by Art and Maura Keene
If you tuned in to the Jones Library Trustees meeting on August 11, you witnessed some stunning contortions of imagination, as those assembled attempted to craft a scenario for how they were going to pay for a library project that has swollen to $14M over budget since the last estimate in March 2022 and with the prospect of even greater cost overruns looming. If you were not there, you can’t review the proceedings other than in the Indy’s or Gazette’s or MassLive’s coverage, as Jones Trustees’ President Austin Sarat ordered that the meeting not be recorded. And so it was not (though the Jones Library Building Committee meeting that took place earlier in the week was recorded).
Sarat’s action bodes poorly for a town that is facing an ominous fiscal climate and increasingly precarious capital plan. It appears that some of the trustees hope to move their project forward quickly and with minimum public scrutiny. Amherst residents would be wise to demand a full public airing of all of the options available to us, including replacing the current project with something more modest and affordable. Residents should demand a realistic and vetted analysis of new cost estimates for the library project, estimates that consider all costs to complete the project (not just the hard construction costs), as well as a new and comprehensive analysis of fiscal risks to the town from assuming more debt. They should demand a full and accessible record of all deliberations and make all data associated with the project (such as detailed breakdown of new cost estimates) available to all members of the public in a timely manner.
We note that the trustees have proposed that to meet the projected $14M budget overrun, they cut $4M from the current library design and then raise the remainder of the overage (initially reported as $8M but closer to $10M) through additional fundraising. Library Director Sharron Sharry was hardly convincing in her assertion that she is confident that they have “a high probability of having $8M in our hands”. For example, she is counting on roughly $1.6M of historic preservation tax credits and this is not at all a sure thing, given the library’s foot dragging in completing its obligatory reporting to the Massachusetts Historic Commission and the extensive impact of demolition on the historic building that the project entails. Sharry is also counting on receiving $2.1M from competitive grants, the receipt of which, she claims, is “highly likely” although “not guaranteed”. Sharry offered no justification for this conclusion and did not take the time to consider contingencies if those grants don’t come through. Meanwhile, the trustees are proposing to raise an additional $8M beyond their original pledge in an increasingly austere philanthropic landscape and with a debt exclusion override for the school project looming. How is that going to work?
The trustees have hedged, saying that they could pledge the totality of the library’s endowment, currently valued at $8.6M, and estimate that a fundraising shortfall might require a payout from the endowment of between $2.6M and $9.1M. It is not clear whether they can legally spend down the entire endowment. And even if they can, the endowment is a vital source of funds for the library’s annual operating budget (contributing over $300,000 annually). So if the endowment is spent down, where will those operating funds come from?
The entire discussion struck us as desperate and untethered, as if the director were pulling numbers out of the air to make the spreadsheet add up. Sharry seemed to give away the game when she said, “The cuts required in the medium- and high-cost scenarios would be unachievable.” “We would need town help,” Sharry also indicated an intention to shift project costs for IT (computers, etc.) to a Joint Capital Planning Committee request which is, in fact, asking the Town to increase its contribution to the project.Town Manager Paul Bockelman signaled at the Town Council Meeting on 8/15 that the “ increased cost will eventually come back to the council for a pretty substantial conversation”. He indicated that he did not think that the endowment would be enough to cover the “incredible cost escalation”.
We believe that the town should not even consider taking on more debt to support this bloated project. We recall that during the discussion for the original borrowing by the town, Town Council President Lynn Griesemer, addressing concerns about escalating costs, promised in April 2021 when the council authorized borrowing $36.3M for the project, that the library “would not get another cent from the town” beyond what the town had then committed. She insisted that “as long as I have 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”, she said.
At this point the options seem limited. The town can forge ahead with the project, with $4M in cuts (Note: the Massachusetts. Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), recently denied a request to reduce the size of the approved project), with the hope that the Friends of the Library can raise at least $14M ($6M originally promised plus $8M of the anticipated $14M budget overrun) and hope that there are no further cost overruns or that costs somehow come down in the year remaining before construction begins. We see no compelling reasons for believing that this scenario is remotely possible. And as the OPM noted, the library that we would get moving forward would be quite different and indeed diminished from the one that was promised. As the trustees and their consultants have noted, the design cuts required may not even pass muster with the MBLC or meet the standards required by the Americans With Disabilities Act. And Amherst residents who were enthusiastic about the library’s planned environmental accommodations may be less sanguine about a project in which many of those features are cut out, resulting in a substantially less environment-friendly building. The latest cost estimates apparently did not reassess the sustainability measures. Trustee Alex Lefebvre pointed out, and Craig DiCarlo confirmed that those estimates were from October of 2020. And the cuts that have been proposed so far may negatively impact the target EUI, which may result in lower incentives from Eversource.
The alternative to awkwardly plunging ahead is to return the roughly $2.7M that the town has already received in grant money from the MBLC, absorb the loss of expenditures already made on planning, design (though some of what was learned in prior studies may be applied to a new project), and marketing, and come back with a much more modest proposal. We have ideas of what such a proposal might look like, as do many others in the community. It would be useful to have genuine, open, and detailed public discussions about what is possible and desirable given the current budgetary challenges. We need to approach the current crisis with an open and imaginative attitude.
We warned nearly a year ago (see also here and here and here) that there was too much magical thinking in the original proposal, too many flimsy assumptions, too much missing information, and too little attention to public outreach. We still worry that the project could become Amherst’s “Big Dig” (a highway and tunnel project in Boston, undertaken from 1991 to 2006, in which project managers repeatedly demanded additional funding, and that ended up being the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, with a 198% cost overrun). We believe that the capriciousness that characterized the original proposal now imperils the fiscal health of our community and could plunge the town into greater debt than it can manage and foreclose the town’s ability to address other capital projects (such as the fire house and DPW) and other pressing needs (like those of seniors and youth). Prior to the release of these new library cost estimates, Finance Director Sean Mangano suggested that the town might need to push construction of a new fire station out to 2032. We now face the possibility of digging a financial hole that might take decades to crawl out of. Town councilors and the town manager rightly expressed concern over the anticipated request for more money from the town. Councilor Dorothy Pam at Monday’s council meeting referred to the existing plan as “fatally flawed”.
We now have an opportunity to do this the right way by coming back and designing a project at a proper scale and in a way that does not disregard all of the other pressing needs in this town. We could submit a new application to the MLBC in December. Let’s talk about it.
Art Keene is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass. He was a town meeting member for 20+ years. He has lived in Amherst since 1982. He is Managing Editor of The Amherst Indy
Maura Keene is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist at Bay State Health Systems. Her four children are graduates of the Amherst schools. She has lived in Amherst since 1982. She is a frequent contributor to The Amherst Indy.