Opinion: Expanding The Jones Library Comes At Too High A Cost

Jones Library. Photo Art Keene.

Editor’s Note: This column was submitted by Toni Cunningham to the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Dec. 2, in response to an opinion piece by Alex Kent.

In his November 28 column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (“Amherst Should be Bold and Build Library for All”), Alex Kent describes some of the merits of the Jones Library renovation and expansion project, and says that Amherst should “find the money” to make it happen.

The Jones is certainly a much-loved building and I don’t doubt that it could benefit from investment for maintenance and repairs, as well as accessibility improvements. However, what we as a town would have to sacrifice if this project were to happen should give us pause. There simply is not enough money to pay for this project AND afford other priorities.

For more than half a century, we have heard that the downtown fire station is inadequate to meet the needs of a modern-day fire department, and that it is too far from residences in South Amherst to safely respond to calls.

We have been told that the walls and roof of the Department of Public Works facility are literally crumbling.

We have heard from parents and students about the treacherous conditions of the high school track and community fields.

We have been told about the leaks in school building roofs and the broken chillers.

Residents in North Amherst have been calling for a sidewalk along East Pleasant Street for 40 years, while all over town, people wonder when, or if, pothole-ridden roads will be resurfaced.  

Year after year, we see the maintenance of municipal buildings and facilities be deferred, and projects postponed due to insufficient funds.

And yet, the Trustees of the Jones Library are asking the Town to put the Jones expansion at the top of that long list, and take on significant debt ($22 million) for a building the Town does not even own. The debt service on that one project alone — estimated to begin at $1.6 million per year — would have depleted all the available capital this year. (For context, $1.6 million is about 16 times what the Town has spent on sidewalks.) Previous projections about what the town could afford were based on allocating 10% of the property tax levy every year for capital. In 2021, it was cut to 5%, and in 2022 it will likely be 8%. Comptroller Sonia Aldrich has said it will be almost impossible to get to 10% in the foreseeable future. 

If the library project moves forward, it signals to our vital first responders — firefighters and DPW workers — that they will have to wait at least another decade or more for safer, more comfortable, and modern facilities. Making the Jones Library the top priority also jeopardizes the effort to build a new elementary school, particularly if the library project is funded using a debt exclusion override. Residents may (or may not) vote to increase their taxes to fund the library, but it is highly unlikely they would then vote again, within a year or two, to increase taxes to fund the larger school project.  

Kent wrote that the Trustees and the Friends of the Jones should “persuade wealthy people to open their checkbooks” to rebuild the library. If a wealthy donor stepped forward with a $22 million gift to renovate and expand the library, I would be all for it. But the Trustees have had three years to find a donor for a fraction of that amount, with no success. Without such a generous gift, Amherst cannot “find the money to build a library,” unless we are willing to give up on everything else.

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10 thoughts on “Opinion: Expanding The Jones Library Comes At Too High A Cost

  1. Once upon time, lots of folks used to donate to the Jones — I wonder if that’s still the case, and if not, why?

  2. Toni, thank you for pointing out that Amherst doesn’t own the Jones Library. Since the first public presentations on the Jones Library a few years back, I’ve been wondering why Amherst spent $20 million on the last renovation and is now being asked for $22 million more-without getting any ownership stake in the building. Also wondering why the new plan tears down the building the town spent $20 million on 20 years ago. Will the new expansion face the same fate in 20 years? I’m not opposed to renovating the Jones but the scale of this proposed project and costs seem way out of line with what we can afford—and what we need. There are a lot of pressing capital needs and we can’t keep pushing public safety buildings , safe athletic fields and roads down on the list. Can the Jones Trustees can scale back to a smaller, more affordable project -something the state will definitely understand the need for in this terrible time of job losses, closing businesses and budget cuts. And the town should get an ownership stake in the library building proportional to the money it’s put into it.

  3. I admit it. I keep coming over to this website to peek to see if anyone has disagreed with anyone else here…….on anything. Not yet. We know instinctively that’s NOT the reality of Amherst opinion these days.

    I salute the diligent reporting of those who attempt to give an objective account of events they are covering, because we need the journalism very badly. It’s a wasteland for grasping what’s actually going on in town government.

    But the lack of disagreement of any kind week after week after week in this space, on opinion pieces, sticks out like a sore thumb. It begs the question: “Amherst Independent” of what? Is this a venue for a lively exchange of ideas (some day), or is it merely happy to be what it appears to be, primarily a venue for people still angry about the charter vote, people threatened by the possibility that they might differ on anything, because THAT would presumably break something.

    Frankly, I think that there was an opportunity for something lively and engaging on the web earlier, but the distrust in town between people has been so pervasive, that we, and I mean all of us, blew it.

    I apologize if I didn’t post this in the appropriate place on here.

  4. Amherst taxpayers have great reason to be concerned about the proposal to demolish parts of the Jones Library that were renovated 20 years ago and to expand the library footprint to 68,000 sq.ft. The library is clearly in need of renovation but not at the expense of major expansion.

    At present, there is considerable wasted, dysfunctional space in the library. A reorganization and renovation within the existing footprint could solve many of the library’s challenges. It could create full accessibility and greatly improve the functional space in the library.
    The cost of the expansion project would be $35.8 million plus $650,000 of additional costs for demolition. (Only $13.8 million of that cost would be covered by a State grant.) For the Trustees to ask taxpayers payers for roughly $22 million to demolish and expand the library is irresponsible at this time, in view of the fact that the Town desperately needs new schools, another fire station and a safe Public Works building.

    New schools are needed to provide for the health and safety of our children, teachers and auxiliary staff who now suffer in buildings that are moldy, lack natural lighting and lack proper separation of classrooms.
    A modern, adequate fire station which is closer to South Amherst and a fully adequate Public Works building would provide greater safety for the entire community.
    The Health and Safety of our children and of all Amherst residents should be priorities over a greatly expanded library.

  5. Instead of debating each other on what the town should or should not pay for, I suggest we all push for the town council and Management to fully dissect how our town budget reflects the goals and values of our community. Do we value inclusion and education? Do we value mental health, access to resources, safety to all our community no matter their skin color? Do we value our environment? And if we value all those things – does our budget actually reflect that and if now how do we move it to better align? Are things that we value that we should be demanding funding from outside our tax base, or that we can fund creatively through public-private partnerships? The world has been upended in many ways this year and now more than ever it is very clear we can’t just move forward with the status quo.

  6. Boy, can I agree on the points in all of the emails. Everyone’s points make real sense, an indicator to me that people are thinking much the same way about the unreasonable predicament the Jones has gotten itself into. It doesn’t take much comparing to see that the proposed new construction makes one realize that it makes about as much sense to do this, as the previous addition did. There’s much more important projects that cry out for attention. Somehow Amherst leaders have gotten their priorities and responsibilities out of order.

  7. I disagree. Have you seen the cost of bringing the building into compliance with ADA requirements? That would be $14-17 million just to fix what is there. We’ll be in the same situation we have been in with schools and the parking garage – deferring action or doing things half way and pushing the bill down the line without getting the benefits for current generations. There is no way this issue will go away if we just renovate. The building is sorely inadequate for a 21st century library facility – by all professional measures. And that is a huge loss in our efforts for equity and education. That said, I was personally comfortable with the financials (re. borrowing and bond rating) as they were presented by the town last year. I don’t know if that has now changed with the pandemic.

  8. Why not transfer ownership of the JL to the Town of Amherst, and that would solve problems with financing rennovation, since residents are reluctant to pay upkeep on properties not owned by Amherst.

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