The Progressive Coalition of Amherst has requested candidates respond to their Questionnaire. Below are my responses.
Both broadly (and with specific examples when possible), please explain your understanding and positions on the following issues, along with your intended actions if elected:
- Public health, safety, and emergency services
Keeping every resident in Amherst safe is one of the primary roles of municipal government. In light of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the nationwide demand to reform the provision of safety services, especially by police departments, Amherst is re-evaluating what is means to provide safety services.
As a Councilor, I supported the steps taken to change the way the Town ensures the safety of its residents. I support the creation of the CRESS program. As a Town, we need to do better by our residents who are experiencing crisis situations and residents who do not want armed officers responding to non-violent, non-criminal situations, especially our BIPOC residents. I support the adequate funding of the CRESS program over at least 18 months (fiscal years 2022 and 2023). It will ensure that the Town has sufficient data and information to determine how many calls can be appropriately transitioned away from police response and into CRESS response, thereby determining an appropriate level of armed policing into the future. It is essential to the successful transformation of what community safety means in Amherst.
However, community safety isn’t only about the provision of police and mental health services. It also includes fire and EMT services. Our fire department is stretched to a breaking point due to inadequate staffing. We must find a way to add 10 new fire department personnel over the next 5 years. That is the number of additional fire personnel our Chief states we need just to ensure adequate staffing on a daily basis without unduly burdening current staff with forced additional shifts.
2. Capital spending, borrowing and local property taxes
Amherst’s neglect of its major capital infrastructure over the past decades means that several capital projects (schools, library, public works, and fire station) are equally necessary. None of them should be delayed further just to avoid an override. Yet, we must attempt to fund as many as possible within the Town’s borrowing capabilities in order to avoid as many debt exclusion overrides as possible.
This year, the Finance Director presented the Council with a plan to fund all four within a short period of time. That plan includes: use of the Town’s rainy-day funds (put away for such a purpose); sound fiscal management that results in large borrowing capacity and low borrowing costs; wise use of state building grants (for schools and libraries); spending limits on projects that result in suitable buildings; and a request to the taxpayers for tax increases to pay for the bond of only one project.
I am proud to support the renovation and expansion of the Jones Library, having voted “yes” to authorize acceptance of the MBLC grant and borrowing of funds within the confines of our yearly Capital budget. You can read my statement at the time of the vote here.
Our students deserve updated, safe, and healthy schools that promote learning instead of hindering it. I eagerly await the Manager’s proposal for a site for a new DPW building. Both our Fire Department and DPW employees are working in buildings that do not allow them to work to their best potential. I hope that in the next two years the Town Council will be able to vote to move both of these projects forward.
Yet, these projects do not represent our only capital needs. We must continue to fund capital maintenance projects such as road paving, sidewalk repair (and building), building repairs, and vehicle replacement. I believe the plan put forth by the Finance Director sufficiently plans for maintaining a base-level of capital spending while paying borrowing costs for these major projects.
Finally, we need to carefully consider all capital requests against the realities of a warming climate and our Climate Action Goals. My vote to fund the Jones Library expansion and renovation is a great example of leveraging state and municipal funds to remove fossil fuel use from a major public building. Further, the Council was able to fund a capital project last year to switch the Munson Memorial building off heating oil and onto electric heat pump systems, another major step in meeting our Climate Action Goals. Capital spending must continue to emphasize and fund these projects that will help us address our climate crisis.
3. Operating budget and use of municipal funds
Budgeting is about tradeoffs. There are many constraints on our budgets – including legal limits to how much we can raise taxes, the residents’ desire for many, many services, and the need to use these funds for both our operating needs and our capital needs.
The annual operating budget to the Town must be for the benefit of all residents. These municipal funds are intended to allow the town to maintain high-quality services that its residents both need and want. Sometimes we focus too much on “maintaining level services” and not enough on what the trade-off of starting with that focus means, which is that nearly all of the increase in revenue each year is subsumed by increased salaries, thereby rarely allowing enough money to begin new programs or hire new people. We should consider using zero-based budgeting every few years. This is an approach to budgeting that involves developing a new budget from scratch (i.e., starting from “zero”), versus starting with the previous year’s budget and adjusting it as needed. This would allow the Town to assess what funding is actually necessary to provide suitable services, contrasted with a budget that would provide above adequate or below adequate services. If done right, the Town, the Council, and the Manager would be able to finally discuss the funding of each department intelligently, instead of always starting from a “level-services” outlook, without regard to whether “level-services” is actually what we want or need for each program, and then determine appropriate funding levels based on those conversations.
In addition, we cannot continue to ignore the detrimental effect on our municipal finances that the large swaths of non-taxable land have. This is not just a problem created by the presence of three institutions of higher learning in our town. It was also created by our own municipal government purchasing so much land in town for open space, agricultural preservation, and recreation. We have to at least acknowledge that part of our inability to raise enough operating money is of our own doing and the choices we have made in constraining land use. I support diversifying the tax base by growing businesses, especially innovation hubs, like the Eruptor Lab.
Since the non-taxable land owned by the three institutions of higher learning does contributes to this issue,as a Council, we must prioritize the negotiation of strategic partnership agreements with these institutions, using it as one of the ways we evaluate the Manager’s performance. If given the opportunity to influence these agreements, I would like to see:
- Fair compensation for ambulance and fire services provided to each of the campuses, and in particular the UMass campus;
- Fair compensation for K-12 education services provided to students living in tax-exempt housing;
- Cooperation and collaboration between police departments, or if an institution doesn’t have its own police force, fair compensation for the public safety services provided to the institution;
- Cooperation agreements for public works services, such as public street and sidewalk paving and clearing;
- Payments equal to the occupancy fee that would be imposed under the local bylaw if Hotel UMass were privately owned and operated; and
- Agreements regarding evening and weekend use of institutional parking lots by residents.
4. Downtown development and zoning policies
I am seeking re-election to the Town Council in order to continue to implement the master plan that the Council adopted. I look forward to enacting Form-Based Zoning (Design Guidelines), in order for the Town to better regulate the look of buildings that are being built, so that new buildings fit the character of their surroundings.
I support the Master Plan’s overall goals of addressing the issues of growth and development while preserving and enhancing Amherst’s community life. There are too many specific elements of the current Master Plan for me to list as supporting, but some specific goals and objectives stated in the Master Plan that I particularly support are (this is not exhaustive):
- guiding new housing growth to areas that minimize the impact on Amherst’s open space;
- creating dynamic downtown and village centers that are walkable, attractive and efficient;
- identifying an inventory of key locations for business development;
- encouraging a greater mix of housing types, sizes, and prices to serve a wider range of income levels and special populations;
- promoting infill development;
- encouraging new development in an environmentally sound manner;
- public-private partnerships for student housing;
- strengthening, diversifying and growing the economic base; and
- preserving and protecting our cultural, open space and recreation resources.
Some proposals to accomplish these Goals are in front of the Council now. Others I hope to work towards proposing and implementing in the next two years if re-elected.
In addition, we must utilize zoning and building policies to address climate change. This not only includes many of the goals listed above, but also measures such as incentives for zero energy building, for rain gardens and other means of limiting run-off and irrigation requirements, and car charging stations in large, multi-family buildings.
5. Town government’s focus and priorities
I support the priorities the Council has set for the Town Manager through the Performance Goals, which have become the Council’s priorities. The policy priorities are Climate Action, Community Health and Safety, Economic Vitality, Four Major Capital Investments, Housing Affordability, and Racial Equity and Social Justice. In addition, I support as priorities ensuring the Town’s strong financial and fiscal health, maintaining and managing the Town’s capital and public assets, and increasing positive relationships and communications with residents and institutions of higher education.
6. Equity and social justice
In my first term on the Council, I have continually promoted equity and social justice. I co-sponsored with Councilors De Angelis and Schoen the Wage and Tip Theft Bylaw and the Responsible Employer and Tax Relief Agreement Bylaw, successfully enacting important wage protections for workers and tax-supported projects in Amherst.
I voted to support the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, which will provide necessary additional meeting space for the ESL tutoring program, a dedicated teen space, and additional computers for accessing the internet and computer programs. All of these additional benefits support equity and social justice, especially for those that are new in town, whose primary language is not English, who do not have the funds to hang out after school in a business, and who do not have access to broadband, or even a computer, in their home.
With the rise of the use of facial recognition technology and the knowledge that the technology disproportionately mis-identifies non-white individuals, I co-sponsored with Councilor De Angelis a Surveillance Technology Oversight and Facial Recognition Ban bylaw. When the Commonwealth enacted its own ban on the use of facial recognition technology, we declared success on that portion of our legislation and continue to pursue the surveillance technology oversight portion of the bylaw. This legislation would require transparency from the Town on the use of all technology that surveils the public, so that residents would finally know what is in use by the Town and how the Town uses the data gleaned from the technology. Since this technology has the potential to be mis-used on various populations, it is an important means of combating inequity in our Town.
I also co-sponsored the Resolution in Support of CRESS and the Resolution in Support of H.R. 40 / S. 40 Bills in Congress (national reparations bills). I have been a consistent supporter of re-evaluating the meaning of community safety and how the Town approaches community safety.
In addition, an important part of equity and social justice is climate justice. In the past three years, I have repeatedly supported projects that will move Amherst towards a more sustainable future. I voted to adopt aggressive Climate Action Goals, and voted in support of the Jones Library renovation and expansion project that will eliminate on-site fossil fuels in one of Amherst’s largest public buildings. For more information on my positions on sustainability, please read my responses to the Mothers Out Front survey from 2018.
7. Housing and affordability
Amherst has a housing crisis. We do not have enough housing available for those who want to live here. Our housing, both rental prices and purchase prices, is too expensive for a large swath of our residents or potential residents to be able to afford without being burdened. And we do not provide the variety of housing types that our residents desire. The Council, through the hard work of both the Community Resources Committee, which I chair, and the Affordable Housing Trust, town staff and others, has the opportunity to begin addressing this crisis by adopting a Comprehensive Housing Policy. The Goals, which I support, are as follows:
- Goal I: Promote Greater Pathways to Homeownership and Integrated Communities through Increased Supply of a Diversity of Housing Types
- Goal II: Increase the Supply and Variety of Affordable and Market Rate Rental Housing
- Goal III: Create, Update, and Maintain Safe, Secure, and Environmentally Healthy Housing
- Goal IV: Address Climate Sustainability and Resiliency of Housing Stock, Location, and Construction
- Goal V: Align and Leverage Municipal Funding and Other Resources to Support Affordable Housing
If re-elected, I intend to propose legislation and other measures that will address each of these Goals.
In fact, I have already done so. I was the primary drafter and co-sponsor of the Resolution in Support of S. 868, An Act Empowering Cities and Towns to Impose a Fee on Certain Real Estate Transactions to Support Affordable Housing, and S. 1853, An Act Providing for Climate Change Adaptation Infrastructure and Affordable Housing Investments in the Commonwealth. This legislation, if enacted, will provide funds to our Affordable Housing Trust for their work in creating, supporting, and developing deed-restricted affordable housing, both rented and owned, in Amherst (Goal V). It will also provide the opportunity for Amherst to receive grants from the state to retrofit existing housing stock to address climate sustainability and resiliency (Goal IV). I also was an original sponsor of the Resolution in Support of Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases and Eviction Sealing to Promote Housing Opportunity and Mobility. This legislation would directly address Goals I, II, and III, allowing people to maintain security in the homes they are in and permitting them greater opportunity to obtain alternate housing.
In addition, in the past three years, I voted to support Valley CDC’s 132 Northampton Road studio apartment project, purchase land on Belchertown Road for more affordable housing, and update our Inclusionary Zoning bylaw to require all projects adding 10 or more units to include affordable housing.
Finally, I support many zoning initiatives that are intended to help with housing in Amherst, particularly revisions to the Accessory Dwelling Unit bylaw, the creation of a bylaw for 3-family dwellings so they are not lumped in with apartments, and revising the zoning bylaw to allow duplexes and triplexes by-right to the same extent that single-family homes are allowed by-right. I also support stricter inspection requirements for obtaining a rental registration permit in Amherst.
What do you see as the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Town Council and its procedures?
The Council has many strengths, including that it functions year-round, thereby providing more time for deliberation and decision making, its ability to address matters when they arise (COVID temporary zoning and out-of-cycle CPA allocations are just two examples), the legislative ability of the members to see a problem in Town and propose a solution (wage and tip theft legislation and licensing alcohol on the common are just two examples), and the sub-committee structure that has permitted more deliberative decision making, more collaboration with Town staff and other boards and committees, and more transparency with the public.
At this time, its biggest weakness is the time commitment required. The Council must find a way of reducing the commitment while continuing to provide the benefit a dedicated group of legislators provides to the Town.
What would be your top priorities if elected? What steps would you take to accomplish your goals?
My top legislative priority would be housing. Our housing crisis causes many spill-over detrimental effects in Town. It is why families cannot afford to live here and our schools are suffering from declining enrollment. It perpetuates inequality and hampers the presence of a more diverse Town. It causes town-gown strain. If re-elected, I intend to propose legislation and work with the Town Manager to begin addressing these challenges. Some options include stronger regulations regarding required inspections for obtaining a rental registration permit; net-zero and green building requirements for both new buildings and retrofits; guiding new housing growth to areas that minimize the impact on Amherst’s open space; promoting duplex and triplex development by-right; promoting infill development; and collaboration and partnerships for student housing in appropriate locations.
Other areas I would prioritize include funding the remaining major capital projects, supporting affordable housing, and enacting design guidelines.
Describe an effort to bring about change in which you played a major role, including the overall goal, the process, and outcome.
During my term as President of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, the Symphony expanded to include a Youth Orchestra. Previously, the organization had served only adults, with a symphony orchestra and chorus. The goal was to create a musical group that served children in Hampshire and Franklin Counties, locations where very few public schools offered symphony orchestras for their students to play in. The Board recognized that students had no close location to experience the joys of playing in a symphony, and that there was a need, especially for those who could not travel to Springfield on a regular basis. As President, I facilitated all the work that goes into creating a new musical group in an organization. The process included communicating with local organizations that served young musicians to ensure there was adequate interest, seeking grants, setting up policies, including fee policies, fee waivers, and protection of minors, hiring a conductor, and, for the first season, recruiting musicians and organizing auditions. As President, I was specifically in charge of bringing all relevant matters to the Board for discussion and adoption, which included the formal creation of the group, the hiring of the conductor and the adoption of policies, which are much more detailed for a group that involved minors than they are for adults. The outcome has been a successful launch of the Pioneer Valley Symphony Youth Orchestra, which has supported itself, brought symphonic music playing opportunities to Franklin and Hampshire County students no matter their ability to pay, and provided mentoring opportunities to our adult symphony players. It has been 8 years since it was founded during my term as President, and is a successful addition to the organization. Throughout the pandemic, it continued to provide in-person music making opportunities to students from Franklin County and beyond.