This article reports on the portion of the Town Council Meeting of April 5 that dealt with the Jones Library demolition/expansion project. This included a Public Hearing on the Jones project and the vote of the Town Council to borrow money to fund that project. A report on the remainder of the business taken up at the meeting will appear elsewhere in this issue.
Public Hearing on the Proposed Library Demolition and Expansion
The first hour of the Council meeting was devoted to public comment on the proposed library project. . Of the 117 people in the Zoom audience, 22 spoke. All but five spoke in favor of the project. Here are some of the favorable comments.
Todd Holland, an engineer who helped design the net zero R.W.Kern Center at Hampshire college, only the 17th net zero building in the country, praised the design for the new library for its sustainability. He said, even if the design is not perfect, the “only mistake is inaction.”
Retired architect Chris Riddle, who was involved with designing the net zero Hitchcock Center and was a member of the Library’s Sustainability Committee said he was proud of this project and that Amherst should take advantage of the state money available.
Johanna Neumann said she was “so excited about moving all four [capital] projects forward” and that we cannot afford to turn down state money.
Judith Souweine said that the children’s space in the current library is inadequate and there is not enough room for tutoring English language learners.
Northampton resident Sarah Draper who works at the Kern Center said the Jones Library project is a wise investment and can provide an example of making an historic building sustainable.
Amherst author Lisa Lieberman said she spends a lot of time in the library and, over the years, has gotten to know many of the librarians. She felt the new building would help them do their jobs better.
Claudia Pazmany praised the library staff for maintaining programs and services during the pandemic. She had confidence in the plans of the Trustees to create a “true, living building.”
Sarah Eisinger, who serves on the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC), also felt we should trust the professionals who say that the Town can afford all of the capital projects. She said she often brings her four year-old to the library, and they are frequently the only English speakers. The library is a place all members of the community can enjoy
Erica Zekos said that the current building does not serve the town well.
Kristin Wogress was disheartened by the condition of the library when she moved to Town. Her children are excited about net zero prospects of the new design
Laura Drauker, Chair of the Town’s Energy and Climate Action Committee said there are lots of reasons to approve the plan, but sustainability is foremost in her opinion.
David Lithgow said he was grateful to those who had the foresight to build the library in 1928, and felt an obligation to those living in Amherst 50 years from now who will be grateful for this project.
Of those with reservations about the project, former CPAC member Vince O’Connor said that the use of CPA funds in the name of historic preservation for this project was not appropriate. He was concerned about the library not having enough staff and funds for the branch libraries after the renovation. He also said that, over the years, he has brought eight to ten children of color to the Children’s Room, He found it very welcoming, as did the children.
Carol Gray did not like the “top down process” of the project. She felt that, before the Town spent $20 million on the library, it should do a survey to see which of the needed projects are most important to residents.
Lydia Vernon Jones was dismayed that we are not considering retrofitting the buildings we have for energy efficiency. The Town has not yet heard the goals of the Energy and Climate Action Committee. She said the money needed to meet those goals wlll be larger than any of the proposed major capital projects
Marah Loft said she sees that the library needs expansion but she is dismayed at cost and doesn’t like the design. She also said “The manipulation of statistics makes me uncomfortable” such as overestimating the population of Amherst. She said she was a volunteer ELL teacher for several years and never had any trouble finding space at the library.
Jeff Lee was troubled by the need of the Library Trustees to spend thousands of dollars to hire a PR firm. He wondered how many of the comments spoken at this meeting were generated by that firm
Councilors Pam and Steinberg Deny Conflicts of Interest
Before the Council discussed the proposed library project, Councilors Dorothy Pam (District 3) and Andy Steinberg (at large) read statements attesting that they could fairly deliberate and vote on the project. Pam’s husband, Bob Pam, is Treasurer of the Jones Library Trustees, and Steinberg’s wife works as a part-time hourly employee at the library. Both filed affidavits with the State Ethics Board saying they had no financial gain or loss riding on their vote.
Finance Committee Evaluated The Budget For The Project
The Finance Committee spent several meetings reviewing the documents submitted by the Jones Trustees: regarding the funding of the project (see here and here).
As noted in the Indy’s report on the finance committee meeting, the committee broke with typical practice and did not include a recommendation about whether to authorize borrowing for the $36.3 million project, but instead, directed Councilors to a 60-page document of information provided by the library team in response to questions from councilors and the public.
Councilors Offer Their Views On The Expansion Prior To Voting
In order to approve the project, the Council had to pass three motions. First, the Council had to vote whether to apply the $1 million CPA grant to the Town’s share of the project or to the library’s fundraising goal of $6.7 million. Then the Council needed to pass the bond to borrow the money needed to pay for the project. The Town would have to take on the full debt for the project of $35.3 million, and the library fundraising would pay back its pledged share without interest when the project was completed. Finally, the Council had to authorize the Town Manager to enter into the Memorandum of Understanding with the library. The motion for borrowing the money for the project required a two-thirds majority.
Nearly every Councilor gave their views on the project.
Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) spoke of Samuel Minot Jones’ vision of the library as more than a place for books, but more of a home for the citizens of Amherst. Now, almost a hundred years later, there is a need for more space for all the programming centered there.
Darcy DuMont (District 5) worried about the financial impact on the Town’s operating budget and other needed projects.
Evan Ross (District 4) said that the project aligns with the Town’s values and social justice goals. The library as it exists is not working for everyone. Those who don’t know English or don’t have technology at home, or don’t have housing rely on the library. “We need to check our privilege.” He said.
Pam stated that the library is the perfect place for the Town to come together after the pandemic. There will even be space for the Civil War tablets in the ground floor meeting room. She said, “let’s take a leap of faith and trust the figures given” for the cost. She also said that the Town will hold the Trustees to their word that if their fundraising falls short, they will not come back to the town to ask for more money.
Steinberg said that when he served on the Joint Capital Planning Committee a few years ago, the needed repairs to the library were raised, but the committee decided not to fund them because of the planned renovation and expansion project. And now is the time to vote on that project.
Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said many members of the Council and the public raised concerns with her about the financial risks of the project. But not doing it is also a risk, she said.
Steve Schreiber (District 4) likened the State grant to a “Cash for Clunkers” program.
Sarah Swartz (District 1) said she was speaking for the middle class. She said the library is the most democratic place in the Town, but her constituents voiced concern about their ability to afford added expenses already, such as the increase in water and sewer fees. She was concerned about people being able to stay in Town due to added fees and taxes.
To that point, Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) said that we need more development to raise more taxes. She said, “The last thing we need is a moratorium.”
Council President, Lynn Griesemer (District 2), spoke in her role as a Councilor. She said she began as a skeptic about the project, but has gradually been won over. However, she insisted that as long as she has any say, there will be no more money for this project from the Town after this vote, and no favoritism shown to the library in the operating budget. The library also cannot come back to CPAC for more money.
The vote for the library to be allowed to apply the $1 million in CPAC money to their fundraising goal passed 10-3 (Schoen, DuMont and Swartz voting no)
The vote to authorize a $35.3M bond (with $6.7 million to be repaid by the Trustees at the completion of the project and $13.8 M to be repaid by the MBLC grant) was 10-2-1 (DuMont and Swartz no, Schoen abstain)
The vote to allow the Town Manager to enter into the 30 year Memorandum of Understanding with the Trustees was 11-2 (DuMont and Swartz voting no)
The Trustees must now finalize the design and the costs of construction to stay within the budget. They will hear if the library receives the $13.8 million grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in July. The financial obligations of the Town are contingent on the Library being awarded that grant.