Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Anti-Override Forces Don't Go Godwin—But Do Play Fast and Loose With the Facts

The proposed tax override in Amherst is generating at least as much heat as light. I've already noted the rhetorical excess of one anonymous pro-override individual. However, the opposing side is not innocent, either. Even if it has not officially descended into name-calling, it is certainly—and officially—playing fast and loose with some of the facts.

Eager to prove that the Town (a) is mismanaging existing resources, and (b) therefore does not need to raise new revenue, it in at least one case stretches the truth like Silly Putty in order to produce what is by any standard a distorted image of our fiscal picture.

Granted, the Town has reserves. Override opponents claim that we should draw more heavily upon them. Proponents reply that our earlier profligate use of these resources is part of the reason for the current structural deficit. This falls within the realm of honest policy disagreement. No problem there.

By contrast the spokespersons for the anti-override movement make another claim that they, given their knowledge of town government, must know to be disingenuous.

Clicking on the link for "wasteful town expenditures" brings one to a list that includes:
$81,000 to purchase Hill Lots. Money still sits in the community preservation slush fund.
. . .
$20,000 Mass. Historical matching grants
Both these items pertain to Community Preservation Act (CPA) appropriations, so, to begin with, it is hard to see why they are not described in the same terms. More important, the CPA fund is not a "slush fund," which term, though originally designating auxiliary or reserve monies, has come to connote illegitimacy, even corruption. Neither designation is appropriate. The Community Preservation Act is part of Massachusetts state law, and every expenditure of those monies has to be authorized by a vote of Town Meeting.

Historical Commission Clerk Gai Carpenter and I felt obliged to set the record straight in our letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette last week:
Uses of CPA funds incorrect in override flier
Created 03/19/2010 - 04:00

To the editor:

This weekend we received a flier from Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change that advocates a "no" vote on the override question. We are not writing to debate the override, but to correct some information presented in the flier.

In a list headed "Are we using our tax dollars efficiently for essential town services?" the writers include several items funded from the Community Preservation Act.

The CPA is not part of the direct property tax, but is a surcharge, voted by Amherst residents, on the portion of that tax for property values above $100,000. CPA funds can be used only for four purposes: affordable housing, open space conservation, recreational spaces, and historic preservation. Under state law, 10 percent of the CPA's annual budget must be allocated to each of these activities, and the remainder may be apportioned, on the recommendation of the Community Preservation Act Committee and vote of town meeting, to any of those areas. The state provides matching funds for local CPA budgets, although the percentage of the match varies, especially in the current fiscal environment.

Although the Amherst Preservation Plan has been endorsed by Town Meeting, the Historical Commission has no funding except the CPA. We know that the other three priorities for funding are compelling to Amherst residents, and in any year the funds allocated to historic preservation may be minimal. Sentiment about priorities varies with the project and the public perception of its value to the community. We respect the work of CPAC in sorting through those priorities, and of town meeting in accepting or rejecting each of their recommendations.

We emphasize, however, that regardless of the appropriations of CPA funds, they are strictly limited in their uses, and cannot be reallocated to general budget relief.

Jim Wald

Gai Carpenter


Jim Wald is chairman of the Amherst Historical Commission and Gai Carpenter is its clerk.

Had space allowed, we would also have explained:

1) The proposed purchase of the Hills (not: Hill) lots did not represent just some idle whim, and rather, was an attempt to acquire two rare open downtown parcels that would preserve essential landscape and viewscapes in the Dickinson National Historic Register District. What is more, the amount appropriated represents only half of the total cost. The purchase proposal depended on our ability to obtain the other half from a state grant. When, after long negotiations, it turned out that we could not reach an agreement with the owners at the legally mandated price, the Commission this year duly returned the funds to the CPA pool (not "slush fund"), where they can be used for other legitimate purposes.

2) The historical inventory/survey money has not been expended because the state matching grant fund in question ran out of money this year. We therefore decided to postpone this expenditure until matching funds again become available.

In both cases, then, we were not only acting on the mandate of the Preservation Plan, but, by using matching grants, also trying to double the power of our dollars. This is the sort of math a school child can understand: 1+ 1=2=a 100-percent increase. Isn't this good fiscal management of precisely the sort that "Amherst Taxpayers for Responsible Change" should endorse?

Go figure. (And when you do, make sure to get the figures right.)

As John Adams famously said, facts are stubborn things. Why don't we start with agreement on those simple basics so that we can have an honest discussion of the more complex things that really divide us?

[links updated]

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