Finance Committee Mulls Feasibility Of Jones Project

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Finance Committee, September 6, 2022

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Town Councilors: Andy Steinberg (Chair), Lynn Griesemer, Cathy Schoen, Michele Miller, Ellisha Walker

Non-voting members of the Finance Committee: Bernie Kubiak and Bob Hegner. Absent: Matt Holloway

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Sean Mangano (Finance Director), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Jones Library Trustees: Bob Pam (Treasurer), Lee Edwards, and Alex Lefebvre

Also Sharon Sharry (Library Director)

On August 22, the Jones Library trustees discussed updated cost estimates for the library expansion and renovation project. The original cost estimate received in 2021 was $36.3 million, while the new figures ranged from $46.8 to $53.3 million (see  spreadsheets for official estimates). The current estimate, after the trustees agreed on $1.7 million in cost reduction measures, is at least $49.3 million, leaving a budget shortfall of at least $13 million. How this shortfall will be met was the topic discussed at the Finance Committee meeting of September 6. Chair Andy Steinberg stated that the meeting would serve as a learning opportunity to identify information that the Finance Committee will need to make decisions at later meetings. He asked participants to limit themselves to posing questions that would then be answered at future meetings of the Finance Committee and of the Town Council. 

History Of The Jones Library Project
Because six members of the Town Council, including two members of the Finance Committee, were not members of the council during the discussion and April 4, 2021 vote to authorize spending for the renovation and expansion of the Jones Library, Steinberg recommended reviewing the history of the project. 

The April 2021 vote approved borrowing of $35,279,200 for the total cost. Of that amount, $13, 871,314 would come from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), $1 million from Amherst’s Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding, $15,751,810 from the town, and $5,656,576 that would be raised by the library. (See also here.) If the fundraising effort did not reach this goal, the library contribution was guaranteed to be paid from the library’s endowment. Because the trustees and library director have wanted the project for many years, they had deferred a significant amount of maintenance over those years. Cathy Schoen (District 1) pointed out that half of the budgeted expense for furnishings had already been cut from the original cost estimate, although Library Director Sharon Sharry said she could not recall if this was the case. 

The Jones treasurer, Bob Pam, noted that the trustees have been working on this plan for about ten years, and  it took several years to reach the top of the MBLC grant list. He said that the trustees had originally hoped construction would take place in 2019.

At the request of the Joint Capital Planning Committee, the local architectural firm Kuhn and Riddle estimated the cost of repairing the existing building to make it ADA compatible and to update needed systems and interior and exterior features. The repair estimate was $14.4 to $16.8 million, approximately equal to the town’s share of the current project and, as  Schoen pointed out, did not include $1 million in CPA funds that had been awarded to fix the HVAC system in Special Collections. Applied to the estimate for repair, that amount would  lower the cost to the town to $13.4 million. However, Jones Trustee Alex Lefebvre said that the Kuhn, Riddle estimate was meant to meet the library’s critical needs and was not a fully developed plan.

If the expansion project proceeds, it will soon require payment of approximately $1.5 million to the architects and the Owners’ Project Manager (OPM) for a detailed design, which is necessary so that construction bids can be obtained in the summer of 2023. Trustee Lee Edwards suggested that the trustees could bear that cost, but Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that would require a formal vote by the trustees. Otherwise, the town would be fully responsible for those costs.

Finance Committee Poses Questions For The Trustees
Councilor Lynn Griesemer (District 2) prepared a draft of questions about the project to be answered by the trustees, and asked for comments and suggestions from Finance Committee members. The questions involved construction costs, fundraising, the library endowment, historic tax credits, and renovation only, as opposed to the larger project now being planned. 

Michele Miller (District 1) asked about the current state of fundraising, but Griesemer said that the purpose of this meeting was to pose questions to the trustees and that their answers would be discussed at a later date. Ellisha Walker (at large) asked who would be responsible for the deficit if the trustees do not meet their fundraising goals and the library’s endowment is not sufficient. Bockelman said the town would be responsible for the shortfall in that case, but added, “We’re having this conversation now so we can have a good funding plan in place before we decide to go forward with the project.”

Finance Director Sean Mangano said that the MBLC has disbursed about $2.7 million, which is in an interest-bearing account. If the project does not proceed, that money will need to be returned to the state with the interest accrued. Nonvoting Finance Committee member Bob Hegner asked about savings that would result from reducing the EUI (Energy Use Intensity) (for example from the required 29 to 35). He asked if relaxing the requirement by say, 10% could result in significant savings. But Schoen pointed out that the savings in construction might  be offset by increased operating costs with less efficiency. Schoen also asked whether the design engineering cuts proposed by the OPM  and accepted by the trustees could jeopardize anticipated historic preservation credits that the library hoped to receive. 

Walker and Miller worried about the effects the increased costs of the library project will have on the town’s capital plan and on the library’s annual operating budget. Walker asked for an updated analysis of the capital plan incorporating the increased library costs. Miller warned about making piecemeal decisions without regard to their effects on other priorities of the town. She also wanted to know who would be responsible for repairs to the library if the project does not go forward, and advocated for more communication with the public.

Comments From Other Councilors
In public comment, Dorothy Pam (Councilor, District 3) said that the MBLC grant was like a “corset” limiting the town’s options about various aspects of the project, including the size. The grant was based on a library to serve 51,000 people, due to what was written on the application, but the town’s population including students is under 40,000 and there are only 19,000 library card holders. She wanted to know if we could come back with more realistic user numbers and get approved for a smaller footprint.  She cautioned against depleting the library endowment to cover costs, and suggested returning the $13 million grant and more thoroughly exploring repair of the library. 

Shalini Bahl-Milne (Councilor District 5) wanted to know if the town manager alone can increase the town’s contribution or if that has to be voted on by the council. She urged the town to move ahead with speed and suggested that it  explore other sources of funding because delays will further increase costs.

Ana Devlin Gauther (Councilor District 5) agreed that it is important to explore all available sources of funds and to approach the MBLC again for increased support. She said that all towns are experiencing similar increased costs for capital projects, and that the state should increase its support for projects they deem important.

Schoen warned that the town is also going to our legislators to seek help with the construction of a new elementary school.  She asked, if we ask our representatives to help us find more money for the library “are we dipping into the same pool as for the school? Could one ask undermine the other?”

The library costs will be discussed at the Monday, September 12 Town Council meeting and again at the Finance Committee meeting at 3 p.m. on September 13. 

Cost Estimates For Jones Library Expansion/Demolition Project

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