The people of Amherst deserve Councilors who will listen, who will decide public policies wisely and responsibly (with civility and without grandstanding or pandering), and who will steward the Town’s finances with prudence and probity, in the interests of the community as a whole.
That is how I will conduct myself if I have the honor of being elected to represent you.
Reasons for Running
I am an attorney with a Master’s degree in Public Policy & Administration from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a former member of the Governor’s Council, the elected body that approves (or rejects) the Governor’s choice of judges.
Amherst has been my home since 1999. It’s where my wife, Meg, and I chose to raise our three children. This year, I am president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, an organization that supports local businesses.
Why am I running for Town Council? Because Amherst needs more jobs and more homes.
Everything else — maintaining our excellent schools, conserving our open space, and safeguarding our social services — depends on economic vitality.
The Town’s annual budget is almost $90 million. Between the elementary schools and the various Town departments, we have almost 500 full-time-equivalent benefited employees. And we are also responsible for paying retiree pensions and other post-employment benefits.
That is a lot of money, and a lot of employees to pay. And most of that money comes from the residential property tax. To share that tax responsibility more equitably, we need more small, locally-owned businesses and more homes, homes that people on average incomes can afford.
Our new Town Council will need somebody who will promote policies to help create new private-sector jobs, who will oppose policies that undermine local businesses, and who isn’t worried about appearing insufficiently progressive.
That is what I have done on Town Meeting, and that is what I would like to continue doing on your behalf on the new Town Council. Plus, as an attorney I have some experience advocating for others and helping resolve contentious issues.
Background and Public Office
Meg and I moved to Amherst in part because it’s a wonderful place to build a family. Our three children have all attended the public schools, and I am dedicated to ensuring that Amherst’s schools remain first-rate. To that end, I served on the Amherst Regional High School Council (not to be confused with the School Committee). And I supported the proposal to build a new school on the Wildwood Elementary School site, as did a clear majority of the people who voted in the 2017 referendum.
Serving on Town Meeting, the Chamber of Commerce, and the High School Council I have learned how critically important economic vitality is for the ongoing success of our public schools; and vice versa.
Our excellent public schools are essential to the local economy.
For Amherst businesses to attract and retain talent, they need to be able to show prospective employees that this is a community that prioritizes public education and strengthening the social fabric.
I believe that government can and should make life better for people, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. After all, as the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights states:
Government is instituted for the common good, for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family or class of men.
That sums it up pretty well, in my opinion.
The particularly high value I place on government that works for the common good may have something to do with where I’m from. I was born and raised in Swansea, South Wales, where local elections were partisan. Swansea was a one-party town and most seats went uncontested. Not surprisingly, turnout was pitifully low, so (again, not surprisingly) the council was notoriously prone to cronyism, patronage, and corruption.
This early exposure to dysfunctional local government is one reason why I am so committed to making our new Town Council transparent, responsive, and accountable. And it’s at the root of my decision to adopt tighter campaign-contribution standards than the law requires.
Voluntary Campaign Contribution Standards
Amherst residents need to be sure that their Councilors are impartial and will serve the interests of the community as a whole, not any one group.
So I welcome contributions of up to $250 from Amherst residents who are neither (1) the principals, spouses, or employees of developers, nor (2) members of unions that represent Town employees, including SEIU 888 and the Amherst-Pelham Education Association/Massachusetts Teachers Association.
If you fall into either of those categories, I wholeheartedly welcome your vote but respectfully decline your money!
Just to be clear, I have absolutely nothing against developers or our public employees. Far from it. They all help make Amherst a great place to live.
But when it comes to school and municipal budget decisions, the unions will be on one side of the table. Similarly, when it comes to zoning decisions, developers will be on one side of the table. Voters should not have to wonder which side of the table their Councilors are on.
For my position on some of the more controversial items on the Spring 2018 warrant (e.g. nuclear freeze) click here.
For my position on some of the more controversial articles on the Spring 2017 warrant (the “sanctuary community” proposal, a carbon fee, background checks, and the impeachment of the President of the United States) click here. For my position on an important issue that I believe we need to grapple with more effectively, read on.
The Town budget for FY19 is about $89 million, and most of the money ($53 million) comes from the property tax. There are about 6,700 properties on the Assessor’s rolls, and the tax rate is approximately $21 per $1,000 in assessed value. So if a home’s assessed value is $350,000, the homeowner will pay $7,350 in property tax.
What do we spend that $89 million on? About 55% goes toward employee salaries and benefits. If we think in terms of the average homeowner’s property tax bill of $7,350, approximately $4,000 helps pay for our municipal employees.
Amherst has approximately 275 benefited full-time equivalent (FTE) municipal employees and 190 part-time/seasonal employees, plus 318 FTE elementary-school employees. But salaries and benefits for current employees are just one part of the story.
In addition to paying for employees’ benefits while they work for the Town, we also provide health insurance for them after they retire.
This is the exception in the private sector, where only about 16% of retirees get post-employment benefits. But in state and local government it has become the norm. As a result, retirees’ health benefits (together with pensions) are consuming a growing share of the budget in many communities. Amherst is one such community.
Our recent bond rating from Standard & Poor’s Financial Services, LLC, states:
“A long-term credit consideration is the town’s pension and other post-employment benefit (OPEB) obligation liabilities… The combined pension and pay-as-you-go costs are about 9% of total governmental funds expenditure. We consider the liability large and will rise over time.”
So we spend about 9% of our budget on pensions and other post-employment benefits (OPEB). As a share of the average property-tax bill of $7,350, that’s approximately $1,100. If the actuaries are correct, that figure is likely to go up.
Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) Trust Fund
In addition to what we spend on OPEB today, every year we set aside a steadily increasing amount of money to pay for retirees’ health insurance over the longer term. The money we set aside is called the OPEB Trust Fund, and its purpose is to pay for the Town’s unfunded accrued actuarial OPEB liability, which is currently around $100.5 million. The amount we paid into the trust fund in FY18 was $400,00, and the amount we need to pay next year will be $500,000.
These retirees’ health-insurance costs are in addition to pensions. Next year our town’s share of the Hampshire County Retirement System will be approximately $5 million, an increase of 9.3% from the previous year.
According to our actuaries, approximately 9% of our town spending goes toward retirees’ health-insurance and pensions. In some parts of town government the percentage is even greater. For example, in 2015 public-school expenditures on insurance and retirement programs came to about 19% of total expenditure.
Although this situation is no sense catastrophic, it has the potential to become a problem that could affect our bond rating. So we need to address it, and we need to do so in a way that is equitable and just for employees, retirees, and taxpayers alike. If the cost of health insurance continues to increase, we should examine a range of options, including changes to retirement ages and eligibility requirements for future employees, and employee contribution rates.
As a Town Councilor, I would review the budget with an eye to meeting the retiree-benefit challenge.
What do you think?