Editor’s Note: This column appeared previously in The Amherst Bulletin.
The Jones Library Trustees are asking the Amherst Town Council to commit to funding their building expansion before the Town has developed its budget for the upcoming year, and with the vast majority of residents unaware of the impact of this decision on their lives.
The model developed by the Town to fund the library expansion calls for several austerity efforts, including cuts to town operating budgets, decreased spending on ongoing capital needs, and restrictions on other major projects. These measures translate into cuts to jobs and services, more delayed road and sidewalk repairs, and the risk that building choices to meet climate goals will be sacrificed in order to keep within budget caps. At the same time, both water and sewer rates are increasing to pay for several utility-related capital projects that have already been approved by the Council. Property taxes will continue to rise and a debt exclusion override for the school project is expected to be on the ballot in a couple of years time, to ask residents to raise their taxes above the allowed 2.5% increase per year. The school project has been identified as the top building priority by both elected and appointed Town officials. The need for a new fire station has been talked about for decades. If the library expansion project ends up costing more than estimated, even more funds will need to be found to cover the difference.
The Council has heard from some animated proponents and opponents of the library project. Some have argued that the expansion project is a social justice issue, citing programming planned for the new spaces. Others have asserted that the increased financial burdens on individuals and families will price many out of town. Still others have pointed to surveys indicating the desire for increased hours and parking, rather than a larger building.
The voices that have been missing from the debate are the very ones who will be most impacted. It is doubtful that they have been silent because they don’t care, and far more likely because they don’t know this is under consideration at all. If you do not spend time on the Town website or attend committee meetings where the details are discussed, and instead have been busy trying to navigate a pandemic and meet the challenges of your daily life, chances are that a multimillion dollar project for a building that hasn’t been open for over a year is the last thing on your mind.
There is a simple remedy for this, at least. The Town could send a postcard to every residence in Town, notifying the public about the impending tax and rate increases, the proposed project and costs, alternative approaches, the impact on other capital projects and the operating budget, and where to go to learn more. It should also let people know that they will not have a direct vote on whether this happens but that they must contact their Town Councilors who will be voting on their behalf. Unless the Councilors ensure that the other 99% of people who live in Amherst are adequately informed and given the opportunity to respond, they can’t claim to represent anyone other than the usual suspects who are also most likely to afford whatever results from their actions.
The Town’s budget must be approved by July and there is currently no deadline for the Library decision. There is no need to rush this decision at this moment – it can and should wait until we understand our current financial situation, have a full and accurate picture of the project’s costs and alternatives, and, most importantly, everyone in Town has been duly notified and given the opportunity to tell their councilors how they feel about it.
Maria Kopicki is an Amherst resident and has served on several building related committees including the Fort River feasibility Study, Crocker Farm feasibility study, and Regional Master Facilities Use Study of the middle and high schools.