From the tables at Rao’s to the counter at Kelly’s to the blazing online email lists, suddenly everyone’s a critic. There’s a drama being played out regarding Amherst’s budget crisis. The question is, what kind of drama are we in?
Some say it’s “Keystone Kops” – everyone’s bumbling and running into each other and getting in each other’s way, and the final solution is to throw the bums out. Some say it’s “Perils of Pauline,” a recurring melodrama in which the villain (greedy yuppies) wants to force a Wal-Mart or some other horrible solution on the town until the hero (Gov. Patrick or UMass or Amherst College) rides in on a white horse with a bucket full of cash and saves the day. Or maybe it’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” as one by one, decision-makers are frozen in time by misty memories of the Amherst of days gone by.
The problem is, each of these scenarios paints us as powerless to control our own fate. But what if we’re playing by a different script?
What if our crisis is more like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”? What if our circumstances have actually changed, and we’re facing a new threat that requires action, not melodramatic last-minute rescues by others? What if denial is our worst enemy?
We at Amherst Center think that’s the case. And just as with global warming, there is no single fix for the drama we find ourselves in, no white horse that will appear on the horizon. The solutions to our problems are found in our dedication to a long-term strategy made up of many individual initiatives, all pushing toward the same goal: a fiscally sustainable Amherst. In other words, the Amherst we love, with green open space, great public schools, cultural diversity and a small-town feel, but supported by a broadened tax base, so we don’t soak the taxpayers.
Economic development will be just one of the key areas that must be part of this strategy. Select Board member Gerry Weiss, in a recent email, noted that we would need $100 million in new economic development to generate $1.5 million in new tax revenue. We applaud this kind of research. But others have seen that $100 million number and said, “That’s impossible to do, so let’s do nothing.” Ignoring the inconvenient truth will not make the problem go away.
No, we can’t get it all done in one year, or two years, or maybe even five. But we can do it, little by little. Decision by decision, we can make incremental changes to spur smart growth in Amherst. Small changes can make a big difference – ask a teacher who is about to lose his or her job this year what kind of difference $40,000 in tax revenue would make.
Yet we have seen too many Town Meeting and Select Board members voting against these incremental changes:
- PRP zoning (Article 23, 5/1/06). Town Meeting voted (defeated by 2 votes, 99-52 in favor – but two-thirds majority required) against tweaking the commercial zoning of five PRP sites in Amherst to allow professional offices like architects and lawyers. Traffic concerns of a few neighbors trumped many thousands of dollars in potential revenue.
- JPI apartments/Hope Church land (Article 2, 6/15/05). Town Meeting voted (111-83) to create a “special” process to determine alternative uses for land that had already been contracted to JPI by Hope Church, derailing the process and contributing to the developer’s decision to drop the project. Neighbors’ concerns trumped more than $400,000 in potential revenue.
- South East Street/Route 9 zoning (Article 21, 5/1/06). Town Meeting voted down (defeated by 13 votes, 93-67 in favor, but two-thirds majority required) a zoning change that would have transformed two run-down student rental houses into three-story mixed-use buildings. Resistance to modest development (even on Route 9) trumped tens of thousands of dollars in potential new tax revenue.
- $90,000 bus route. Town Meeting voted (84-70 5/1/06) to add in $90,000 to the budget for bus routes that serve only a handful of people. An overly optimistic vision of transportation cost us $90,000 more in property taxes to pay for it.
You’ll notice that many of these decisions carried by only a few votes. So who we elect to Town Meeting and other town offices really matters.
We have an election coming up on March 27. Check and see how the Town Meeting members in your precinct represent you.
We encourage you to look at how the people running for Town Meeting and Select Board voted on the issues above. Are they voting for a sustainable Amherst? Are they representing you?
As Al Gore pointed out, it is not the single, large decision that will save us. It is the sum of all the small decisions made week after week, year after year. But first, we need to face our own inconvenient truth.
Amherst Center is a monthly column that seeks to present local issues from a centrist point of view. It is written by Town Meeting members Baer Tierkel and Clare Bertrand.