Amherst Residents Seek Referendum On Borrowing For Jones Library Expansion

Photo: Clipart-library.com

A group of Amherst residents is using the Voter Veto provision of the Town’s Charter in an attempt to overturn a recent Town Council vote to borrow $35.8 million for an expansion of the Jones Library.

The “Voter Veto” is a provision of Amherst’s Town Charter (Section 8.4) that has not yet  been attempted.  If 5% of Amherst‘s registered voters sign a petition to overturn a Town Council vote within two weeks of that vote, the Town Council must reconsider its vote at its next regular Town Council meeting.  And, if the vote on that measure is not repealed, the Town Council must provide for the submission of the question of whether Amherst should approve the matter for a determination by the voters either at a special election or at the next regular Town election, with the date to be determined by the Town Council. In order to initiate the veto process for the library borrowing,  the organizers will need to collect at least 853 signatures from registered Amherst voters by April 19.

The petition drive is being organized by Vincent O’Connor and Carol Gray

The petitioners are collecting only “hard” signatures, that is, there will be no online petition to sign.

The petitioners  say they are undertaking this action because:

  • Amherst has more urgent capital projects: Replacing Fort River & Wildwood Elementary Schools, building a new Fire Station, and a new Department of Public Works facility are critical needs which stand to improve day-to-day life in Amherst and improve public safety. 
  • Amherst officials plan to ask residents to vote for a tax increase to pay for upcoming school construction even though Amherst’s tax rate is among the highest in the state. Funds that Amherst plans to use to expand the Jones expansion could instead be put toward school construction, lessening the need to borrow and raise taxes.
  • Major reconstruction of the Jones Library is unnecessary, and plans for smaller-scale targeted improvements could be adopted. 
  • High property taxes are making Amherst a difficult place to live for all but the wealthy.  About 28 percent of Amherst residents were living below the poverty line in 2019.

Copies of the petition can be found here. 

For more information Conract Carol Gray at at carolgray_2000@yahoo.com

The wording of the petition follows:

To the .Amherst Town Council:  Pursuant to Section 8.4: Voter Veto Procedures of the Amherst Home Rule Charter of 2017, we, the undersigned registered Amherst voters, protest the April 5, 2021 Amherst Town Council vote to adopt Council Order FY21- 06C to “appropriate $35,279.700 for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, and to meet this appropriation, authorize the Treasurer, with the approval of the Town Manager, to borrow said amount…which borrowing shall be reduced to the extent of any grants received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, funds received from The Jones Library, Incorporated in an amount no less than $5,656,576 which [is] in addition to the $1,000,000 previously appropriated under the Community Preservation Act…” In accordance with Section 8.4, we request the Town Council reconsider its vote for this project at its next regular Town Council meeting, and, if the vote on that measure is not repealed, that the Town Council provide for the submission of the question of whether Amherst should approve this project, including the $35.279.700 of borrowing, for a determination by the voters either at a special election or at the next regular Town election.

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24 thoughts on “Amherst Residents Seek Referendum On Borrowing For Jones Library Expansion

  1. I would hope that some portion of the regular readership of this website might want to reflect on the long-term destructive political impact of this particular petition effort, if it is successful, and immediately begins costing the Town, and potentially the Jones, additional money. If there is going to be long-term coalition building on certain town-wide initiatives, including sustainability, affordable housing, improvements to town policing, better town-gown relations, how will this effort affect those? Is anyone at Amherst Indy thinking strategically about the bigger political picture in town? If one acknowledges that there has been a huge amount of planning, hoping, and dreaming that has gone into this project thus far, by people who love the Town as much as you do, how will an effort to short-circuit it now enhance the capacity of residents to talk with each other further into this decade? This appears to me to be another instance of “we are right; therefore whatever we do is right.” Let me suggest that life, including political life, doesn’t work that way. I have been told we have to “move on” from the forfeiting of $34 million dollars in state aid in 2017, that it is not relevant to what is happening in town today. Since this petition effort necessarily involves forfeiting yet another $14 million in state aid, paid into by Amherst residents through their income and sales taxes, and moving their money AGAIN to some other town or city, it does seem to be a reminder that the leaders of this effort are more interested in winning an argument, no matter what the cost, than in protecting the buying power of town property taxpayers. Consider this a gentle attempt to seek some soul-searching at this juncture, at least from some portion of the readership here, given that this website claims to be concerned about the future of the Town. I assume that professed caring includes the emergence of working political majorities in the future on certain town initiatives.

  2. Richard, the story you refer to is a news story, not an opinion supporting the petition. The Gazette did a story on this earlier in the week. The Indy and other sources have reported on the problems with this project and attempted to raise them with the Trustees and the Council. Despite this, and with many questions remaining unanswered, the Town Council voted to proceed with this project. I accept their decision. I hope we will not need to say “we told you so” if one of the many potential pitfalls (cost overruns, failure to reach fundraising goals, impact on other capital projects and town and library operating budgets) come to be. We will hopefully have a beautiful library, but what will we lose? I don’t personally support the petition but I am disappointed that the Council is not a better steward of our money. A smaller project would have been much more acceptable.

  3. We don’t need the Taj Mahal or a Ritz Carlton to fix the problems of the Jones library nor do we need to eviscerate the hand-carved interior woodwork. We don’t need to tear down the whole 1993 addition to fix the failed from the onset atrium roof. The Trustees should have had more public input BEFORE the grant application was submitted. And, with the escalation in the price of construction materials (55% for wood alone!) during the pandemic, I seriously doubt that this is the plan that will be built–the size will have to be cut to meet the budget.

    I keep marveling that Hadley got an adequate, attractive North Fire Station, a beautiful senior center AND a library for just about the same cost to the Town as the Jones Library addition, less than $22,000,000 and their permanent population is not much smaller than ours. How can our town ever entice the middle class to buy a home here given our ever-increasing taxes.

  4. I really appreciate Maura’s comments.
    The Town’s cost will be about $255/sq. ft.*, hardly the Taj Mahal. ($16million/63,000)
    I think we all wish that the Town/Jones leadership in the 1980’s had planned for a building designed to last longer than 20 years and/or had planned for the next addition. we can’t go back in time. This is from a hearing in the 1989s regarding the 1993 addition:
    “Mark Mitchell, architect for the Jones Library, made a presentation at the first hearing on August 24, 1989. He explained that the concept and plan for enlarging the Jones Library was developed by studying the current operation and by analyzing the future needs of the Library. From this analysis, it was determined that an 18,000‑square‑foot addition would be needed to serve the long‑term (20 years) needs of the Library adequately.”
    As Bob Pam has noted, an overturned vote will not lead to the renovation of the Jones, in the same way the failed school vote did not lead to renovated schools.

  5. One of the aspects of this renovation that most disturbs residents is the demolition of the 1990s addition, which cost the town some $20 million — and the loss of the library’s Bierstadt painting, which was sold to partially fund it. I believe that the debt for this project was just paid off within the last 10 years. This addition is the only part of the library that is ADA compliant, and it is not in deteriorated condition. Lee Edwards stood before Town Meeting and proclaimed that the addition must go because it had come to the end of its life cycle, and that we needed “buildings for the 21st century.” To claim that multi-million dollar municipal projects only have a life span of some two or three decades reveals problems of thinking and of planning: If one of your principal arguments for a project is that it is not new and therefore must be demolished, that means that your other arguments are likely not good enough to justify what you want to do; if you accept projects that indeed have such a short life span, that means that your planning is not long term, and that you will be caught in an endless cycle of demolition and rebuilding, thus bleeding your taxpayers dry, even as their own houses fall down around them.

  6. Serious question – how do we reduce our tax rate?? I don’t pretend to know the answer but that seems like the more important thing to tackle here. Just fighting against projects because taxes are high can’t possibly be the best way forward. What is the end game, freeze Amherst as is? We already know our taxes are too high and that approach would do nothing to lower them, plus it makes Amherst less livable by not provide the same services as neighboring town. The same argument was made against the school buildings in 2016- that it was too expensive and taxes are already too high. 5 years later my taxes have not gone down, we have no new school, and we are still fighting each other tooth and nail to stall progress instead of coming together to address the root issues. It is exhausting.

  7. The plan for the Jones is well thought out, and, as is quite natural for library projects that receive MBLC grant funding, has only improved with ongoing community input and a very strong team of designers. It will continue to improve too as we enter the design development phase.

    The Town Council has voted decisively in favor of the project and the Library Trustees unanimously support it. Hundreds of residents have voiced their own support, a large majority of those who have expressed an opinion. Most, if not all, of the members of the School Committee are in favor, as is our State Representative and State Senator. Over $ 1.15 million in philanthropic support has already been pledged, and an additional $1 million in CPA support is now dedicated to the project.

    For those who remain skeptical, I urge you to visit, either in-person or virtually, some of the other libraries that have recently experienced a renovation, modernization and/or new building. These facilities are much more patron friendly and useful than outmoded library buildings, such as the Jones, and you will be hard pressed to find anyone in those communities that regret their 21st Century library facilities.

    Go see Holyoke, or West Springfield, or South Hadley, or Athol, or Sunderland, or Chicopee, or Springfield’s new East Forest Park Branch. All of these libraries are serving far more people, in more ways than they ever before. That’s more kids in summer reading and after-school programs, more seniors, more ESL students, more archival users and researchers, more cultural programs, more internet access, and all at operating costs similar to their pre-project operational budgets.

    Finally, it should certainly be noted that new or modernized libraries are just the sort of buildings that attract young families to a community. If we want to reverse declining enrollment in our public schools, a renovated, expanded and patron friendly Jones will be a wonderful addition to our community’s asset base. I can’t wait to see that day.

  8. Apples to oranges: why would anyone use the libraries of Holyoke, Chicopee or Springfield in a statement to justify the Jones library project? That is a non-starter to me.

    Regarding comparables (other “towns”) Hadley, South Hadley, Athol and Sunderland…as I understand, the cost for each of those builds was under $10,000,000. Compare their histories and costs to their towns versus those projected for the Jones.

    I found the story below interesting for a number of reasons. Those for each of the other “town” libraries listed were also worth a read.

    “Space needs planning for the Sunderland Public Library began in the 1990s and a Library Building Committee was formed; the Trustees elected Lorin Starr, Chair” (who later would be chosen by Sharon Sharry to be on the Feasibility and Design Committee for the Jones) … “Sharon Sharry, Sunderland Library Director … a space assessment was done in 1997 followed by schematic design that provided an initial library design based on projected space needs. In 2000, a letter of intent was filed with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) to seek a construction grant. A MBLC first round construction grant for $1,079,272.00 was received and the Town’s share of the matching cost of the new building was approved … a groundbreaking ceremony took place on March 1, 2003 … Library Board of Trustees held their first meeting in the Sunderland Public Library on April 12, 2004.”

    In my lifetime, years of being a library patron or in selecting a community in which to live and raise children, I have never heard anyone state that the library in the community is what drew them, or even mention it on their list (e.g., schools, housing costs, public safety, tax rate, city versus town) as a consideration.

    “Hundreds of residents have voiced their own support, a large majority of those who have expressed an opinion.” I do know that those not in favor of this project have not had the advantage of a public relations firm working for and with them.

    No one that I know is against improvements to the Jones. Many of us just ask that they be done within our means (especially given the other major projects “more desperately“ needed) and with the focus on what the residents need, not what Ms. Sharry, the Trustees, AFA or others want.

  9. “Over $ 1.15 million in philanthropic support has already been pledged….”

    That pitiful figure says it all: if a project like this can barely muster single-digit
    percentage philanthropic support, when more than 5 times that amount was promised by the Library Director and Trusteed, it’s no better than a pig-in-a-poke!

  10. Rob Kusner, you could be the gift that gets the campaign over the top!

    The campaign has really only just begun, and it is impressive that over a million dollars has been raised without the certainty of a project moving ahead.

    If folks are interested in giving, please feel free to reach out. Wonderful opportunities to give in memory or in honor of a loved one.

  11. The esteemed professor Schreiber’s computation of the taxpayer cost per square foot is flawed. Taxpayers are paying for all but six million dollars that the Jones Trustees promised to raise in the next five years. The total cost of the project including interest is closer to 2.5 times the $16,000,000 Prof. Schreiber cites. This assumes the trustees don’t have to dip into the endowment and thus comprising the operationing budget.

  12. Respectfully, Hilda Greenbaum’s comment is misleading. The $13+ million Mass Board of Library Commissioners Construction grant is taxpayer money. However it is from tax payers across the Commonwealth, meaning that we have the opportunity to have folks from throughout this great state contributing to the Jones renovation project. Furthermore, those grant dollars cannot be devoted to anything but library construction. If we turn this grant down then the next community on the MBLC waitlist will gain these dollars to our detriment.

  13. Matt Blumenfeld’s comment that the Jones Library project was “well thought out” is laughable.
    Long before Mr. Blumenfeld’s PR Marketing firm was hired by the Trustees to sell the Jones Library project to the Amherst public, a number of residents, including myself, had begun attending early meetings of Library Trustees on the proposed Library Building project. The Jones project started as a behemoth expansion to 110,000 square feet! The size of the project was eventually scaled back to 65,000 square feet, but even by the time the Jones application reached the MBLC, it had NO green sustainability features (forfeiting over $400,000 in green library funding), included NO historical preservation features and required the loss of the canopy of trees behind the Jones that is the Kinsey Memorial Garden. While we can all appreciate that Mr. Blumenfeld’s job is to market this project, in effect to slant the facts to suit the Trustees’ desired outcome, some of us remember what actually happened.

  14. Ms. Matthews-Nilson is once again mis-characterizing important aspects of the project. With respect to her claim that the library project started out as a “behemoth expansion of 110,000 square feet” – that figure came from a comprehensive space assessment of all departmental needs within the library, prior to having an architect take all of those needs and fitting that within a building program. The architects and the library building design committee spent a great deal of time and effort to figure out where/how efficiencies could be gained (e.g. office and program spaces that would be used for multiple purposes). That process worked and the design evolved for the better.

    Second, the project has always sought to incorporate as much of the historic features of the 1928 building as possible. Indeed, the architects qualifications with respect to historic preservation are substantial. This project will restore and open up much more of the historic building to the public including new reading rooms for adults and greater accessibility for all.

    I will point out, for probably the one hundredth time, that the views I express here are as a resident and taxpayer, and are not paid for in any way by the Jones. I am a proud supporter of the Jones because it is my family’s library. I urge anyone interested in learning more to go to the project page on the Jones website and to contact the Friends of the Jones for information about how you can make a gift or pledge to the campaign.

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