The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Manager, Finance Director and Town Council on August 31, 2022
The dramatically higher cost estimates for the Jones Library building project make it financially irresponsible to continue on. We simply cannot afford this project and the state funding agency (MBLC) does not allow us to do the only thing that could get it back under budgetary control – that is, reduce the size of the building.
The previous Town Council took a vote on a promised $36 million project that is now to be replaced by a lesser product that costs $10 to $17 million more. The original design will have to be “value engineered” to reduce cost, but even eliminating some items (wood ceiling, furniture, etc) is not nearly enough to make up the huge difference in cost. Even the optimistic, but not necessarily realistic, assumptions of best case price escalation and lower-end contingencies will not come close to bridging the gap.
The decision of whether to stop now or proceed must first and foremost be a financial one. Do we, or do we not, have the money to pay for the likely cost? The total amount of “secured” funds to date is just under $33 million, including fundraising, the MBLC grant, and the nearly $16 million originally promised by the Town. That total is $10 million short of the lowest cost estimate and $17 million below the upper estimate. The burden is on those responsible for the financial health of the entire town not to compromise other town priorities. We cannot proceed based on best case scenarios or optimistic speculation.
The Library Trustees vote to put up the entire $8+ million endowment to “back-up” whatever can’t be fundraised is both inadequate and unwise. The endowment is used to pay for the library’s portion of operating costs and, even if it were cleaned out, would still leave the town several million dollars short of what is needed. The reasoning behind the sole dissenting vote by the Trustees’ Treasurer should be heeded: “As the financial officer of the Board I have to say no on this project. The level of risk to both the operations and to the ability to carry it through to the end is greater than I think is appropriate for this board to approve.”
Library Director Sharon Sharry has acknowledged that additional town funds would be required if the costs were anything other than the lowest estimate or if the fundraising and endowment were not sufficient to cover even that figure. She has also suggested that town funds be sought to pay for some of the items that will be cut from the project’s budget. Further, if the Library could not pay its share of operating costs because the endowment is gone, the town would no doubt also be asked to cover those expenses.
When the previous Town Council voted to approve the project last year, Town Council President Lynn Griesemer said, “But I must say, and I want to make sure you hear this message loud and clear. Let me state it without equivocation, that as long as I have anything to say about it, there will be no more money than what we are voting tonight. This is all you get. And, we will not favor you in future operating budgets. The town will not allow cost overruns.” That promise must be kept.
The cost of this library project at this time exceeds our means by several million dollars, possibly tens of millions. Next spring, the townspeople will face a debt exclusion override for an as yet unknown amount at an uncertain interest rate. The placeholders for the cost of the fire station and DPW must surely be reassessed. And the roads, sidewalks, and other capital expenses will continue to require significant funding.
I urge you to withdraw from the current library project now.
Maria Kopicki is a resident of Amherst