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.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tax override wording, details set by Amherst officials

Hampshire Gazette
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 smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

20 comments:

Anonymous 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."

Nothing like avoiding a decision Mr. Hayden. That is the definition of courage, in my view, and exactly why we are in this mess to begin with.

Decisions are the domain of government. Those in positions of responsibility are supposed to stand for something other than platitudes of political correctness.

Anonymous 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.


The above is an example of how NOTE to sell an override, by explaining how cheap it is. Weiss wants you to think it's because it costs only hundreds instead of thousands of dollars and Stein wants you to think your daily cup of coffee is more expensive than this override but neither explain what we'll get for it. It is our choice, they should explain what we'll get for it.

Will the SC be doing that before the vote? Explaining what we''ll get for the portion of $1.68 million allocated to regional and Amherst schools?

Anonymous said...

To Anon 12:30:
Mr. Hayden did make a decision. You just happen to disagree with it. There are many ways to define leadership and they were all on display at the Select Board meeting on Friday morning. Watch for yourself on ACTV (on demand or channel 17). The brief sound bites recorded in the newspaper really don't do justice to the conversation. I was extremely impressed with the depth and tenor of the deliberations as well as the unanimous support of the need for these dollars in ALL budget areas, regardless of how the ballot question was structured. There were two choices about how to go about pitching that need to the community. One was more divided and the other more united in terms of attempting to define and seek support for the range of needs in town. Regardless of my or your opinion on the matter, I think it would be hard to watch those proceedings and think that courage, conviction and leadership were lacking.

Anonymous said...

No money for corruption.


Enough is enough is enough.

LarryK4 said...

To Anon 9:10 AM responding to Anon 12:03 AM:

Let me guess: you support the Override. Gotta love that Kool-Aid.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather be drinking what I'm drinking than what you are Larry, any day of the week.

LarryK4 said...

Well at least I have the balls to put my name on whatever I do.

Anonymous said...

Would you two stop it. If you were in my class I'd send you to the principal's office.

You're disrupting the REAL reason we're here.

Take it to the playground where it belongs.

LarryK4 said...

Funny, you sound like the first Anon.

Would it be un-PC of me to say you all sound alike?

Anonymous said...

That's it, Larry, I'm telling the guys at the truck barn what you think of them. You are so busted.

kevin 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.

Kevin Collins, a member of the pro-override group Yes for Amherst, said the town has been living off its reserves for too long.


Stan, do your homework. The SC budget is only the debit side. As Dr. Rodriguez, Superintendent of Schools, told me (and I have posted this before):

Kevin:

In the proposed budget which we have not presented yet since we are dealing only with the expense side of the ledger, we are already using $280,000 in reserves -- $80,000 from E&D and $200,000 from Choice.

Last year we used for this year's budget another $280,000 from reserves.

Just like in your own savings account for rainy days, you cannot keep drawing it down without replenishing it.

Using more than that would be fiscally irresponsible since it would put us in a financial situation that would affect our bond rating, and that has other implications, such as having to borrow money at a higher interest rate.

Alberto Rodriguez


Larry Shaffer said the same thing, that we can no longer live off our reserves, as we have for the last several years.

For Stan to call himself "responsible" is an oxymoron.

Stan should do his homework, because using money from reserves is no longer an option. Making statements like that is dangerous and irresponsible.

And, for the record, I am not "for" the override. No one is "for" overrides. I am "for" Amherst.

Trust me, if I thought there was another way, I would be all over it.

Stan had his way in 2007, now we all pay.

Kevin Collins
---

LarryK4 said...

And as I said before Kevin, the Regional Schools currently have $1 million stashed in their E+D account and the town has almost $4 million between Stabilization and Free Cash.

kevin said...

LarryK4 said...

And as I said before Kevin, the Regional Schools currently have $1 million stashed in their E+D account and the town has almost $4 million between Stabilization and Free Cash.


And the minimum reserves required to maintain our current bond rating (and saving us $100,000 in annual interest cost) is...

$5 million!!!

That is brilliant, Larry. We have the reserves to maintain our bond rating. Great idea!

Unless you want to spend the firemen's give-back today, on interest cost, by trying to live off reserves for yet another year, we hit the wall.

Ruining our good bond rating for the next five years, just to get through this year, is not the kind of thing we pay our town manager for. They have been trying to tell us this for some time.

I know it wasn't what you wanted to hear, Larry. Me neither. I asked Dr. R the same thing straight out, can't we get by this year on our reserves? The answer is no, no, and no. No matter how many times you ask, the answer is still no.

Building permits are up 11% nationally. And we are firing the Inspections clerk? Way to go, Amherst.

---

Laurel Dickey said...

People have been asking what the money in the override would support. There is a clear listing of what will be lost without an override at
http://voteyesforamherst.org/faq.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Laurel - for people who want to see what an override would and would not do, they should see my blog post. The information on the "say yes for Amherst" site is actually inaccurate -- and this type of information decreases support for an override because it is false. There are reasons to support an override, and there will be more cuts without an override, but many of the cuts listed there aren't accurate. For example, the band director position has been saved -- it isn't on a cut list at all. The override will have ZERO impact on class size at the elementary schools, and ZERO impact on class size at the middle school (with the exception of world language). The override would impact class sizes at the high school ONLY, and that would lead to class sizes of 24 in English from 22 now, 22 in science from 21 now, 24 in math from 21 now, 25 in social studies from 22 now; no change in world language; and, as I note on my blog post, in 2003-2004, class sizes were 21.8 in English, 23.7 in social studies, 24.3 in science, and 23.2 in math - so even without an override, class sizes will be smaller next year in science than they were in 2003, and less than 1 student more per class in math compared to 2003. I think it is really important that people make a decision about how to vote on accurate information -- so they can then come to their own conclusion about the impact of the cuts.

Baer Tierkel said...

Oops. We take seriously the goal of providing accurate information on our Yes for Amherst website (http://voteyestforamherst.org), and we are taking great pains to confirm all the information on our site with the administrators who know the numbers. We did mistakenly include the band director position as one of the cuts if the override doesn't pass, based on an earlier version of the cuts list; we have removed that item from our list. If anyone sees anything that they feel is inaccurate, please contact us at clarebertrand@voteyestforamherst.org and we will re-confirm and if necessary correct it.

That said, Catherine herself is making inaccurate statements. In no place do we say anything about class size increases for elementary or middle school classrooms, despite her suggestion to the contrary.

If people want to see the latest cuts/restoration lists, they don't have to depend on amateurs like us or Catherine - they can go to the source:

- for schools, it's http://www.arps.org/budget (click on the last link under either Amherst School District or Amherst Pelham Regional School District for the latest cuts lists)

- for town and libraries, it's www.amherstma.gov (click on the budget link and look for the BCG report to the Select Board).

The bottom line is, we cut 51 positions from the schools last year. Town-wide, we will have made $7 million in cuts in FY10 and FY11, even if the override passes. Enough is enough. Let's vote to avoid making an additional $1.68 million in cuts to the areas our staff tell us will hit our schools, libraries, and town services the hardest.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Hi, Baer,

Thanks for posting on my blog! My reference (as an amateur) was to the statement on the "say yes" website that said the following:

"In the Region, high school electives including art and technology would be cut, average class sizes would increase by 3 students per class, and the number of classes with 30 or more students would rise, threatening the depth and breadth of our college-preparatory system."

First, I found the phrase "in the region" to imply that this would include both regional schools (middle and high school), since you didn't say "in the high school" -- and the override won't impact class sizes at the middle school (except for world language classes) at all. That could be clearer, I think.

Second, I haven't heard any data on average class sizes increasing by 3 students (the summary from the high school says "2 to 3 across academic departments"), nor have I heard information on the % of classes that would increase to above 30 (and we currently have NO classes above 30), nor have I heard information suggesting that 50% of high school electives would be cut -- all points that are noted on the "say yes" website. I certainly agree with you that accurate information is important to convey to voters -- and if you can provide citations for the statements on the "say yes" website, I'll be glad to update my blog postings accordingly.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Baer - one more inaccuracy elementary school parents have brought to my attention: the phrase "Music cuts would reduce plays and performances." should be eliminated. There are no music cuts at all at the elementary school level on a cuts list.

Anonymous said...

An interesting debate about the impact of failing to pass the override.

Here's my metric and I hope Baer can help with this:

How many portables will we buy if the override fails? After our last financial armageddon, we could only afford the two. Are we down to just one portable if it fails again?

Anonymous said...

February 24, 2010 4:59 PM

Exactly!