetlights. At the library, potential staff reductions in several departments would be averted, while school officials are continuing to finalize what staff would be kept.
Lump sum vs. menu
Brewer joined Weiss in supporting a menu override. "I believe it does put more emphasis on individual areas to speak about why theirs is so important," Brewer said.
Stein said she strongly supported the lump sum so that there would not be both winners and losers when the override vote takes place.
Weiss, though, said he likes residents to have a choice. "I think it's the most respectful way to treat the voters and taxpayers," Weiss said.
Weiss argued unity doesn't exist and said he is concerned about the override when library trustees have not yet shown full support and the teachers union has not given up any of its cost-of-living adjustments.
A lump sum override means town officials will have to demonstrate the validity of the school and library numbers. "That puts added pressure on the Select Board to do that," Weiss said.
With just one figure, the override values all segments of the town, Hayden said. "Lump sum allows me to appreciate everybody's contribution equally," Hayden said.
Though approval of the override gives authority for the town to tax beyond the 2.5 percent increase, Brewer said it is not a given that the town will have to tax to the new maximum capacity in the first year or subsequent years.
Town Manager Larry Shaffer agreed, saying "The true gatekeeper on any budget is Town Meeting."
Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O'Keeffe said she appreciated all input from the Budget Coordinating Group, which includes representation from the schools and libraries. "This has just been a grueling process. We've been thinking about this all the time," O'Keeffe said.
After the meeting, Stan Gawle, spokesman for the anti-override group Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change, said he was disappointed that the Select Board didn't make any effort to use more money from reserves to reduce the amount of the override. But he did appreciate Weiss' bringing up salary issues.
Kevin Collins, a member of the pro-override group Yes for Amherst, said the town has been living off its reserves for too long. Collins said the override is a down payment for the town's future.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at email@example.com.
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.