by the Progressive Coalition of Amherst Board
This column was previously posted to the Progressive Coalition of Amherst’s Blog on October 12, 2021
The Progressive Coalition of Amherst (PCA) understands that the library building project is a hot topic, and we would like to share our views with the public.
First, however, PCA would like to make clear that it did not use a candidate’s position on this important decision as a litmus test for endorsement. The reasons for this are integral to our mission, which is to have our elected and appointed officials fully reflect our community. We believe that having people who hold a diversity of opinions and perspectives seated together at the tables of power will produce better processes and results. Such dialogues will also bring a more civil, respectful tenor to discourse in our community. People should be able to hold differing or even opposing views, and be able to express them, without fear of demonization or bullying.
PCA is pleased that the important decision about whether to move forward on a nearly $40 million project as the first of the town’s large building projects will be brought to the voters for their opinion. Other municipalities have given voters the right to express their opinion without having to petition and then fight a court battle in order to do so.
As for the building project itself, the PCA Executive Board (although not demanding that its endorsed candidates follow suit) does not support the project as proposed, and encourages people to vote NO. Our reasons are as follows:
The scope of the project is excessive, wasteful, and contrary to climate action goals. We do not believe that increasing the size of the Jones Library by 50% in a town that already has a plethora of first-class libraries (including those at UMass, Hampshire and Amherst Colleges) is necessary or the best use of our limited financial resources. A more modest approach was never studied but could have included making necessary immediate repairs, repurposing interior space, replacing the HVAC system with a fossil-fuel alternative, and improving energy efficiency.
The cost of the project has not been fully or accurately presented. Answers to critical questions (like budget details about the nature and costs of promised enhanced energy efficiency and cost escalations) were never given, even when asked for specifically and directly. The final project cost is likely to exceed the hoped-for total and there is no evidence that the very ambitious fundraising goals are even possible. If their aspirational target of ~$6 million is not met, other projects and sustainability measures for the Jones Library will suffer unless the taxpayers foot the extra bill.
The detrimental financial impacts to our operating budget and other capital needs have largely been glossed over in favor of campaign promises. The town’s financial team admitted that in order to afford this large project, it would have to restrict the operating budget for years to come and shift tax dollars to capital expenses. However, Amherst has never reached the level of capital diversion required, according to the town’s own analysis. In addition, the Jones Library project requires that the fire station and DPW building projects come in at half their original cost estimate from several years ago while also complying with our new net-zero by-laws, a feat that is simply not plausible.
Other, more pressing capital projects should be prioritized and completed first. Our elementary and secondary schools (including athletic fields) have not been properly maintained and require significant investment. Adequate early childhood education also comes with a price tag that we haven’t even begun to explore. Community resources like a BIPOC Cultural Center and Youth Center and a senior center have not even made it onto the to-do list. A proper and safe fire station and Department of Public Works facility have had their theoretical budgets slashed in half but with no explanation of what will be sacrificed. And all this doesn’t even include the chronically underfunded and ever-expanding list of overdue and much needed road and sidewalk repairs.
PCA believes that the framing of the project as a social justice issue is untrue, and worse, manipulative. ADA compliance, ELL and youth programming, internet/computer access do not require an excessively large building. Those in power should stop speaking for individuals and communities that could benefit from additional resources and instead center them in decision-making. These voices were not at the table when plans were being developed. Recent attempts to court interest groups with unsubstantiated campaign promises to lure support are patronizing and misleading.
While it would be great if the current project could be scaled back to address these critical problems, the state funding process does not permit a reduction in scope at this point. Amherst is locked into a 65,000 square foot project to serve 51,000 users (the town has less than half as many fultime residents). In short, the project is excessive and will have a negative impact on other, more important needs. PCA believes it will hurt the ability of working class and lower income residents to afford to live in Amherst and lead to a restricted investment in climate goals and human services.
PCA cannot endorse such a project. We should make immediate, necessary repairs to the building, give the schools and public safety our time and attention to get them done right, and then reassess our financial situation to see what our priorities and needs are next.
PCA does, however, respect that people can have differing opinions on specific issues. The ballot box is a great equalizer and each candidate’s decision on election day will have no more weight than that of every other voter. We hope that the will of the voters will be honored, and if the project passes, we will hope for full transparency about the building process, and ample opportunities for the public to have a voice regarding choices that will need to be made along the way.
Again, the candidates PCA has endorsed have a variety of views on this issue and PCA will not allow a single issue to stand in the way of supporting candidates who can bring diverse and underrepresented perspectives to the seats of power. The only way to improve government decision-making in the future is to have governing bodies which truly reflect the diversity of our Town.
The Progressive Coalition of Amherst believes that our town government should serve the community, including working people, families, and small businesses. Our goal is to help Amherst government become more democratic and diverse. We are a coalition of people who seek significant changes in Amherst, and have a registered, independent Political Action Committee. (Click here to see our homepage translated into Spanish, and here for translation into Chinese. )