Public involvement in budget talks takes hit in pandemic

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2021 11:28:29 AM

AMHERST — Even though all spending in Amherst is controlled by the Town Council, which three years ago replaced representative Town Meeting, a clause in the town charter provides a path for creating a separate budget that would be decided exclusively by residents, including young adults.

Arguing that fewer residents would have a say in budget decisions in the new town charter, then Charter Commission member Meg Gage inserted the provision to set the stage for annually putting aside a slice of public money and having the public, including teenagers, offer one-time proposals and then votes on how the money is spent.

This idea of participatory budgeting, though, appears to be a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Participatory Budgeting Commission is still studying the concept, Gage, as its chairwoman, said an interim report given to Town Manager Paul Bockelman tells him it is unlikely to go forward when the commission’s final report comes on June 1.

“We have concluded that, at this time, proposing a new spending program, against this background of financial uncertainty, would be inappropriate and almost certainly would not be approved,” Gage wrote.

Gage said this week that the committee was also concerned that town staff, such as community participation officers, might have too much work to do.

“One of the challenges of participatory budgeting is it takes time, and projects have to be vetted to make sure they are appropriate,” Gage said.

The charter requires that a commission propose “a measure to adopt participatory budgeting or other similar method of resident participation in the budgeting process of Amherst.”

Gage had hoped to develop a program similar to what exists in Cambridge, where a $500,000 budget each year is under the auspices of residents. Anyone 12 and older can vote on a series of proposals for using that pot of money. 

At the outset of the commission’s work in 2019, there was excitement about having people propose projects and then have active campaigns to win the vote, such as a new sculpture or sidewalk.

“I think we felt like things had kind of changed because of the financial stress the town is under,” Gage said. “We instead explained ways residents can participate in budget decisions in better ways than they have now.”

In her memo, Gage also suggested that the town should try to expand existing ways the public gets to participate in budget decisions. The final report, she said, will discuss the obstacles and challenges residents face in getting a say in municipal spending and the limits of the top-down approach.

“Offering input isn’t the same as making actual proposals,” Gage said.

For instance, projects can be proposed for both Community Preservation Act and Joint Capital Planning Committee funding, though in both cases recommendations made by members of the committees are then forwarded to Town Council for a final decision.

Gage said the commission, meeting regularly for several months, has learned what is needed to have more active residents, who, aside from elections, are limited to advocacy through oral or written comments.

“I think we can have creative ways the town can be more responsive to citizen involvement,” Gage said.

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


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