A Jones Library request for $1,000,000 from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for constructing a new space for Special Collections has been rejected but the Library will be invited to revise the request and submit anew. A vote to rescind a January 30th preliminary vote for the proposal passed 8-1 at a meeting of the CPA Committee (CPAC) on June 30th (Sarah Marshall opposed).
The vote came in the context of pressure on CPAC to approve the library’s original request. In an email from Town Manager Paul Bockelman to CPAC Chair Nate Budington on June 15th, Bockelman wrote it was his belief that the January 30th vote constituted a recommendation to the Town Council, that CPAC has concluded its work, and that the use of CPA funds for the library now lies with the Town Council. Furthermore, he wrote that Robert’s Rules of Order would not permit the committee to “reconsider” the vote. (The email had not been included in the meeting packet but was referenced by committee member Sarah Eisinger during discussion.)
Budington disagreed with the Town Manager’s opinion, saying that Bockelman’s interpretation of the process did not follow standard CPAC operating procedure. In a presentation to the Finance Committee on June 2nd, Budington had explained that the committee typically takes a preliminary vote when they first hear each proposal, and then holds a final vote on the full slate of proposals after hearing and discussing them all. That final vote was delayed because the committee was not allowed to meet after the Town closed down in early March due to COVID-19.
In presenting the case in favor of rescinding the January 30th vote and rejecting the proposal, Budington said that approval of the $1 million request would limit what other historical preservation, affordable housing, and recreation projects could be funded in the future. He pointed out that the high school fields will be a significant request next year, and the need for affordable housing support is more dire due to the pandemic. In addition, he was concerned that this proposal was precedent-setting, effectively reverse-engineering a project in order to fill a budget gap. Budington said the Minority Report detailing these and other reasons to oppose the library’s request had been written out of frustration after encountering resistance from Town Hall to the Committee trying to ask questions about the proposal.
Back in February, Budington, committee member Diana Stein, and CPAC staff liaison Anthony Delaney had each sought guidance from the Community Preservation Coalition, which helps municipalities understand and implement the CPA. In a written response, Coalition Executive Director Stuart Saginor referred to a section of the CPA that is designed to stop towns from “shifting the cost of municipal buildings onto CPA,” what Saginor called “supplanting.” The CP Coalition’s opinion that the original proposal was not allowable under the CPA was supported by individuals at the Department of Revenue, while the Town’s attorney had rendered a legal opinion that the project was consistent with the CPA.
CPAC member Robin Fordham argued against rescinding the January 30th vote, outlining the points she and Eisinger had made in their written rebuttal to the Minority Report, and requesting that the Jones be allowed to revise their request for funding per a recommendation by the Amherst Historical Commission. Fordham is the Historical Commission representative on CPAC. Other members of the committee, including the two other authors of the Minority Report, Michael Birtwistle and Diana Stein, expressed support for inviting the Jones to submit a new proposal with more specificity on how to preserve Special Collections.
Eisinger suggested the Committee was getting bogged down in procedure — an opinion echoed by Library Trustee President Austin Sarat who was attending the meeting as an observer but was invited to speak. Budington pushed back, contending that the disagreement wasn’t about procedure but rather about carefully distributing limited public tax dollars.
In his remarks, Budington mentioned how Amherst Forward (a local Political Action Committee which supports the demolition/renovation/expansion project) had weighed in on the issue with an email to their supporters that suggested “the usual suspects are at it again, trying to negate the Jones project.”
The email, signed by Amherst Forward co-chairs Katherine Appy and Ginny Hamilton, characterized the decision before CPAC as purely support for historic preservation, without addressing the issue of whether the request meets the intent of the CPA. They wrote that “opponents of the Jones renovation are sparing no effort to stop this project, including challenging the use of historic preservation funds for preserving our library’s archives,” urging their followers to write to CPAC in support of the funding. Budington pointed out that he strongly supports the full renovation/expansion project and that his opposition to the Jones’ CPA request has nothing to do with the larger project.
An advocacy group for a more modest Jones Library renovation project, “Save Our Library,” encouraged residents to express their opposition to the Jones’ CPA proposal. Reached by email, Save Our Library Chair Terry Johnson told the Indy, “many residents objected to the fact that the CPA grant application was for new construction of the Special Collections department. Of course, everyone wants to preserve Amherst’s archives. Save Our Library supports historic preservation but views the Trustees’ plan to gut most of the 1928 wing of the library as a real loss to the town.”
Of the 40 or so letters written to CPAC on this issue, about half were in favor and half against. Almost all of those in favor were sent shortly after Amherst Forward’s solicitation, whereas about half of the letters in opposition seemed to stem from Save Our Library’s efforts.
After a lengthy back and forth at the meeting, the Committee voted to amend the language of the vote to rescind (8-1), adding that the Jones be encouraged to submit a new request with more specifics. It is expected that the Jones will return to the Committee at a later date with a new proposal that includes details on heating/ventilation/air-conditioning and fire suppression systems to protect Special Collections.
When the library might submit a new proposal is uncertain. Bockelman wrote in the June 15th email that “the Town Council will not be acting upon the CPAC recommendation regarding the Jones Library until such time as the Town is offered, and if the Town chooses to accept, a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC).” In a report to the Council, Bockelman wrote that the Library Director had asked the MBLC to delay awarding the grant to the Jones until next summer. The MBLC meets on July 9th and may make a decision on the delay request then. If the delay is granted, any CPA funding would not be acted upon this fiscal year.