Amherst eyes new approach to road repairs

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-07-2023 3:10 PM

AMHERST — A new approach to maintaining and resurfacing roads and sidewalks, such as the possibility of joining with other communities in seeking paving bids, is being considered by town officials as Amherst faces an estimated $40 million backlog in needed repairs.

The concept of creating a consortium of municipalities for road repair and resurfacing is included in a Finance Committee report provided to the Town Council on the fiscal year 2024 budget and associated capital improvement plan in advance of the council’s June 12 vote.

“Our major concern is that the five-year plan does not appear to satisfactorily address the needs for the maintenance of our roads,” the report states.

In next year’s budget, road repair and resurfacing is covered through a combination of the state’s chapter 90, which is $841,883 and projected at that level for the following four years, with the town providing $1.35 million from its capital account, though the five-year plan only envisions using $600,000 in each of the following four fiscal years.

“The costs for this work has been increasing and we are making less progress each year than needed, leading to increased deterioration of roads,” the report states. “The committee recommends that the town manager propose a plan that will adequately address this need.”

At Monday’s meeting, At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the cost of road construction has been increasing at a rate faster than the town can handle on its own, a problem that stems, in part, from the state and the Department of Transportation.

“In the end, we’re still competing with the commonwealth and the MassDOT puts out contracts that are so large that no municipality of our size, or even larger sized communites, can compete with what MassDot is putting out there,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said he appreciates the creativity of the Department of Public Works has in bundling paving work, so that when the Mill River Recreation Area basketball courts were rebuilt or pickleball courts are to be constructed, they are included in the street and sidewalk asphalt bids.

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Town Manager Paul Bockelman said it would take time to align procurement and appropriation processes for communities interested. But Bockelman is on the Massachusetts Municipal Associations’ Committee on Public Works that could be examining the issue on the statewide level.

“We’re not the only ones in this boat,” Bockelman said. “There are other communities, as well, who may be exploring this.”

Finance Director Sean Mangano said soliciting a bigger paving contract could attract more companies to the area to do the work.

But the report from the Finance Committee notes that “this option would not address the constraints posed by having only three asphalt producers in Western Mass.”

Other options would be to incentivize increased asphalt production in the area by forming a regional association with other towns and developing an in-house capability to resurface roads and sidewalks. Problems, though, would be what to do with staff when cold weather prevents paving, the potential that paving done by town staff may be inferior in quality and the region’s limited asphalt production would remain.

Councilors could consider making this a priority for financial guidelines for fiscal year 2025, said Council President Lynn Griesemer.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said something has to be done, as people are running out of patience and have increasing despair over the condition of roads and sidewalks.

“To the average person who walks and drives around here, it seems like it’s all just falling apart,” Pam said.

Water, sewer rates climbing

In other business, Town Council unanimously set the rates per 100 cubic feet of water usage at $5, up from $4.75, and sewer ar $5.50, up from $5.20.

The adjustments came following a unanimous recommendation from Finance Committee and support from that committee’s resident members.

The average Amherst homeowner’s water bill, for consumption of 9,200 cubic feet, is projected to increase from $441 to $464, or less than $2 per month, while the average Amherst homeowner’s sewer bill is projected to increase from $478 to $506, or about $2.35 per month, according to information provided by Mangano.

The rate increases will support a $5.21 million water enterprise fund and a $5.29 million sewer enterprise fund.

Councilors also unanimously approved accepting various property tax exemptions, under state law, for qualifying surviving spouses, military veterans, blind persons and elderly 70 or over. The town reduced its property tax collections by $99,259 in this fiscal year to accommodate these exemptions.

“We do go to the maximum the state allows in these areas,” Griesemer said.

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