Opinion: Why I Support The Library Expansion

Architects rendering of the proposed renovated Jones Library. Feingold Alexander Architects. Photo: Jones Library

Robert Pam

The big question for Amherst residents this year is its proposed library renovation and expansion. I have tried to stay out of the arguments, but I can’t because facts about it are not understood. I support it because while the Jones Library serves most adults in Amherst well, the building suffers many physical weaknesses, faces near-term system failures, and doesn’t meet all Amherst’s current and future needs — for children and youth, for those with less education and ESL learners, and for those who want and need print, media or internet access. My focus is on timing and finances, which I understand best.

Why Move On This Project Now?
A major repair and/or expansion requires years to plan, design, hire necessary supervision and carry out. The building systems are at the end of their lives, and some are failing now. Carrying out emergency repairs are expensive and disruptive. So it is better to act in an organized fashion. 

Staff and patrons alike suffer now from outmoded equipment that doesn’t manage room temperatures well, from leaking equipment and skylights, a layout that limits staff oversight and the full use of space, the lack of a first-floor bathroom. Smaller renovations would solve some problems, but I am told that “greening” the HVAC systems and controls, and insulating the building (which is a prerequisite) would be more expensive to local taxpayers than this plan, and there still wouldn’t be space to meet our patrons’ needs. If this project is rejected, I don’t believe any plan for repairs will be seriously considered until all the other capital projects are completed and their costs set. We have the state grant now, but don’t expect another modernization opportunity for 10 years.

What Will This Project Cost?
The state requires the town to commit the total cost of $36 million to ensure that the project will be carried out. That is the language of the Council resolution. The language on the ballot references this amount, of which $13.9 million will come from the Commonwealth if we proceed. The next $6.6 million is pledged by the Library. The Town Council approved the town’s portion of the costs and the town Finance Director calculated that the town’s $15.8 million share can be financed without additional taxes. 

Where Will The Library’s Pledge Come From?
It consists of several parts: the $1 million that CPAC approved to move the Special Collection of Amherst historic materials into a renovated and climate-controlled space in the lower level of the 1928 portion of the building. It is now in the 1990s portion where a failing and leaking air control system has endangered the collection.  

Over $1.6 million more will come from the sale of historic preservation tax credits to investors once the project is completed; I understand this is a stable market which we can depend upon. 

We hope to also qualify for a cultural grant at a scale like those received by the Hitchcock Center and the Amherst Cinema — over half a million dollars. 

We expect that to leave $3 million plus to be raised locally, of which over $1 million is already pledged. Institutional donors have indicated interest, but are waiting for the final approval. We expect to raise our pledge within five years, like the length of the Hitchcock Center and Amherst Cinema capital campaigns. I am confident that the Library will fulfill its obligation. I have also considered scenarios where our endowment must cover a fundraising shortfall, and concluded that the endowment can continue to sustain library services. 

The town-library agreement calls for the Library to pay everything we raise annually and a final payment once a certificate of occupancy is given. The town will front some costs when the progress payments from the state don’t cover the construction costs, but will pay only its agreed share once the project is completed. Our long-term supporters organization, the Friends of the Jones Library, has taken on the task of raising the Library share. 

The town will therefore have to spend $15.8 million, although the State requires the town commitment to all of it, as the Council voted and as is now shown on the ballot question. The costs will be financed with a bond, just as major renovations to a house would be financed with a mortgage. Amherst has a very good credit rating, and if borrowed now the rate would be near 2%. That means that the financing costs over 20 years would be around $4 million — not a small amount, but not equal to the state grant (as opponents have claimed), and roughly the same as if only repairs are done. The annual cost to taxpayers would be around $1 million, which is about 10% of the capital portion of the town budget. Funding this project does not require a tax increase. It is a major and worthy investment in the future of the town and its people.

What Is The Effect On The Library Budget And Operations?
The Jones functions on two levels. We are first the town library, so our board is elected by town voters and we obey the laws applicable to government entities. We are also a not-for-profit corporation, so we are audited and file reports with the state as such. As a nonprofit we can sell tax credits and raise money. For a century the town has benefited from this structure, and it allows us to receive gifts that, when substantial, we invest in our endowment, and use the earnings to support our daily services. 

For eight years I have been the Treasurer on the Board of Trustees and Chair of its budget and investment committees. We invest our endowment —- gifts made to the library over its 100-year life —- and each year draw funds from it for operating expenses — books and subscriptions; heat, power, insurance, and maintenance. Endowment earnings cover our withdrawals and grow over time. Our policy is to annually draw 4% of its 3-year average value, and this year the endowment exceeded $9 million for the first time. Past years show we can maintain services with an average value that exceeds $7 million. The formula will still protect services even if the value dips below $7 million.

Our budget reports all income and expenditures. The staff are town employees, so they are reported as both income and expense and represent nearly three fourths of our budget. The project will not affect this — the town has been clear that it does not plan to change its allocation before, during, or after construction is completed. We qualify for an annual state grant and for participation in the interlibrary loan system, and that will continue as long as we maintain our services, our open hours, and our spending on our book and media collections, so all of these must continue. The balance of our income consists of our annual fundraising, gifts, and grants, and our draw from the endowment. The Library is deeply appreciative of the work of the Friends of the Jones Library System, which has become the administrator of all of our annual and capital campaign fundraising. Through the Friends’ work, the amount raised has grown, and they fund much of our programming: to children and youth, reading groups, outreach efforts, and much more. The balance, about half of the non-staff costs, comes from the endowment.

Is The Plan Too Large?
I believe (and other libraries have found) that small and unpleasant spaces limit usage, so more and better space will bring more tutors, more community room use, more young people into the building. The library is one reason more visitors will come to Amherst and spend time (and money) downtown. We want kids to spend afternoons here, for parents to bring small children, and for all people to be confident they can access the internet for job searches, research or other uses. We will move the staff to decent work spaces that give patrons more of the beautiful rooms in the building. From a broad perspective, Amherst needs this as part of a strategy to attract and hold on to families with children and sustain the quality of its schools. I remember as a 10-year-old boy, how my library in Brownsville, Brooklyn allowed me a joy and freedom that my neighborhood did not encourage. 

What About The Design?
I think the design has improved greatly since we began. We have totally rethought the environmental components of the project. It is now brighter, friendlier, more sustainable, less costly to operate, and will be a more historically sensitive building. Skylights will make the second floor feel like the atrium and a broad stairway will bring daylight to the first floor as well. The renovation will preserve and open more of the historic rooms to the public, not eliminate them. Although most major components of the future Jones are settled, many specifics will be decided over the next year. 

I have submitted my comments and suggestions, and if readers have ideas about how to improve the design shown on the Jones and town websites, send them now as design work continues. Forums will be held once the town-managed Library Building Committee begins its work.

Finally, the Jones has been a unifier in Amherst — virtually everyone likes the Jones and the branch libraries, and particularly the staff and the services they provide. I hope that disagreements about this project will not change that basic fact. I will continue to respect people who disagree with me, and I hope that this does not become a wedge issue.

I believe a better library is affordable and will benefit the town. Please support this effort and vote for this project on November 2.

Robert Pam is treasurer of the Jones Library Trustees

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