This is our last column before the March 23 election, and we are happy to join last week’s columnist Jim Oldham in urging you to vote yes on the override on March 23.
We also urge you to vote for Rick Hood in the contested School Committee race on the same day.
In considering the override vote, think for a minute why you live in Amherst, and not Belchertown, Hadley, Greenfield or Northampton.
Why is Amherst such a great place to live?
Well, it didn’t happen by accident.
Amherst is what it is because previous generations of residents have invested in schools, libraries, public safety, recreation, open space, elder services – the public infrastructure that makes up the fabric of our community, supporting our diversity, our vibrancy and our strong property values.
Now the national economic crisis is threatening the Amherst we’ve built. The state has cut our funding by $3.1 million over the last two years, and another $1.1 million in state aid cuts are expected next year. We can’t control the federal and state fiscal climate.
But we can step up locally to protect our community from the worst of the damage from this short-term, external crisis.
Some will argue that Amherst has been living beyond our means for years, and that we need to “tighten our belt first.”
Well, the good news for you is that Amherst has already tightened its belt.
While Northampton was passing their override last year, Amherst was cutting 51 staff from the schools and 13.5 from town departments (including three police officers).
Our town officials took seriously the message from the failure of the 2007 override.
They asked a citizens’ Facilitation of Community Choices Committee to examine the budget and identify strategies for closing Amherst’s structural deficit.
Here are the areas the FCCC identified in 2008, and what has happened since:
1. Increase fees for services. Done. LSSE is now practically all fee-based; other fees increased.
2. Increase revenue from ambulance service. Done. Rates have been increased.
3. Reduce costs through efficiencies, consolidation and regionalization.We’ve closed a school, closed a pool, consolidated departments in Town Hall, restructured health plans, pursued regional emergency dispatch and cut more than 60 staff.
4. Increase economic development. Master plan is done; business zoning is revamped; revenue-generating projects include the Lord Jeff, Boltwood Place, New England Environmental. Patterson property development and UMass taxable student housing discussions are ongoing.
5. Implement local option meals/lodging tax. Done. New, annual revenues now coming in.
6. Secure a Proposition 2½ override. Yes, the citizens’ fiscal committee said we would need one.
Our public officials have done the hard work needed to balance our budget over the long term.
Even with the override, we will have made $7 million in cuts this year and next.
What we face now is the short-term problem of the recession.
We can’t just keep cutting our way out – not if we want to emerge with the things we value about our community intact.
Enough is enough.
We need this override to save our schools, libraries and town operations from making an additional $1.68 million of the worst cuts.
Based on prioritized lists of the most critical, staff-identified needs, potential cuts will be rolled back as follows: $400,000 in the elementary schools, $739,195 in the middle and high schools, $88,994 in the libraries, and $452,252 in town operations. (For more information, visit voteyesforamherst.org.)
Here’s what it will cost you: for the average house ($334,600 assessed value) – $22 per month. And since property taxes are deductible, it actually comes to less than $16/month for the average taxpayer. That’s only about $3.50 a week!
Amherst has only had two overrides to support the operating budget in 30 years – we don’t do this very often.
But it’s time now to come together as a community and once again protect our investment in a quality of life that has been built over generations.
A final word on candidate Rick Hood: He will be an excellent School Committee member.
A Web designer and local business owner, he understands budgets and cares deeply about improving communication between the schools and the public. (For more information, visit rickhoodforamherst.org.)
A former president of the high school Parent Center, he brings knowledge of the high school to a committee that dearly needs it. And his thoughtful, low-key manner will help smooth the sometimes stormy waters of committee meetings.
Three thumbs up!
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.