Amherst finance board backs finding money to give regional schools 6% boost

Downtown Amherst looking down Main Street toward the Town Hall.

Downtown Amherst looking down Main Street toward the Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2024 7:34 PM

AMHERST — The town Finance Committee is unanimously recommending that the town support a 6% increase in the fiscal year 2025 assessment for the Amherst Pelham Regional schools, with the needed money to support the adjustment coming from either free cash or American Rescue Plan Act money.

The five members of the Town Council who serve on the Finance Committee, joined by community member Bernie Kubiak, voted 5-0 at a meeting last Friday to endorse increasing the town’s assessment by an additional $355,440, leading to an $18.8 million assessment that will go toward a $35.27 million budget.

The recommendation leaves the exact source for the extra money uncertain. Still, the vote provides information to Town Manager Paul Bockelman so he can prepare a financial order for the added money, after recently advising that town officials could divert a portion of $1 million in ARPA money set aside to pay for a solar canopy at the new elementary school being built at the Fort River School site on South East Street.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen made the original motion to ask the town manager to add 2% to the regional budget, with the additional expense to be funded through free cash. Schoen said she anticipates that the town will have additional free cash when spending in the capital plan budget comes in below projections.

Schoen agreed to amend the motion due to concerns about how using free cash would impact municipal reserves.

The extra money is needed because the budget Bockelman presented on May 1 includes only a 4% increase for the regional schools, abiding by the guidelines set by the Town Council.

This is the first time since Town Council was seated in December 2018 that it may amend the town manager’s budget recommendation, which it can do by a vote to override or by making cuts elsewhere in the budget.

“It’s uncharted territory for the town,” Bockelman said.

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Without a supplemental financial order from Bockelman, there are concerns that it would be time-consuming to get the budget through the override or cuts, which could lead to not having a budget for the regional schools on July 1. Under that scenario, a budget in effect would be one-twelfth of the previous year’s budget, putting the schools into possible disarray after the fiscal year 2025 budget was already supported by Town Meeting votes in Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury.

Kubiak said his preference is to take money from ARPA, since it wouldn’t affect reserves, but using free cash is also an acceptable and likely more economical approach. He said it makes more sense than trying to override the town manager’s budget.