Are you one of the parents who heard about the possible reorganization of the elementary schools – possibly even closing one – and you freaked out? You’ve got plenty of company. Or are you someone who has read the citizen fiscal choices committee report and sighed out loud in agony over the reality of our financial situation here in Amherst? You’re not alone.
The financial news isn’t good these days on any front. But the hard numbers for our town’s future budgets are especially bleak. The growing gap between income and expenses is alarming, and when combined with the possibility of a significant drop in state aid, it will only get worse. Phil Jackson’s and Jim Oldham’s columns last week, taken together, capture the dilemma: We will have to make some wrenching cuts, and we must do so in a way consistent with our values.
Some services will just have to go. Period. As the FCCC report makes clear, we won’t be able to close our $2.7 million (and growing) gap without service cuts.
The elementary schools have bravely stepped out in front of this difficult process (“and a little child shall lead them”), by announcing that they will form a committee to look at various options for reconfiguring the schools in ways that are not business as usual. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly difficult task, and you have to tip your cap to them for facing reality and diving in. Stay tuned for how that progresses.
But with a projected $2.7 million budget gap, big decisions will have to be made townwide. So what about Town Hall and the Bangs Center? Like the schools, they’ve been trimming costs for years. But perhaps now they will have to look at fundamental reorganization and service cuts. We would look at the human resources, community services, and recreation functions for starters. Are there efforts that could be regionalized or otherwise streamlined?
What about the Police Department? It’s clearly top-rate, but it is stretched thin staffing shifts to cover both town and UMass demands. Could we improve effectiveness and efficiency by merging the UMass police force with ours? The two forces combined have 106 police officers (about 48 town, 58 UMass), and somewhat duplicative command structures. Obviously, Amherst’s police situation is complex, and combining forces with UMass would not be simple. But given that UMass is facing huge budget cuts of its own, shouldn’t we be talking about this possibility?
What about the Fire Department? This is another complicated area, combining fire and EMT service, and using professional, “call force” and student-volunteer staff. They increased their personnel with grant money that came after 9/11, and now the town has to pay. Are they organized as efficiently as possible? A tough area to examine indeed but, it’s clear, nothing is off the table.
What about our libraries? They are a source of pride in our community, but how do we value the Jones versus the branch libraries? Is it time to look at closing one of the branches?
Finally, what ideas do our town and school staff have for saving money? It is vital we engage our workers and their unions and ask them to sit at the table and help make these really hard decisions
Reconfigure schools, libraries, police and fire departments? It’s easy to naysay any of these cuts, to say how each area in turn is a sacred cow beyond reproach. But we think before you criticize any cut being proposed, you should offer your alternative list. Just saying no and playing defense isn’t good enough anymore.
It may come to the point where we say whoa, the cuts have gone too far, that we need to raise taxes to pay for the level of services we think Amherst needs. But we aren’t there yet. The hard decisions haven’t been made. We’ve lived off our bank account savings (reserves) and some marginal cutting for many years. Now it’s time to make tough decisions about our sacred cows.
Amherst Center is a monthly column which appears in The Amherst Bulletin that seeks to portray local issues from a centrist perspective. It is written by Town Meeting members Baer Tierkel and Clare Bertrand and School Committee member Andy Churchill. Amherst Center appears in The Amherst Bulletin on the last Friday of each month.