By Art and Maura Keene
Last week we argued that the Jones Library Trustees and the Town Council have an obligation to prove that the proposed demolition/expansion project is fiscally responsible.
The four recent public forums/workshops (two on the Jones (see here and here) and two on all of the building projects) were characterized by assurances that the Town can manage financing a new library, school, firehouse, and DPW. But those assurances, unfortunately, lacked substance. Answers to questions from concerned residents were noteworthy for what was omitted or evaded, and they did little to instill confidence in the fiscal soundness of the capital plan.
At the Library sessions there was plenty of testimony about why a new Jones Library is needed, and accolades for the proposed design. But there was not much in the way of confronting lingering questions about the viability of the financing or of the potential adverse impacts on other capital projects. And it was the same story for a long waiting list of proposed capital improvements, such as the community athletic fields, improvements to Crocker Farm School, and necessary road repairs. Would the borrowing for the Library, as proposed, bring further delays in these projects and further deferred maintenance for Town infrastructure? And what about Town operating budgets, which are slated to get skinny for at least two years and maybe more (see here and here)? Do the proposed cuts in the school budget foreshadow similar cuts to other Town departments as the Town tightens its belt to fund four major capital projects? These questions have yet to receive any rigorous and satisfying examination.
There are still far too many uncertainties about what the Jones project will actually cost and what the implications of that project are for meeting other Town needs. We believe that the Council has a fiduciary obligation to clearly address the array of outstanding questions about the project — questions that have been frequently raised but not yet answered fully — before they proceed to approve borrowing for the Jones. We list some of the most pressing unanswered questions below. The list is far from exhaustive. Please feel free to add your own in the Comment/Reply section below.
We agree that the Jones needs attention and that something needs to be done, and we understand the appeal of a new building. Our concern is over how much the proposed Jones demolition/expansion endangers our ability to meet other pressing Town needs.
- What will the Jones demolition/expansion project actually cost? The current estimate of $35.6M with a total obligation of $15.8M for the Town seems highly improbable. That estimate is based on outdated construction estimates, lacks provisions for any historic preservation mitigation that could come out of the Massachusetts Historic Commission’s legally mandated historic preservation review process (for which the Jones Library’s Historic Structures Report, originally due by August 31, 2017, has not yet been completed); might be omitting a 10-12 percent construction contingency (but does include a 10 percent design contingency), jeopardizes Library operations by committing the Endowment to cover any shortfall should the Friends of the Jones fail to raise their $6.66M share of the project costs, and lacks a credible explanation for how a greatly expanded Jones will not require a larger operating budget. We do not have a clear idea of what this project will actually cost but we are told this is generally the case for large municipal projects at this stage of planning and that the project will be brought in line with the cap during the bidding process and that cuts to the project will be made “as needed” to stay within the cap.
- What will be cut if the final design does not fall within the cap? We estimate that the current projected cost is a low ball figure and could be off by several million dollars. What would be cut if corrected estimates come in at 1 or 2 or 5 or 10 million dollars above projection? We fear that it will be the sustainability features for starters. In any case, if the designers are not going to give us a reliable cost estimate prior to the final design and bid stage, we’re entitled to know what is slated to be cut before we commit the funding. At the public forum on March 6, the Owner’s Project Manager said, “Currently we are at a pretty efficient point. There are no known areas to save money.”
- What’s the rush? If the proposed schedule is followed, the Town will not have approved its FY 22 budget when the Council meets to vote on borrowing for the Jones, and residents won’t yet understand the impact that reduced operating budgets will have on Town services. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) grant is anticipated to be awarded in July, and then the Town would have 12 months (6 months + an allowable 6 month extension) to secure funding. So why are the Jones Trustees demanding that the Town make a commitment in April when so much is still uncertain?
- Is the Library the top priority for Amherst residents? Listening sessions in 2019 (which reached only a small portion of residents) showed the Library to be the lowest priority among participants, with the School ranked first and firehouse second. Some residents have asked, “Why not postpone the library decision until after the override vote for the school? If that vote fails, a distinct possibility among COVID-ravaged tax payers, the Town could use the borrowing capacity now being reserved for the Library to help fund the school and perhaps then undertake a more modest Jones repair/renovation. But if the Jones borrowing is approved first and the school override were to fail, it likely means no new school building.
- Why not let the voters decide? The proposed capital spending on these four major projects is considerable, and the burden and the benefits are realized by taxpayers. Why not let them choose which projects should be prioritized? Why not inform them — in a systematic way that would reach all residents — that these important generational decisions are coming up and give them a say? Our water bills will soon go up substantially to pay for the new water treatment plant. Water bills are in addition to property taxes. When calculating what taxpayers will pay for the various capital projects, plus the roads, athletic fields, etc., including the water rates is essential.
- Why is the Jones’ proposal so large? Most libraries in the U. S. average 0.5 to 1.0 sq. ft. per capita. With just 19,000 cardholders at the Jones, the proposed demolition/expansion project, designed for a projected 47,000 Library users will have 61,292 square feet, which is more than three square. feet per cardholder. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) will only approve grants for a “whole Library” plan and not piecemeal improvements. The MBLC analyzes each Library’s unique “Building Program,” the number of square feet for each Library program (e.g.. Youth Services, Young Adult (Teen) Services, Adult Collections, etc.). There is no set requirement for square feet in order to receive a grant. Each Library decides what it needs. As far as we can tell, the Trustees have refused to discuss a more modest and less costly expansion.
- Is a more modest renovation and repair of the Jones possible? What compromises are possible to get us an improved Jones Library but at a lower cost? Why haven’t the Trustees hired a space planner to analyze effective reuse of the current space? The Library’s size is already substantial with the current 48,000 sq. ft. (51,000, if used more efficiently, according to the architects). The Trustees did not want to pursue this. Placing teens in a basement corner might have been avoided all these years if the Library had been analyzed carefully and creatively. Many rooms have been locked and are full of a mishmash of stored materials and unused furniture. We note that the only size requirement for this MBLC grant round was: ”Work which will result in an overall increase in the external dimensions of a public library facility.” 605 CMR 6.02: definition of “addition, Expansion or Extension.”
- Could the Library have renovated the entire current facility, keeping the 1993 addition, and add an expansion in the back and still have received an MBLC grant? This could have been a possibility, but early in the process the Trustees decided that the 1993 handicapped accessible addition did not function well and they had no desire to pursue this option. Their proposal will result in dumping the highest carbon embedded materials, such as concrete, steel, and brick into a landfill, thus flying in the face of the accepted dictum by internationally known Carl Elefante that “the greenest building is the one that is already built.”
In addition to paying for demolition, landfill costs, and possible hazardous materials disposal (the items have not been completely estimated), the cost of replacing the square footage of the 1993 addition is more than $7,440,000, which is 20 percent of the total building proposal.
- What is the risk of the Jones’ fundraising plan on the future of the Library’s Endowment? The Jones Trustees, under the umbrella of the Friends of the Jones, plan to raise and contribute $6,656,000 towards the Town’s $22 million share of the $35.8 million project. If the funds are not raised, the Jones will take out a loan, using its Endowment as collateral. The Endowment pays almost 58 percent of the Library’s share of its operating expenses (13.3 percent of the total operating budget). The Town pays the rest but will not increase its allocation over a 2.5 percent annual increase. Using conservative figures of an $8 million Endowment (currently it is about $9 million) and a fundraising shortfall of $2 million, Trustees Treasurer Bob Pam stated that “it is not an unreasonable bet — but a bet nonetheless.”
Given that the Library has never had adequate funds for capital maintenance and must fundraise over $150,000 a year to meet its operating needs, residents might ponder what will happen if the Library must use the Endowment in this way, and cannot raise enough funds to replenish it for perpetuity.
We also must point out that the Trustees have been arguing that $1 million of CPA funds committed to the Jones project should count toward their pledged fundraising total. These are taxpayer dollars and should Instead count toward the Town’s $15.8 million share. The Town has not (and should not) agree to the Trustee’s claim. Any CPA funds must count toward decreasing the Town’s share (see #10 below).
Also, the Trustees have spent nearly $125K of the Van Steenberg bequest on successive redesigns. So they no longer have the full $273Kto contribute toward their supposed $6.66M share of the costs, as they stated at one of the recent Library forums.
10. What is in the draft Memorandum of Understanding between the Town and the Trustees concerning the latter’s $6,656,000 commitment?
The MOU is still being negotiated between the Trustees, Town Manager Paul Bockelman, and Town Counsel. The Trustees plan to commit to paying the Town the amount listed above, to be provided simultaneously with the final payment from the MBLC. If the Trustees cannot fundraise this amount, they will take a loan out on the Endowment, possibly putting at risk the operating budget of the Library. The Trustees hope that a Memorandum will be completed before the Town Council vote in April. It is not clear how the Trustees would manage payments of principal and interest on such a loan when the endowment is already being tapped aggressively.
A main concern of the Trustees is whether the $1 million Community Preservation Act (CPA) proposed grant for Special Collections will be considered part of the Trustees’ contribution, or will it be considered part of the Town’s commitment, as it was generated through taxation. The Council has not yet voted to approve the CPA grant, and, therefore, has not yet decided who can “claim” the amount as part of its contribution.
11. Does the proposed project threaten the branch libraries? At least one Town Councilor has broached the possibility of closing the branches to help meet costs of the Jones project if construction costs run over budget or if the operating budget for the new building exceeds current projections.
12. Will the Trustees and the Council make a commitment that branch services will not be cut, nor will the branches be closed, after the new building opens?
13. Why can’t the Library invest in mobile services, as well as more hours and staff at the two branches, in order to meet patrons’ requests and meet social justice goals? The Trustees have not discussed examining these services. In the 2015 survey of over 900 patrons, there was not one question about a possible expansion. Most patrons were very pleased with Library services and requested more hours at the branches and more parking spaces, neither of which will occur in this proposal.
14. Is the Library’s operating income “stable,” as Director Sharon Sharry asserts?
The Library is a hybrid public Library. The Town allocation pays for about 77 percent of its operating expenses, and the Jones must provide the rest. Right now, the Library needs to raise $183,000 to meet its operating expenses.Fundraising ebbs and flows.
15. Does the Library have the needed staff now and in the future?
On May 25, Sharry stated at a Trustee meeting that if all three branches were open usual hours, she would not have enough staff. Meanwhile, in order to save paying benefits to anyone who works more than twenty hours a week, the Director has drastically decreased the “over 20 part-timers.” From the 12 staff in this category in FY15, only four are proposed for FY22. Sharry has stated that clear sight lines and better flow will allow the proposed 61,296 sq. ft. library to be staffed with only one additional full-time maintenance person needed.
16. Given the lack of much needed capital maintenance over the last twenty-five years, does the Library have a plan to meet maintenance needs in a new expanded facility? This question was asked at the March 6 forum and was not answered. The Jones has never had the funds to properly maintain the building. For example, only a small part of the Library has had the 30-year-old worn, moldy, and torn carpet replaced. There is peeling paint inside and out. The Library has not even made preserving Special Collections a priority. The room has had leaks four times in as many years, the last leak resulting in significant damage to rare documents.
17. What about the Firehouse? Griesemer has said that we can’t discuss the Firehouse until after we dispense with the Library and the School because grants for those projects will become available first — that the Firehouse will ultimately be the responsibility of a future Council. But the fate of the Firehouse IS linked to financial decisions about the Library and the School. And conditions at the central Fire Station are truly dismal and dangerous. The discussion about options for meeting this need should not be delayed or delinked from current fiscal decisions.
A Possibly Grim Scenario
Let us imagine that the Jones project proceeds as proposed and that there are indeed cost overruns. We have been assured by Council President Greisemer that this simply doesn’t happen in municipal projects in Massachusetts. But we have lived in Massachusetts long enough to remember the Big Dig (198% cost overrun). And two recent construction projects at UMass Boston for a new science center and a classroom building were $28 million and $11 million over budget respectively. And then there is the planned repair of the Centennial Water Plant that started at $7 million and turned into 11 million and then turned into $13 million. So we are not assuaged.
Let’s imagine that the projects run over, or that the Trustees can’t raise their pledged funds or that the operating budget for the new Library proves to be substantially larger than what has been currently estimated. How will those funding deficits be met? Once construction begins, the challenges of reining in the final cost are formidable. What could be cut out mid-project? The project would have to follow through to completion and the Town would then be on the hook for whatever it costs. That added expense could mean more austerity for Town departments, a substantially greater tax increase if we want a new School building, and the likelihood of postponing building a new Firehouse and DPW into the distant future. The branch libraries could be on the chopping block. More maintenance for Town infrastructure could be deferred, imposing greater capital costs unto future generations of Amherst residents. And we might have to wait a lot longer for our already postponed capital improvements — like making our athletic fields usable. Of course this might not happen. All of the numbers may actually align in the end as promised. But the prospect that they won’t is tangible. And hence, it strikes us as highly irresponsible to move forward before we have all of the answers that we need.