Amherst budget funds community response program; advocates say funding inadequate

Staff Writer
Published: 5/4/2021 6:54:04 PM

AMHERST — The creation of an unarmed community responder program whose members will respond to some emergency calls typically handled by police is included in a $25.1 million municipal budget delivered to the Town Council Monday by Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

The proposed budget includes $130,000 for the Community Response for Equity, Safety and Service, or CRESS program, funded through savings from keeping two current police officer positions vacant. But some councilors say this spending may be an insufficient answer to appeals for cutting police funding and redirecting money from law enforcement.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said her “heart is aching in a certain way” over not committing more to CRESS. “It feels very inadequate,” DeAngelis said.

In presenting his proposal, Bockelman said the budget is balanced, aligns with the allocation of funds available, and meets various goals set by the council, including with respect to racial and social equity, affordable housing and sustainability.

Bockelman said the spending, a $516,265, or 2.1% increase over the current year’s $24.58 million budget, sets the foundation for coming back from the “downslide” caused by COVID. “We emerge from the pandemic with hope and optimism,” Bockelman said.

The municipal budget is part of an $85.6 million town spending plan that includes the Amherst elementary schools budget, the appropriation for the Jones Library, the assessment for the regional schools, and money for capital needs, retirements and Other Post Employment Benefits. The council and Finance Committee will hold a joint hearing on the budget proposal May 17 at 6:30 p.m., though the $16.7 million assessment for the regional schools was approved by the council Monday.

The Community Safety Working Group, in recommending the CRESS program, suggested $2.2 million in start-up costs for the program, an amount that would make it independent of police and emergency dispatching. Bockelman said he wasn’t ready to make that commitment, with no similar programs in Massachusetts, and models elsewhere having these responders, unarmed and with expertise in mental health issues, respond to nonviolent and noncriminal situations alongside police officers.

“It’s going to take time to build the program,” Bockelman told councilors, including both hiring and then training people.

In response to a question from Council President Lynn Griesemer, Bockelman said grants may be available to bolster the program.

Bockelman said in a phone interview Tuesday that critical decisions still need to be made for keeping the community safe, and so he will be putting together a high-level implementation team.

“There’s a lot of interest among senior staff to see how we can build this program successfully,” Bockelman said.

But he added that reducing the sworn police officers from 48 to 46, and increasing the police budget by just $30,651 from $4.83 million to $4.86 million, is its own challenge.

“The police chief has concerns about reduced staffing, but he understands the goals of the community and knows where its values are,” Bockelman said.

Funding critiques

This alternative to police was the sole focus of initial comments about the budget from residents and councilors, some of whom argued that without a successful CRESS program, more harm will come to the Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC, communities.

“This is setting the CRESS program up to fail,” said Bailey Batty of North Whitney Street. Batty noted that the spending is just a fraction of the budget outlined by the Community Safety Working Group.

“To have 6% of that in the budget is pretty insulting,” said Lydia Irons of Jeffrey Lane, a leader of the Defund413 Amherst group. Irons said the CRESS program should be fully funded.

Amara Donovan of Amity Street expressed disappointment in the limited funding, calling the proposal a “check the box” approach that is “incredibly racist and oppressive.”

A few other new initiatives are embedded in the budget, such as spending $30,000, to be supplemented with federal stimulus, for a half-time coordinator to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, and again spending $80,000 to confront systemic racism through anti-racism trainings for staff and elected officials, and continued participation in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity.

The budget restores capital spending to 8.5% of the budget, with $4.67 million going to maintain infrastructure and purchase vehicles and equipment. Spending includes $1.7 million on vehicles, $850,000 to supplement state aid for road projects, $250,000 for repairing the Crocker Farm School roof, $100,000 that will support sustainability projects, and $100,000 for a zoning update. Another $100,000 in federal stimulus money would be used to hire a short-term capital projects manager.

Bockelman observed that $17.5 million is in the town’s reserve accounts, or 21.5% of this year’s budget. That will grow to support the four municipal building projects that began with the recent approval of the $36.3 million expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, and will follow with a new elementary school, fire station in South Amherst and Department of Public Works headquarters.

The budget also includes a $4.8 million water fund, a $4.66 million sewer fund, a $516,030 solid waste fund and a $694,483 transportation fund.

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


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