‘Concrete divide’ stirs emotions in Amherst council meeting

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@civitasmedia.com






The concrete divide grew deeper Monday as city council debated a petition from residents on Amherst’s north side.

“I don’t know how to beg you people,” Josie Tornabene told officials, flushed with emotion. “We don’t want asphalt. We really don’t want asphalt.”

A majority of those who live along Meadowbrook Drive, Quail Court, and Killdeer Court don’t want new asphalt this summer — they want new concrete instead.

But treasurer Richard Ramsey said charging them for a construction season “upgrade” sets a dangerous precedent.

“I think this is going to be a larger issue than at first glance,” he said, explaining the long-term ramifications of a vote that would force neighbors to pay extra for concrete.

Mayor Mark Costilow said there were 46 road projects on his radar earlier this year, whittled down to a list of 10 at a cost of roughly $1 million.

“I’m solely working within the budget we have, trying to put good surfaces on the roads,” he said.

That money comes from Amherst’s street improvement fund, which has been spent down by half over the last several years.

Ramsey said its balance now sits at just a little over $2.1 million. Setting a precedent for asphalt-to-concrete upgrades will weigh heavily when it comes time to renew the street tax in 2019, he said.

The paving fund was started 23 years ago when Amherst’s roads were in horrific shape, recalled auditor David Kukucka, who served on council at the time.

Then-mayor John Higgins was tired of paying for vehicle damage caused by potholes. He convinced voters to set aside half a percent of city income taxes for street repairs.

That balance was changed coming off the economic downtown of 2008 and 2009 when extra money was needed in the general fund. Kukucka said a percentage of street money was diverted for operating costs; a $2.5 million downtown storm sewer project further depleted the fund.

“It’s vitally important that we kind of keep our eye on that prize as well with this decision here on the council floor,” the auditor said.

“Another precedent we’re looking at is going against the recommendation of a registered, professional engineer,” said councilwoman Jennifer Wasilk. “If we start approving things that go against the engineer’s recommendations, what does that leave us?”

The streets in question are located in Wasilk’s fourth ward.

She said a fourth of residents of the affected area did not sign the petition and contacted her with worries about the cost of being assessed.

Wasilk said one assessment opponent would not attend a city council meeting because they are concerned for their safety.

Deborah Kelley, a Meadowbrook resident, did attend.

“It’s hard to say yes or no to your neighbors when the neighbor on your left feels different than the neighbor on your right,” she said, explaining the pressure she felt to sign the petition.

Kelley, who does not want concrete, said there was a lot of confusion among residents about how much assessment would cost. “People don’t understand it, even after they signed it,” she said.

Some council members were also vocally against granting an upgrade from asphalt to concrete.

Joe Miller, who heads the ordinance committee, said he sees concrete as a want, not a need, and is wary of forcing a minority of neighbors to pay an extra tax.

Councilman David Goodell shared similar concerns: “I just don’t see that this is in the best interest of the city as a whole. We’re going to have assessed an area for 20 years just to have concrete instead of asphalt,” he said.

He questioned the fairness for those who will buy Meadowbrook, Quail, and Killdeer homes in the next 20 years. They may have to bear the assessment burden.

Councilman David Janik, who lives in the area, recused himself from his official duties for the evening, taking a seat in the audience. But he did take the lectern to rail against the use of asphalt, which he called “cheap.”

Janik said all new subdivisions are required to use concrete — and he believes that means they should be repaved with concrete, too.

“This is a quality versus quantity issue,” he said.

Tornabene asked whether all concrete roads in Amherst from now on will get asphalt overlays when it comes time for resurfacing.

Mayor Mark Costilow said every case is looked at seperately based on bids — the price of asphalt could skyrocket next year and concrete would be the better deal.

This year, there’s $210,000 difference between asphalt and concrete.

The issue found no easy answers. It was forwarded to further discussion by a 3-2 vote with Wasilk and Goodell dissenting (councilman Phil Van Treuren was absent).

Council president John Dietrich said he wants to hear more input from people who have been afraid to speak openly, as well as those who signed the petition in an effort to keep the peace.

“If we had the money, we’d be happy to do it for you. But we just don’t have the money anymore,” he told residents.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.





By Jason Hawk