During their virtual retreat on November 14, Amherst Town Councilors engaged in their first discussion about the four major capital projects since public listening sessions were held almost a year ago. It became apparent during the three-hour meeting that little progress has been made on decisions on the projects since the Councilors took office almost two years ago. Council President Lynn Griesemer framed the discussion around gathering information the Councilors need in order to be able to make a decision about the funding. Many questions and concerns were raised about project costs and the Town’s current fiscal reality.
The proposed expansion of the Jones Library was the first to be discussed and was the most controversial of the four proposed projects, with clear differences of opinion expressed among the Councilors.
Councilor Cathy Schoen, who serves on the Finance Committee and chairs the Joint Capital Planning Committee, said she would like to know the total cost, including cost escalation estimates linked to the likely year of construction. She noted that the current estimate of $35.6 million is based on a start date of July 2019 and does not include costs for sustainability upgrades.
In addition, Schoen wanted to know the total cost to the Town, including any Community Preservation Act funds (which are supported by property taxes), and asked for more information about the historic tax credits the Jones Trustees have said they hope will generate $1.6 million toward the total cost. Schoen also wanted details on the costs of demolition, impact of construction on Amity Street, and how the library would operate during demolition/construction.
Dorothy Pam wanted to know the cost of operating a larger library, noting that the Jones is currently “down several positions” and has already been drawing on the endowment to help fund ongoing operating costs. “Librarians and people are more important than buildings,” she said.
Councilors Steve Schreiber, Andy Steinberg, Evan Ross, and Shalini Bahl-Milne described the library as the most important social justice project of the four, with Schreiber calling it “a once-in-a-generation opportunity.” A grant of $13.7 million from the state is expected to be awarded in July, 2021, and is contingent upon the town’s acceptance of the project as a whole and a commitment to pay for its share of the total cost.
Bahl-Milne characterized the library project as “the elephant in the room,” noting that some consider the expansion a “luxury.” Bahl-Milne felt if they could only hear from the less-privileged users of the library, “it would help us all get on board more easily.” Schreiber felt the library is not a luxury and is “tied for highest priority, along with the school.” Councilor Sarah Swartz pointed out that there are many residents in town who are “barely hanging on” financially, and that increased taxes may push out of Amherst the very people the project is intended to benefit. More details about the alternate approach of a more limited renovation to meet the infrastructural and accessibility needs of the Jones Library were also sought by Schoen and other Councilors. (See this Indy article for more on the renovation.)
Councilors Pam and Darcy Dumont expressed deep concern about the timing of the library coming up first and it posing a risk to the success of a school project, especially if debt exclusion overrides are needed to fund both. (To learn more about tax overrides (see this Indy analysis.) Mention of tax overrides caused Griesemer to remind the Councilors that no decisions on overrides have been made. However, in public meetings before the pandemic, Town Manager Paul Bockelman had said he expects the Town will need at least one override to afford all four projects.
Differences in opinion were also evident around the $6 million in private fundraising that has been promised by the Library Trustees. Some were concerned that this has not yet materialized, and that it is now being proposed by the Trustees as coming from a combination that includes CPA funds, and may draw from the library’s endowment. George Ryan said that he was holding off on personally donating to the Jones’ campaign until the Council approved the funding. Evan Ross suggested that the Council should commit the Town to funding the project with or without fundraising to offset costs. The library Trustees have asked the Council to make a decision on funding the full cost of the library expansion by April of 2021.
NEW ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
All councilors continue to support the elementary school project, to be partially funded with a grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). The Town portion of the project has been estimated to be at least $40 million if the state pays approximately half of the cost. Councilor questions focused on the impact the pandemic might have on building design and how to address associated infrastructure needs. Pam wondered if renovating the three elementary schools might now be preferable to consolidation, as this pandemic will likely not be the last, and smaller populations in larger spaces with good ventilation will be vital. Town Manager Paul Bockelman, a member of the Elementary School Building Committee along with Schoen and Schreiber, reported that the MSBA will soon be certifying the enrollment that will determine the scope of the project.
Dumont reminded the Council that Crocker Farm Elementary School also has significant infrastructure needs. Schoen wanted clarification about whether MSBA funding would be available for the Crocker Farm work if expansion was necessary as part of plans to address Wildwood and Fort River. An interest in expanding early childhood education was noted, although associated building needs are not eligible through the MSBA except for possibly some related to preschool. Superintendent Morris has previously noted that operational expenses have long been the limiting factor in providing these services. A 2019 study of early childhood needs showed that providing care for 0-3 year olds is more urgent than increasing preschool slots.
Alisa Brewer spoke about the need to build trust with the community. “We frequently say something can’t be done until it can…Walls in quads were ‘impossible’ when we were discussing a previous iteration of this project,” referring to new walls that were built in “quad” classrooms in both Wildwood and Fort River this summer, as well as improvements to the Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning systems. Brewer also wanted to make sure that the Council would be kept updated on progress throughout the MSBA process.
FIRE STATION AND DPW
The need for a new fire station located in the southern part of town to replace the aged downtown station, and for a new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility, received less attention. Progress on these projects has stalled over the past couple of years with the dissolution of the DPW/Fire Advisory Board. Some councilors inquired about the possibility of renovating the existing downtown fire station (Schreiber, Pat DeAngelis), purchasing smaller apparatus that are standard in Europe (Schreiber, Schoen), and dispersing the DPW across multiple sites (Schoen, Mandi Jo Hanneke).
There was discussion about the need to scale back projects to reduce the cost. Evan Ross reported that, in a recent district meeting, he couldn’t justify to constituents why a fire station in Amherst was slated to cost ten times that of Hadley’s. [The Amherst estimate was $24m vs Hadley’s $3.7m substation]. Swartz, Griesemer, and Hanneke all wondered if the Council should assign a budget “cap” to each project. “We didn’t have the opportunity to do that for the library and perhaps some of us wish we had,” Griesemer said.
Hanneke said the Council “needs to face reality on the fire station and DPW,” that they are “10-15 years out,” indicating that she considers these projects to be secondary to the library and school. However, it is up to the Council how to prioritize the projects. While the school project is likely to achieve unanimous support from the Council, they could decide to forgo the library expansion and move forward with a fire station and/or DPW instead. Urgent library repairs could be factored into the annual capital improvement plan.
Several other large projects were mentioned as high priorities for various councilors — for example, the athletic fields, a new Senior Center, a Community Center, and an Early Learning Center — including the possibility of co-locating some of these. However, there was no discussion of how or when to fund them.
Dumont asked about the financial modeling tool that had been promised last year but has not been made available to the full council and residents. The tool enables users to plug in different costs for each project and compare the resultant debt service against available capital funding to gauge overall affordability. When Schreiber and Steinberg raised the prospect of selling surplus Town property to offset project costs, Pam replied, “I don’t want to give away any piece of town property that could be used for public housing, a senior center, etc. If we need money, then I say ‘cut your budget’.”
The meeting concluded with no immediate indication of how and when the questions raised would be answered and what the next steps are for the Council to make decisions.
Maria Kopicki contributed to this article.