Massachusetts

District 5 Candidates on Sustainability and Diversity

District 5 members on the Amherst Town Council will represent Precincts 7 (vote at Crocker Farm) and 8 (vote at Munson Library). There will be two District Councilors. 

Question 1

Amherst, Northampton and Pelham are currently discussing Community Choice Energy. Is this an idea you support? What are the advantages and disadvantages that you see?

SHALINI BAHL-MILNE

I fully support Community Choice Energy (CCE). I see the following advantages of a CCE:

1. Consumer Benefits: A CCE can collectively bargain and procure greener electricity at competitive rates. Further, they are not-for-profit entities, so they can pass on the benefits to consumer rather than shareholders in traditional investor-owned utilities (IOU). It also gives more choice to customers, especially low-income households and renters who don’t have the financial capacity or ability to install their own solar panels. CCEs put pressure on IOUs to remain competitive so it benefits non-CCE members as well.

2. Environmental Benefits: CCEs can choose larger quantities of renewable energy resulting in lowering greenhouse gases. In California, for example, A UCLA report found that CCEs reduced 590,000 tons of CO2 in 2016, without changing consumption of energy among Californians.

3. Local economy: CCEs provide education, job-trainings and new job opportunities in the community.

I don’t see any disadvantages in the policy itself but it’s implementation may involve challenges such as consumers’ fearing change to a new system or feeling like the government is forcing them to opt in. Such challenges can be overcome by educating people and dispelling any fears they may have. There may be other challenges in implementation such as “capacity costs” and “exit costs” that would make CCEs pricing more volatile. For example, In California CCEs are encountering the challenge of how their customers leaving the utility will be allocated the above-market costs of legacy contracts purchased on their behalf or “exit fees.” I don’t know if this is something that CCEs in Massachusetts will have to deal with as this would make their prices more volatile that would be hard to explain to customers. For proper planning and successful implementation of CCEs in our region it will be helpful to get more information about the regulatory risks and IOUs response to CCEs.

PAUL BOBROWSKI

I support this idea. As 1 of 3 representatives from Amherst to the Hampshire Council of Governments back in 2002, I prepared a 107 page report to the Town Manager on municipal aggregation. I worked on a similar effort at HCOG before Amherst left the Council, and was one of the drafters of an early version of HGOG's administrative code governing electricity aggregation.

DARCY DUMONT

I am a founding member of Western MA Community Choice Energy (WMACCE), and I think “Community Choice Energy Plus” is one of the most exciting projects under consideration in the Valley and in the state. When implemented it will provide cheaper, renewable energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, I wholeheartedly support it!

The CCE Plus program under consideration by Amherst, Northampton and Pelham has three components: 1) Basic CCE - which entails the bulk purchase of electricity for the three towns, while increasing the amount of renewable energy in that mix, 2) the gradual creation of more and more locally owned and controlled renewable energy, and 3) the provision of targeted, local energy efficiency services. The combination of the three components will dramatically bring down our regional greenhouse gas emissions, boost local jobs and the local economy, and save on residential, business and town energy costs. In the face of looming climate change impacts, it will provide maximum local climate resiliency.

Currently, I attend the Multi-Municipal CCE Task Force, which meets once a month and includes town staff from Amherst, Pelham and Northampton, UMass Clean Energy Extension and members of WMACCE. Once Amherst has a Sustainability Committee appointed, it will have a role in providing outreach to residents to educate them about the program. California has been on the forefront of the CCE Plus movement and we hope to replicate its success in the Pioneer Valley. The only disadvantage that I can think of is that it will take a while to get the program up and running at full capacity, with all components on line, but it is another project that will pay off manifold in the future.

SAMUEL MACLEOD

YES, I fully support this idea. Community Choice Energy is an exciting idea worth considering. The advantage is clear in that municipalities (Amherst) can lead the inevitable transition to a clean energy economy that will benefit everyone. Residents and businesses can contract for “green” electricity which will boost the demand for local renewable projects. The three member-towns will be able to purchase in volume as a group directly from the suppliers at preferable rates. Residents can choose whether to participate or retain their existing supply source. The disadvantages would be the administrative costs related to managing the transition. We will need to discuss this thoroughly in the community. I look forward to becoming your Council Member and advancing this exciting initiative. My wife Laura is an active member of Mothers Out Front and I appreciate their efforts including this questionnaire.

 

Question 2

How will you explain to voters the initial costs and long-term savings of new Town-owned buildings under the Zero Energy Municipal Buildings bylaw?

SHALINI BAHL-MILNE

I am committed to working towards making Amherst a carbon-neutral community. I will study the best practices examined and reported by independent agencies such as Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) and the MA State Zero Energy Building Task Force and speak with the concerned committees and experts to get scientific data before communicating with the residents about the costs and long-term savings of Zero Energy (ZE) Municipal Buildings. The argument presented in the Zero Energy Amherst website for ZE buildings is that after the 16th year, the savings from the conservation measures to design a ZE building and renewable energy use will outweigh the cost of borrowing extra money to invest in a ZE building (the extra cost is assumed to be 10%). 

Based on my correspondence with the people involved with ZE Bylaw, the data on their website is based on an estimate of the Hitchcock Center in Amherst, which is a single data point and I don’t know if there has been any effort to compare the estimates used in the graph with the actual costs and savings associated with the building. It is also important to know the assumptions made to arrive at those calculations and the costs included.

A frequent concern I am hearing from residents is the affordability of building ZE schools. In order to respond back to these concerns in an informed manner, I would need to know the breakdown of costs involved in building a ZE school and how the bylaw proposes meeting the upfront additional costs. Are there grants that can support the building of a ZE school or do we have revolving loan funds for efficiency investments? Can we show the actual costs of the more efficient renewable energy systems and design are less than people fear?

The successful deployment of ZE public buildings requires a comprehensive plan involving immediate and intermediate steps. NEEP, for example, created a roadmap to ZE public buildings that identifies critical next steps and intermediate steps to be taken in the next 10-15 years to make ZE buildings a widespread practice. Even though the ZE bylaw only applies to public buildings in Amherst, it’s successful implementation depends upon having a practical and feasible roadmap, much like the one other regions are adopting. Some of the suggestions based on best practices for immediate steps noted in NEEP’s report are:

1. Develop an information campaign: A comprehensive information campaign conveying is needed to communicate a consistent message to a broad audience about the latest research and developments in ZE buildings and renewable energy. This needs to be a well-planned effort coordinating the efforts across local organizations such as Mothers Out Front.

2. Promote the development of exemplary public buildings: We can overcome the initial market resistance by promoting the ZE public buildings such as the ones highlighted on Mothers Out Front website.

3. Documentation of ZE public buildings: The ZE public buildings should be carefully and thoroughly documented by an independent third party through out the different stages of building the ZE building. The Hitchcock center used as an example by the Zero Energy Amherst website should provide the documents depicting the costs and savings across the main phases of the project.

4. Post occupancy data gathering: NEEP recommends a post occupancy study of ZE building energy use after three years of completion. Have we done that for the ZE buildings in Amherst?

5. Implementing stretch building codes: These can help lay the groundwork for broader building codes over time.

As a District Councilor, I promise to do my research and stay objective and transparent with my findings. I would like to support the committees working on sustainability to ensure that we are rigorous with our research and have a comprehensive plan based on best practices successfully deployed in other communities to move towards a net-zero community. Further, I would like to see the creation of non-judgmental spaces for all stakeholders to be heard and invite relevant expertise to ensure that we are making thoughtful choices that supersede our personal opinions. Finally, as district councilor I will ensure that residents have a venue to share their concerns and have correct and timely information.

PAUL BOBROWSKI

There will be some initial costs, but after the program is up and running we will be able to choose green energy sources with a potential savings of up to 20% based on some analyses.

DARCY DUMONT

I was part of the workgroup that brought you the Zero Energy Town Building Bylaw and am very excited that Amherst has taken the lead in modeling sustainable town buildings. Other towns are now looking to us as the vanguard in this area.

Amherst has made a commitment to dramatically reduce its carbon emissions. That is what we need to do on behalf of our children and future generations who face the oncoming climate crisis. We must make Amherst resilient in the face of climate impacts that are already here. The Zero Energy bylaw is just the first step in the town’s efforts to get us there. Controlling emissions in our new town buildings is something over which we have control and can do first.

I want to note that the Zero Energy Workgroup overestimated the initial costs required to bring buildings up to zero energy standards. The real costs could be less than estimated, and it is built into our strategy to seek grants, if needed, to cover any additional initial building costs.

With zero energy buildings, the long term savings for the town will be real and substantial - this is because we will be producing all of the energy we use. We will have no energy costs for these buildings and the savings will come back to Amherst residents, to be used toward other priorities for our district and town. Zero energy buildings are an investment in our future.

SAMUEL MACLEOD

Quite simply, the additional expenses that occur in the construction phase will be offset over time by future energy savings. The town will purchase renewable energy systems spending no more than an additional 10% of the building cost. Those renewable energy systems will then reduce the expenditures each year in the future as we will be producing our own energy. Once the initial expenses are retrieved it will be somewhat like receiving interest on a principal investment. We know that climate change is happening. Placing Amherst on the solid path towards sustainability makes environmental and economic sense.

 

Question 3

What are your ideas for making Amherst more affordable for low and moderate income renters and owners?

SHALINI BAHL-MILNE

The cost of housing is impacted by the demand and supply of housing in Amherst. Over 4,000 students live off-campus in Amherst and UMass has projected an increase in demand from student renters for approximately 2,000 beds by 2020. Further, most non-student renters can’t compete with students’ ability to pay. The Town can alleviate the shortage of affordable housing for low- and mid-income residents by addressing the problems on the demand side as well as supply side.

The Amherst Housing Market Study in 2015 has good recommendations in this regard. On the demand side, I would look at innovative solutions such as Private Public partnerships that allow UMass and Amherst College land to be leased out to private developers for student housing. That would free up off-campus housing for other populations and also generate revenue for the Town. UMass Boston and Northeastern are examples for such partnerships.

I support creative and appropriate development initiatives to increase the supply of housing for the Amherst community. We have seen from recent approved projects that increased density can allow for our community affordable housing goals to be met. Encouraging mixed income and mixed-use developments in areas designated by the town’s Master Plan will allow for a diverse mix of housing to serve those at a range of incomes.

Amherst has been a leader in using new tools to encourage affordable housing development. In 2016, Amherst adopted an affordable housing tax incentive which was the first of its kind in the Commonwealth. 40R is a tool that has been successfully used in several Massachusetts communities to create mixed income and mixed-use developments in or adjacent to commercial centers. Helping developers understand and utilize these benefits in addition to providing expedited review process for Project Eligibility can incentivize developers to focus on workforce and affordable housing. With careful planning by our town staff, boards and community members we can craft a 40R district that will support our community goals.

The town has an opportunity to help encourage affordable housing development by selling its underutilized parcels in appropriate locations a nominal price to developers who specialize in creating this type of housing. I would like to see the successful implementation of inclusionary zoning. I will support the work of the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust to ensure that the homeless, low income, and mid-income residents including our teachers, nurses, fire-fighters, and employees in local business have affordable housing in Amherst.

PAUL BOBROWSKI

My record is clear on housing, having worked on the Planning Board and helped pass early inclusionary zoning, having agreed to rezone scarce business-zoned land for residential with the guarantee of affordable single-family homes in perpetuity, and having served on the Board of Commissioners of the Amherst Housing Authority. I've already answered a housing survey, stating that I would support a 40R district and other efforts to create more affordable units in town as long as such efforts fit into Amherst's master plan.

DARCY DUMONT

One of my biggest concerns is making sure that Amherst families are not priced out of town by rents or house values that are too high. The housing that was once intended for low income rentals has become much more expensive due to the influx of UMass students and their ability to pay higher rents into the rental market. Additionally, the average home price in Amherst is far more than many low to moderate income residents can afford. Homeowners living on fixed incomes may simply be forced out by high property taxes.

I support increasing the number of affordable rental units and the number of affordable, moderately sized and sustainable homes to purchase. I will support the Amherst Housing Trust’s efforts to bring groups and individuals working on these goals together and their efforts to raise funds to meet those goals.

I want to involve affected people in the process of finding solutions to these problems. I propose encouraging the development of “green” homes similar to those developed by Wright Builders in Greenfield. The Green River Commons are moderately priced, small, sustainably built one level condos. Similar homes in Amherst would add to housing stock available to low or moderate income residents.

If elected to the Town Council, I would support:

  • the release of an RFP to allow a small, affordable housing development on the site of the East Street School, which would require that the Town sell the property to a successful bidder at nominal cost,
  • the development of studio apartments for low income individuals (less than 80% AMI),
  • the development of a 40R district within Amherst that would allow for denser development than is otherwise now allowed by Town zoning bylaws.

In addition to these proposals, a percentage of affordable housing for families and individuals should be included in all new developments. Each new development should be sustainable, and in keeping with the character of the town or neighborhood.

With respect to the lack of affordable housing, I would be open to discussing a change to progressive taxation in Amherst. I have had frequent conversations with homeless residents and families in Amherst when volunteering at the Craig’s Doors/UUSA community breakfast on Wednesday mornings and have seen what hardships many have had to endure just to live from day to day, especially during the winter. In addition, for 10 years I worked as a legal representative of people with mental illness, including many homeless people seeking community housing, and I am therefore aware of the issues involved. I would support electing a Democratic Governor who will provide a line item in the state budget rather than an “earmark” for our Amherst legislator. If that doesn’t happen, we will need to work with our new State Representative and Senator to advocate strongly for full funding of at least $200,000 annually to directly address this issue. We, as a Town Council. can put the pressure on both the Governor and the two Houses of the legislature, as well as work with the established local activists to mount a citizen campaign.

I would strongly support the development of housing options for homeless residents, ideally mixed in with other types of housing. Supported affordable housing has a high rate of success. Again, I propose getting input from affected homeless residents about any plan. I wholeheartedly encourage the continuation of the Amherst Police’s good and supportive work with Craig’s Doors.

SAMUEL MACLEOD

There is no simple solution but there are some things Amherst can do to help. Housing prices are a function of supply and demand and Amherst is a desirable place to live. This is likely to continue. Amherst can: 1) minimize the rate of property tax increases which impact affordability for owners and renters alike; 2) enforce inclusionary zoning and require setting aside units for qualifying low and moderate renters in future large residential rental projects being built; 3) consider incentives and zoning that will enable the building of smaller units in localized areas;. 4) collaborate with the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust. The community will need to be included in any discussions.

 

Question 4

If elected, what will you do to increase racial and class diversity in town government - from Council to committees?

SHALINI BAHL-MILNE

I am a person of color and have lived in three countries - I was born in India, grew up in the Middle East, and have been in the US for 17 years. I understand and appreciate diversity. As District 5 Councilor, I will reach out to low-income residents, immigrants, and people of color to understand the challenges they encounter in participating in our local government including committees. I will also do my best to share with them the importance of participating in Town Council and committees. I will work with them to come up with solutions and resources that help them participate.

I would like to also create clear channels of communication that are accessible to diverse populations. These might include monthly opportunities to meet with me – at times and locations that work for them – as well as online opportunities to stay in touch. I would like to create safe and collaborative spaces for people with diverse backgrounds to feel a sense of belonging in our community. For example, one idea that came up in speaking with the owner of El Comalito and her son was to host an annual neighborhood party in South Amherst Village to bring together the local businesses and residents to share their stories and develop a caring community. I will also do my research to look at how other college towns are increasing racial and class diversity in Town government.

PAUL BOBROWSKI

The key to me is effective outreach. I would go to areas in town that are under-represented and hold forums in my district. If that is ineffective, I would identify and approach people who could act as liaisons with such communities and reach them that way. I would propose to the Council a mentoring program whereby we can bring new, inexperienced and possibly reticent people into government, working side by side with elected council members, to be part of our next generation of representatives.

DARCY DUMONT

Being a responsible white person in a multi-racial society requires ongoing learning and development. While I’ve learned a great deal about diverse races and cultures through my work as a teacher in Holyoke, I know that I need to continue to grow in awareness, understanding, and ability to act for justice. I will require this of myself and advocate for ongoing training for the Council and for other town boards and committees.

The new Town Council will appoint most of the Boards and Committees in town government. I will strongly advocate for the Council to immediately adopt a policy that calls for our appointments to reflect the diversity of the town with regard to income level, gender, race, home rental/ownership, etc. This will require that we work together as a Council to develop strategies to grow the pool of candidates for appointments from underrepresented groups.

The Charter also creates a new paid town position of Community Participation Officer. I will insist that we hire someone with extensive experience and skills in building relationships with, and fostering involvement of, members of traditionally disenfranchised groups.

In my own district, I will not only make myself available frequently and at times convenient for working people, but I will also take the initiative to seek out opportunities to go to meet with, and listen to, a diversity of constituencies and seek out local leaders in each of our many communities.

SAMUEL MACLEOD

It is important to remember that the town council has the authority to approve appointments. Awareness, communication, and outreach are very important. The town charter provides for a number of mechanisms including the appointment of a Community Participation Officer. Recognizing the need is a good start but the town must commit to and follow through on an ongoing basis with substantial efforts.

When I become your Council Representative I will ensure and provide clear avenues for communication including web-based access for all. Regular forums in the community will help but there will still be many residents who will be unable to participate. Most importantly therefore, I will reach out personally to try and bridge the gap of inclusion. For many residents there are barriers of time availability, transportation, and family obligations. I will engage with existing and new contacts with active community members to assist with outreach.

I have been reaching out and including Amherst’s under represented communities for years as a coach, mentor, (chauffer!), and board member/officer of the Amherst Youth Soccer Association. I encourage you to ask anyone affiliated with the program about the extent of my efforts and involvement.

 


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