Amherst Indy asks about Budget Priorities

In its third and last question for the candidates, the Amherst Indy has asked about Mandi’s budget priorities. See her answer below.

Budget Priorities – What are the most significant budget challenges facing the town -in both the long run and the short, and what do you think the Town Council needs to do to address them, and to do so equitably.

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 allow Amherst to maintain necessary and desired high-quality services for its residents. Sometimes we focus too much on “maintaining level services”, which means that most of the increased revenue each year is consumed by increased salaries, thereby rarely permitting starting new programs or hiring new people. We should consider using zero-based budgeting every few years, an approach that involves developing a new budget from scratch, versus starting with the previous year’s budget and adjusting it as needed. The Town can then assess what funding is necessary to provide suitable services, contrasted with funding that would provide above adequate or below adequate services. If done right, the Town, the Council, and the Manager would be able to better understand and discuss the trade-offs necessary to add new programs or ramp-up current program, instead of always assuming “level-services” is actually what we want or need for each program.  For example, our fire department is stretched to a breaking point due to inadequate staffing. The Fire Chief states we need 10 new firefighters in the next 5 years just to ensure adequate staffing on a daily basis without unduly burdening current staff with forced additional shifts. Yet, with the current budgeting system, the Council never even gets to the conversation needed to deal with this issue.

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 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 institutional land does contribute to this issue, we must prioritize the negotiation of strategic partnership agreements with these higher-education institutions, using it as one of the ways we evaluate the Manager’s performance. In these agreements, I would like to see:

  • Fair compensation for ambulance and fire services;
  • Fair compensation for K-12 education services provided to students living in tax-exempt housing;
  • Cooperation between police departments, or if an institution doesn’t have police, fair compensation for public safety services;
  • 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.