Columnist Darcy Dumont: Amherst must reprioritize budget for climate action

Downtown Amherst looking down Main Street toward Town Hall.

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

Published: 12-15-2023 11:19 AM

The inner workings of Amherst’s town budget are a mystery to most in town. I would venture to say they are a mystery even to many town councilors who are not on the Finance Committee. That being said, the budget process is going on right now, with the most important measure in the process being voted on by the council at its Dec. 18 meeting: the council’s budget guidance to the town manager. And the document put forth could make or break our climate action in the coming fiscal year.

The Town Charter gives the town manager great power over the budget. The main power the Town Council has is at the very beginning of the process, in December, to issue budget guidance to the town manager. The content of this document and its degree of specificity guide the manager in putting together the budget for the fiscal year starting the following July 1.

If the council wants specific expenditures on either programs or staffing, it needs to be included in the guidance. Otherwise, the manager has the power not to fund a particular program as long as he is staying within the general goals.

Once that guidance is issued, the Town Council hears and comments on proposals from each department and can recommend omitting, but can’t recommend adding, expenditures.

One of the policies the manager has adopted is keeping the number of permanent, non-grant-funded staff down to a set number and never adding staff, even for new programs. He has not budged from this policy except to hire new positions for the CRESS and DEI programs and for four firefighters/EMTs.

The manager touts this policy in his financial indicators presentation each year, with charts showing Amherst providing approximately half the staffing per capita compared with other communities in the state.

It is true that, without additional revenue, staff increases in one area need to be offset by savings in other areas.

On climate action, the manager has stated that the town can’t apply for available state and federal climate action grants because we don’t have staff to manage the programs once granted. He has also resisted taking action on a waste hauler contract because it might mean adding a partial staff person in the accounting department to do the billing, though doing so would bring down resident costs and reduce waste significantly. This is short-sighted when looked at through a lens of long-term needs and savings.

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Through these town manager policies, Amherst has adopted a Republican-ish stance of limiting government, of reducing “administrative burden” on the town, without consideration of the both short- and long-term need to contribute to greenhouse gas reduction, climate resilience and waste reduction.

One need only look to Northampton to find a community that has staffed up to meet the climate crisis and even created a new department, the Northampton Climate Action Project Administration.

I get that people think, well, what can we do? We don’t have the money. But we do if we reprioritize.

The council has committed to goals that need funding without reorganizing its priorities. It has stated the need to reprioritize in previous budget guidelines, but hasn’t done so. Right now, we just don’t have a good process for deciding what projects we should fund and staff.

The lack of reasonable prioritization criteria benefits the powers that be. The Town Council leadership has stated a general preference for not funding “new initiatives” such as bylaw proposals that showed up in the current session.

But how can the council fail to fund initiatives that respond to a changing world — that is, the new normal? A “business as usual” agenda is out of step with youth, minorities and the need to keep up with a changing world in general.

Prioritizing means taking a hard look at our current expenditures and criteria for considering and funding new proposals.

Which are critical needs? Which are sought by a large majority of residents? Which are needed to promote our goals of climate action, racial equity and housing affordability? Which are needed for both short- and long-term resilience of the town? Which will build community and reduce divisiveness? Outgoing Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (and councilors in previous council terms) has proposed guidelines for looking at new proposals which could provide a framework for a more cohesive, less random, prioritization process.

Thank you for reading this during the holiday season. Please contact the council to urge specific language in the FY25 budget guidance to request funding for additional staffing in the Sustainability Department in order to identify, seek and manage new grant opportunities that are available.

It is also important that the council leave out of the budget guidance the “no new initiatives” language and any language allowing the manager to use his discretion to “forego funding” for some programs over others that have been prioritized by the council.

You could also request that the council make important decisions like this when people are likely to be watching, not in mid-December.

Darcy DuMont is a former town councilor and sponsor of the legislation creating the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee. She is a founding member of Zero Waste Amherst, Local Energy Advocates of Western MA, and the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance and a non-voting member of Valley Green Energy Working Group. She can be contacted at dumint140@gmail.com.