OPINION: STAFFING WOES, OPENING SCENARIOS, AND GRANT QUESTIONS. REFLECTIONS ON THE JONES LIBRARY TRUSTEES MEETING OF 5/29/20

Jones Library. Photo Art Keene.

Terry S. Johnson

Staffing woes at the Jones Library will continue from last year into the future. One wonders how the Library can possibly fund staff and building maintenance in addition to a proposed expansion project.

Summary Of The Trustees Meeting
1) A level FY21 budget was approved, pending a final Town Council vote. There will be no lay-offs or furloughs.  However, three vacant full time staff positions created by retirements will not be filled. The library system will now have five fewer full time staff positions than in 2019. 

2) A scenario for gradual resumption of library services was presented. 

3) Updates on the possible state building grant were discussed. 

Staffing Realities
A level funded 12 month FY21 library budget was approved.  The town appropriation for salaries will be $2,043,302 and the Library will be responsible for $596,698.  The latter will be funded through a draw on the Jones Endowment of 4.5% as well as from state aid and fundraising under the umbrella of the Friends of the Jones Library. 

Both the Jones Endowment and the Woodbury funds have recovered the majority of their losses since the stock market plummeted earlier in the year.  

The FY21 budget necessitates that three full time positions remain unfilled; the North Amherst Branch Head, the Jones receptionist and one other staff member. Programming will be level funded while funding for books and materials will decrease. Cleaning supplies as well as plexiglass are being ordered in response to COVID-19 but will hopefully be reimbursed through FEMA and the CARES Act. 

Trustees President Austin Sarat asked about the impact of a smaller staff. Director Sharon Sharry replied that this reduction will only work because the library system will not be completely open. If all three branches were functioning as usual, this staff reduction would not work.  

At a previous meeting, Sharry stated that part-timers have been asked to work extra hours already. In fact, Treasurer Bob Pam remarked at a 5/22/20 budget committee meeting that $80,000 over budget was spent on additional part-time hours in FY 2020. Pam wondered if any of these staff members are working over 20 hours a week, thereby triggering benefits. Sharry said she is careful to pay for more hours from staffers who are far below that threshold. 

It is obvious that the Trustees are staffing the library with hours from workers without benefits because the library pays for benefits while the town pays the salaries.

Preliminary Opening Scenario
The library is currently serving the public with an impressive array of electronic materials and staff programming. Unfortunately, residents without internet enabled devices and wi-fi are out of luck.

Sharry shared that plans are being formulated through the Town, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), and the library staff regarding a staggered re-opening at the Jones. The branches will remain closed until further notice.

At an undetermined date, department heads will return to the Jones first with an occupation limit of no more than one person per room because there are “so many tiny rooms.”  The Library will then be open for returns only. A materials return slot already exists near to the entrance of the Woodbury Room in the back of the building.  Returned books will be quarantined for seven days, then re-shelved.  

Next, the Jones will open for walk-up service under a tent, not to be confused with curbside pickup. Patrons can reserve books by telephone or through the website and will be contacted when their order is ready. Patrons will walk up and retrieve their materials.

Gradually, there will be a limited number of patrons allowed in the building with a one way flow through the side handicapped accessible door, then out the front with greeters at both doors.  Handicapped patrons will, of course, be able to use the accessible entrance for both ingress and egress. The stacks will be closed to patrons.  ESL and Special Collections will be open by appointment only. 

The Trustees had many questions regarding building capacity, the operation of the elevators and possible reserved hours for compromised patrons. Trustee Alex Levebvre brought up the issue of laptop loans. Sharry stated that there were not enough laptops to do this, but the staff is considering purchasing laptops in the future instead of computer desktops when replacements are needed.  

Sarat voiced concern that the homeless would lose a daytime location since patrons will not be able to stay in the library. Sharry said “it is horrible,” but the library cannot be utilized as usual.

Possible Expansion Discussion
Pam brought up “the elephant in the room” concerning whether or not an MBLC grant would be funded and whether or not the Town Council would approve it. 

Sharry stated that the MBLC is maintaining the same granting procedures and timing guidelines.  She shared that she has been in contact with the East Bridgewater Library, which is first on the grant waiting list. They will probably decline their grant, thus bumping Amherst to first position. (Note: At this time, the bonding bill which includes the MBLC grants has passed the State House but is in process in the Senate).

Pam added that “We need to look at alternatives. If the grant is approved, can the Trustees complete the re-design?”  

Readers will recall that in order to receive the grant, the library must create a total redesign due to a major error in the original submitted plans and has had since October, 2017 to do so. However, the redesign remains incomplete. The grant may be awarded this summer, thus giving a Town Council up to a year to vote for the project. 

The Trustees are awaiting the results of two consultancies – one about an updated estimate for a refurbishment only and one concerning possible sustainabilty features in the expansion.  

Sarat emphasized that the Trustees are fortunate to have done “a lot of good work. We could still alter the design elements post-COVID.  We are in a wait and see mode.” The preliminary designs can be viewed here

Taxpayers are waiting, too!  The total cost of the demolition/expansion is $35.6 million with the grant covering $13.8 million and the Town paying about $22 million, if the Friends capital fundraising campaign of $6.1 million falls short. 

How can the taxpayers support this project when there are no complete blueprints, no independent final cost estimates, no fundraising data and no public forums?  And how can the Council make a decision when there are so many capital projects and so little public input garnered concerning taxpayers’ priorities? And most importantly, how should buildings now be designed in a post-COVID era? There are just too many unknowns to support this demolition/expansion project. 

Terry S. Johnson  is a retired Amherst teacher, blossoming poet,  and a lifelong student of art, architecture, history, and languages.  

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