Amherst residents weigh in on budget priorities: Seek better teacher pay, smaller police force and greater focus on climate

  • Amherst Town Common

Staff Writer
Published: 11/24/2022 7:57:52 PM
Modified: 11/24/2022 7:57:41 PM

AMHERST — Better pay for teachers, more municipal focus on climate initiatives and reducing the size of the police force are among requests the public is making of Amherst officials as preparation for the fiscal year 2023 budget begins.

With budget guidelines from the Town Council soon due to Town Manager Paul Bockelman, along with a series of goals and priorities, councilors this week spent 90 minutes hearing from residents and other constituents about what should be prioritized in next year’s spending plans.

Though the Amherst Pelham Education Association is in mediation with representatives from the Amherst and Regional school committees, teachers and their supporters used the budget forum on Monday as an opportunity to lay out their demands.

“For a town that considers itself to be so progressive, we need to get ourselves out of the 1960s,” said Jean Fay, a paraeducator and Amherst resident.

Fay said the schools are understaffed and morale is miserable, especially among paraeducators like herself, who often need to take extra jobs to make ends meet.

“What we are paying our school employees should not be considered secondary income,” Fay said.

Max Page, an Amherst native and resident who is also the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the town’s significant free cash amounts have been produced by underpaying teachers.

“We do not exist here to grow reserves,” Page said.

Danielle Seltzer, a high school teacher, said comparable communities to Amherst are all paying better salaries at the beginning, midpoint and end of educator salary scales.

“It really feels like your finances are happening on our backs,” Seltzer said. “Our salaries matter to us — being paid a fair wage matters to us.”

Several people affiliated with the Amherst Climate Justice Alliance, a newly formed coalition that includes Amherst Sunrise, Mothers Out Front, Extinction Rebellion and several church groups, also spoke.

Felicia Mednick of State Street said the town should have more than just Sustainability Director Stephanie Ciccarello on staff, with a second full-time person needed to focus on climate-related projects.

“We see ourselves as advocates for good intentions of Amherst to follow through with our climate action and resiliency plan and its goals for 2025 and 2030, and on our way to full decarbonization no later than 2050,” Mednick said.

That second staff person could work with property owners to retrofit rentals, identify financing tools for locally sourced renewable energy and doing net-zero retrofits for all existing buildings, similar to Ithaca, New York.

“If we can’t do it in Amherst, what’s the hope for the larger world?” Mednick said.

As during the past two years, the Amherst chapter of Defund 413 is calling for significant reductions in the police force so that other needs can be met, such as a Black, Indigenous and people of color cultural center and a youth empowerment center, and making the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service an around-the-clock, year-round department.

“I wanted to share my enthusiastic support for the demands that Defund 413 Amherst has put forth. I think they make a ton of sense,” said Ya-Ping Douglass of District 4.

“I’d also like to see a smaller budget for the APD — I’ve been saying that for four years, other people have been saying that for longer,” said Zoe Crabtree of District 5. “Now’s the time.”

“We just can’t keep investing in services like the APD that are doing harm instead of the ones who are making the community safer,” Crabtree said.

Ashwin Ravikumar, an Amherst College professor who formerly served on the Energy and Climate Action Committee, said the municipal budget should be seen as a moral document that demonstrates the values of the town in promoting racial, climate and economic justice. He said the town needs to have more people focused on climate issues and fewer on the law enforcement side.

“We need to really think about valuing care work — the work that is done, for instance, by the CRESS department,” Ravikumar said.

A day after the budget hearing, the Finance Committee began discussing budget-related matters, noting that the town’s strong financial position may be leading people to think any initiative is possible.

Finance Committee member Matt Holloway said that one of the main topics he hears from people about is the poor condition of the town’s roads and sidewalks.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said the town also has issues with the upkeep of buildings and needs to move forward with projects that would alleviate concerns with dilapidated and run-down properties, including the Hitchcock Center for the Environment’s former site at Larch Hill Conservation Area, and the buildings at Hickory Ridge.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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