5 Committee meeting on capitol projects

Boards and committees seeking new multi-million dollar construction for Amherst’s schools, main library, fire station and public works department gathered last night (Sept. 14) to hear a plan for funding their projects with higher property taxes and new town debts.

The building projects proposed by the Amherst School Committee, Jones Library Trustees, the DPW/Fire Station Advisory Committee, would total about $99 million over the next several years if approved, not including the interest all new loans would carry.

The relative merits of the four projects were not discussed, and they were not ranked in order of urgency by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, or the approximately 25 official attendees. However, Lynn Griesemer, chair of the DPW/Fire Station Advisory Committee, said the Fire Department has sought for over 10 years to build a station in South Amherst, which is now be served by facilities in North Amherst and the town center. “If you live in South Amherst, you are not served in any kind of rapid response way (for fire and ambulance services),” she said.

Proposed municipal projects include:

  • A consolidated elementary school for grades 2-6, estimated at $67 million, with the state paying about 51% of the total, and at least $33 million coming from local taxes. (A budget override question to fund the school building will go before the voters on Nov, 8., and Amherst Town Meeting, scheduled for Nov. 14, would also have to approve the project.)
  • Major rebuilding of the Jones Library at a total cost of $32 million, with about $15 million from property taxes, $12 million in state funds, and $5 million in planned fundraising
  • A new DPW facility estimated at $38 million
  • A new fire station estimated at $11 to $13 million

There was no mention of any substantial state aid available for either the DPW building or fire station.

Bockelman said he called the meeting to explore the challenges of how to fund the four projects.

“What we don’t address is the impact on taxpayers, or the appetite of voters to accept the debt,” he said, introducing a lengthy presentation by Claire McGinnis, finance co-director.

McGinnis said the median home price in Amherst is $306,300. The annual property taxes on such a house would rise by about $500, but that sum would decline over time, she said, adding that the town could borrow funds for 25 or 30 years.

Bockelman said the town’s existing debts are declining, and Amherst is now at “an opportune moment,” to undertake spending. He said Amherst has money in its stabilization fund that could be used to “cushion the blow,” of tax increases.

McGinnis offered a cautiously optimistic picture of the town’s ability to fund the four projects, and said it will require careful management. “It is important to realize that the town will have ongoing equipment and maintenance needs in addition to these projects,” she said, noting that voters would have to approve budget overrides for both the school and library.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said the Jones Library “should be more than a cozy place to read a book,” and that she hopes to restore it to the central place in communal life it had when opened in 1921. Sharry said the library’s “down at the heels condition and cluttered spaces,” make it inadequate for the 5,000 people who visit each week.

Acting School Superintendent Michael Morris said the physical environments at Wildwood and Fort River schools no longer support teaching and learning, and that new consolidated school would eliminate “equity considerations,” in redistricting. Crocker Farm, which would be converted from K-6 to a townwide preschool, kindergarten and first grade, would provide two new preschool classrooms for Amherst, Morris said.

Questions from the town Finance Committee last night included the cost of demolishing Fort River School and clearing the lot, which chairwoman Marylou Theilman said was previously pegged at $2.2 million, although Morris denied that figure, and said it is actually about $1.2 million. Questions also arose about figures showing that renovation of Wildwood and Fort River would be more expensive than the new building. Finance Committee Vice Chair Steve Braun noted the figures “seem kind of high.” Morris defended the numbers, which did not break out costs of basic, moderate and extensive renovations as was done at School Committee meetings last winter.

Finance Committee member Anuraq Sharma pointed out that taxes in Amherst are already “quite high” compared to neighboring towns, and that the mill rate here is $21.2 per thousand of assessed value. Meanwhile, Braun noted that the figures McGinnis presented don’t include Amherst’s potential share of future repairs at the regional middle and high schools. Bockelman said those costs, as unknowns, weren’t included, but might be “several hundred thousand.”

Others, including School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez, emphasized that having a new school and a more modern library could raise property values and make the town more desirable to new comers and businesses. Selectman Douglas Slaughter and others said the new construction could help fuel development, which in turn could provide new tax revenue. “It we have new growth, it does have a beneficial impact,” he said.

State regulations prevent cost amounts from appearing in the Nov. 8 ballot item seeking funds for the school, and Braun said the Finance Committee is going to try and disseminate information to the public about it, through the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the town’s website.

Selectwoman Constance Kruger said property value increases have little meaning to homeowners until they sell. The economic benefits being touted, she said, “don’t help pay my tax bill.” The best way to persuade people to support the projects would be “to show more sensitivity to people’s struggles,” Kruger added.

Finance Committee and Select Board members also tentatively discussed selling unused town properties, and conversion of old school buildings and lots into condominiums, as ways to help fund proposed new construction.

– Submitted by Marla Goldberg-Jamate

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