The Jones Library Trustees are trying to convince us that if we don’t agree to their excessive and unnecessary plan, developed in a silo and locked into place with no room to compromise, we will throw away free money for a chance we will never have again. This is the same scare tactic that was used to try to try force through the previous controversial school building project. Then, an unwillingness by the School Committee to compromise and pivot to a plan that would have succeeded did result in a delay in addressing the needs of two of our schools. But it was not the decades they direly warned, but less than 5 years. Amherst was accepted back into the state funding pipeline on our second try, as soon as we demonstrated that we actually had an idea of what we wanted. Most importantly, the building that will result will be far superior environmentally and has the potential to enjoy the broad support its predecessor never could.
We are now hearing the same things: stubborn adherence to a controversial plan, a refusal to acknowledge any flaws, misleading propaganda and suspect claims of its merits, too large a project, warnings that “we’ll never have this chance again,” and an aggressive, divisive, threatening stance that if you don’t support it, you are a bad person.
These are simply not true.
There is a high cost to pay for this refusal to accept reality. By the Town’s own calculations, if we proceed with the proposed plan the Town’s operating budgets will be subject to significant restrictions. Cuts to staffing and programming will be routine as we shift tax dollars away from people and toward an oversized building project. Accomplishing anything other than the “four major capital projects” will be unlikely any time soon. We already face a perennial 2.5% property tax increase, an impending debt exclusion override for the school project, and higher utilities bills to pay for water and sewer projects. Residents may very well be subject to a second tax override if the library project fails to stay within its budget. The “financial plan” also requires the Town to commit a larger portion of the tax levy to capital funding (10.5%) for many years than it has ever been able to achieve.
It took half a century to get into this mess. To even consider that we can get out of it in a five year whirlwind of nearly $100 million of spending in the midst of a pandemic is beyond folly. Suggesting that the Town is even capable of properly overseeing four massive building projects simultaneously is an empty campaign promise.
There is another path.
Prioritize the building projects that are essential to the safety and well-being of residents: the schools, the fire station, and public works. Make real progress in addressing our road and sidewalk needs. Conduct proper oversight of these projects and keep budgets from ballooning for extravagant expenditures (e.g., a $400,000 book sorter). Insist on more modest projects that make climate action central to design decisions. Invest in human resources and community needs as identified by the community, including the full recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group.
And yes, reject the proposed 65,000 sq ft library demolition/expansion project and develop a plan whose scope is more in keeping with the needs and capacity of the Town. The library project should also be subject to the newly embraced, and long overdue, notion that building designs should conform to budget caps. The programming that had been proposed for the project can be provided at facilities we already own: the current and future school buildings, the branch libraries, the Bang’s Community Center, etc. Complete the most urgent repairs of the Jones Library now. Go back to the MBLC with a properly scaled proposal, shaving at least 15,000 square feet and $15 million off, and proceed with that project after the more pressing needs of the residents have been met and without putting ourselves onto dangerous financial ground by biting off more than we can chew.