A Virtual Community Amid Budget Controversies
Here is a wrap-up of the most significant developments concerning the Jones Library System.
A Virtual Community Center
As a result of the pandemic, the Jones has created a Library community online with programming for children, teens, adults, and ESL students as well as reference services, book curation, and, in some cases, home delivery. More hotspots and laptops have been provided.
Materials pick-up services began in the late spring. After two tents at the Jones were lost to weather events, a third sturdier framed tent was installed in late October and included electric plug access. It has now been taken down for the winter.
Gradually pick-up services have been added at the Munson and, most recently, at the North Amherst Library. Check out the Library’s website, for pickup hours and a calendar of online opportunities.
Although some local Libraries, such as Sunderland, South Hadley, and Easthampton, are allowing limited Library browsing by appointment, Amherst Town Hall is not permitting the Jones to open at this time.
At the December 17, 2020 Trustees meeting, Director Sharon Sharry presented a draft p. 17-25
She thanked Cindy Harbeson, Curator of Special Collections, for working with the staff in developing this document, which proposes a five-phase reopening plan, including metrics as well as a policy for staff procedures if a patron is not wearing a mask.
Over the summer, the Jones staff created an Antiracism Committee to evaluate and address racism and inequity in all aspects of the Library’s staffing, procedures, and materials curation.
Trustees Ask Town Council to Approve the Demolition/Expansion Project by April 30, 2021
The Jones Library is second on the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) waiting list for a state grant of $13.8 million towards a project currently estimated to cost $35.8 million. The Trustees are asking the Town to commit to borrowing $22 million before the provisional grant is officially awarded, which could possibly be as early as July 2021.
The Jones Trustees are engaging in negotiations with the Town, and would commit to paying $6 million towards the total by using the Jones Library Endowment as collateral to get a loan. Treasurer Robert Pam was the lone dissenting vote against using the Endowment as collateral for a loan.
The Endowment draw each year (about $350,000) provides about 67 percent of the Library’s share of operating expenses (about $550,000) and is therefore critical to the functioning of the Jones Library System. The Town contributes about $2,000,000 of the Library’s total operating budget.
There are only two options being presented to the Amherst Town Council by the Trustees regarding the Jones’ Library building. Unfortunately, a formal study of reusing the 1993 addition has never been done. And there has never been a consultant study concerning reorganizing the entire current facility of 48,000 sq. ft. for increased efficiency, and identifying renovations that would make it feasible.
The MBLC does not have specific square footage requirements for a renovation/expansion grant. It is based upon what the Library wants for its programming.
1) Demolition/Expansion: The Jones approved a revised schematic design of the Library after the first schematics were rejected by the MBLC.
This proposal will require demolishing the entire 1993 addition, replacing that square footage and adding 17,000 sq. ft. for a total of 35,800 sq. ft. of new construction. The historic 1928 L-shaped original building will be “renovated” by relocating most interior walls and removing most staircases and fireplaces. Some original woodworking might be reused. The total proposed square footage will be 65,000 sq. ft.
2) As per the request of Town Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), the Jones completed an estimate through Kuhn-Riddle Architects to repair and make accessible the existing Library without any changes in the current configuration; there has been no analysis of space reorganization and efficiency.
The Town Council just sent the Jones’ Trustees a memo with questions about the projected effects of the two plans on Library finances and functioning. The draft of the memo, which was approved on January 4 is here.
The Town Council has yet to analyze the Jones Library demolition/expansion project within the context of the Town’s capital projects needs and other capital expenditures. Residents do not yet know if an override would be needed to fund this project and how an override on this proposal might affect the upcoming elementary school project funding.
Treasurer’s Budget Concerns Disregarded
I have attended almost all Library meetings during the pandemic, and it has been alarming to watch the tension which has developed between Treasurer Robert Pam and Director Sharon Sharry. Most Trustees have remained reticent about commenting on many of these interchanges.
Treasurer Pam has been concerned that he receives financial information at the last minute, that information is not always up-to-date, and that neither future short-term nor long-term budget planning is being addressed adequately by the Director and the Trustees.
Director Sharry answers some of the questions, but has deflected many questions with comments such as, “I don’t have the information in front of me,” “I can’t be answering questions daily,” “We discussed that last week,” or complete silence. During one meeting in May, Sharry took herself off line for five minutes “to calm down” but never provided the requested information.
The three meetings between May through July were so fractious that Sharry did not schedule another Budget Committee meeting until November, in spite of Pam’s request, repeated at each Trustee meeting, that a Budget Committee meeting be scheduled as soon as possible.
Although there have been many concerns raised by Pam about various Library financial issues, including the long-term health of the Endowment and the results so far of the Capital Campaign, I will focus on the current operating budget controversy.
Pam has on numerous occasions, including at the December 17 Trustee Meeting, asserted that that the Library needs more than $100,000 in additional funds in the next six months from the Friends of the Jones Library, which is now charged with annual fundraising. The entire Endowment draw for FY21 has already been taken.
Later in that meeting, Director Sharry stated that even though there is “chatter in the community about our budget, all is fine.” She said that the Jones usually takes the entire Endowment draw early and then she asks the Friends for funds as needed. “There is no concern of cash flow. No worries.”
Sharry’s statement is surprising and misleading. First of all, the Friends are still in the process of continuing to fundraise this fiscal year, and a scheduling procedure for reporting and transferring funds from the Friends to the Jones has yet to be developed, even though the MOU was established in 2018. No formal written report of what has been fundraised so far this fiscal year and how much is available to the Jones has been provided.
Secondly, if five full-time Library staffers who retired have not been replaced in the last two years, and the Library is hiring more part-time temporary staff (thereby avoiding paying health insurance benefits that are required for staff who work more than 20 hours a week), then all is not “fine.”
The Library is asking the Town for a $22 million loan. If the Library can’t even be adequately staffed now, then the request for a large loan is a severe cause for worry. Hopefully, the Trustees’ completion of the memo sent from the Town Council will shed light on the future ability of the Library to continue to provide services.
Library Steps Up Transparency
The Jones Library has improved its governance transparency. For the first time, regular monthly Trustee meetings are being recorded. However, as of publication deadline, the last posted Trustee meeting was from August, so it is still difficult for patrons to keep current with Library concerns unless a meeting is watched live.
Library Chats are also being recorded and are up-to-date on postings. These hour-long meetings provide information about aspects of the demolition/expansion project.
The Trustees could increase transparency further by identifying the individuals who comment during Library Chats through the Q and A. Trustee President Austin Sarat or a Trustee designee reads the questions or comments without identifying the speaker. In addition, the public is not given information about the number of online participants.
The Jones has started to provide packets with their agendas, as the Town Council has done since its inception.