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Amherst Town Meeting OKs $20.2 million budget

After more than two hours of discussion, Town Meeting overwhelmingly adopted a $20.2 million budget to cover the costs of providing municipal services in fiscal 2014.

Town Manager John Musante said his budget plan reflects fiscal sustainability and was accomplished through savings in energy costs, continued health plan design changes and working collaboratively with the University of Massachusetts to fund ambulances and provide joint police patrols.

Among the components of the budget plan are:

■$9.1 million for public safety to pay for 107.5 full-time equivalent employees in the police and fire departments and the emergency dispatch center;

■$6.4 million for general government for 28.88 full-time equivalent employees, including in the town clerk’s office and human resources and information technology departments;

■and $2.02 million for the Department of Public Works for 26.83 full-time equivalent employees.

Hwei-Ling Greeney of Precinct 10 praised the police department for its efforts to reduce the 450 service calls related to homeless individuals.

“We should really express our appreciation to the police department for their work with people who are homeless,” Greeney said.

Police Capt. Jennifer Gundersen said she expects to see fewer of these calls because of collaborations between police and social service agencies working to house and shelter the homeless.

Carol Gray of Precinct 7 asked whether the town could save money on road projects by using civilian flaggers.

Department of Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring responded that this was unlikely based on rules of compensation set by the state.

The budget includes $1.01 million for conservation and development, with 16.12 full-time equivalent employees, an increase of three positions. Two of these new positions are related to a rental registration program, which depends on Town Meeting approving a rental licensing bylaw that assesses annual fees to landlords. This bylaw will be considered at the May 20 session. The third new position is a full-time electrical inspector.

Some Town Meeting members questioned whether the new positions would cause the planning and inspections department to be overstaffed. Musante said this was not the case.

“I don’t think we have an excessive number of staff, even with these targeted increases,” Musante said.

With little discussion, Town Meeting agreed to spent $1.71 million for community services, including the costs associated with the health department, Leisure Services and Supplemental Education and the senior center, and approved water, sewer, solid waste and transportation enterprise funds.

Town Meeting also agreed to take up a petition article at the May 22 session to rezone two parcels on Main Street to general business to accommodate a new headquarters for Amherst Media. Petitioner Jerry Guidera and James Lescault, executive director of Amherst Media, are expected to speak in favor of the article that night.

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Light Moment

Finance Committee Vice Chairwoman Kay Moran presented background information for the public safety budget, giving details about the police, fire and dispatching center before reaching the aspects of animal welfare, which she described in one sentence.

“I was trying to think of something to say about animal welfare. All I can think to say is Carol Hepburn,” said Moran, referring to the municipal employee who handles all the duties associated with the position.

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Words to Ponder

Responding to worries from several members that Amherst’s roads continue to be filled with potholes, Musante said fixing the many roads that are deteriorating is something largely out of the town’s hands.

“We can’t fix this with the property tax. We need help from the commonwealth and the feds to address the $16 million backlog,” Musante said.

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Next Up

The budget for the elementary school, assessment for the regional schools, capital budgets and Community Preservation Act spending.

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