Council Discusses Options For Moving Forward With Jones Expansion Project

Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council,  September 12, 2022, Part 1

This meeting was held in Town Hall and on Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here

Present
In Town Hall:  President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Andy Steinberg (at large), Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Remote participation:  Ellisha Walker (at large), Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Fourteen people were in the audience, but none offered a comment during the comment period

Councilors Air Views On Increased Costs Projected For Jones Library Project
Even after substantial design cuts, cost estimates for the planned expansion and renovation of the Jones Library have risen by between  $10 and $17 million since the council and voters approved borrowing for the project in 2021 . The Jones trustees have voted 5-1 to proceed with the project, but the town, a major source of the funding, needs to decide if it concurs and if it is willing to undertake more borrowing to support the project.

Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) noted that the council is still gathering information from the trustees about how the library plans to meet the increased costs. A series of questions to the trustees were posed at the Finance Committee meeting on September 6; responses to those questions will be discussed at the Finance Committee meeting on September 13. The council discussion will continue on September 19.

 No decision was made at this meeting.

To start the discussion, Griesemer and Finance Director Sean Mangano gave a brief history of the project and the increased cost. Without increasing the town’s contribution, now set at $15.8 million, the Jones trustees will have to raise over $15 million, as opposed to the $5.7 million pledged  in the original memorandum of understanding. Actual construction bids will not be submitted until summer 2023 after the detailed  final design is prepared.. An estimated $1.4 million will need to be paid to the architects and owners’ project manager (OPM) for the detailed design.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that, in order to proceed with the project, changes to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)  between the town and the Jones trustees will be necessary.  The council authorized him to negotiate the new MOU which then must be approved by the council.  Bockleman said It was  unclear what changes needed to be included in the new MOU adding that he will keep the council informed. The existing MOU states that any shortfalls in fundraising will be covered by the library’s endowment (now valued at $8.2 million) within five years after completion of the project.  The Trustees have now taken that offer off of the table. 

The most uncritical support for proceeding with the project was voiced by Councilors Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne from District 5 and Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large). Devlin Gauthier said that because the trustees are responsible for the endowment,  they can decide how to use it even if that means using the entire endowment for the project. “We should not decide that for them,” she said.

But Cathy Schoen (District 1) noted that the endowment contributes about 12% of the operating costs of the library, with a 4% yearly draw. Jones Treasurer Bob Pam pointed out that although the endowment could tolerate a contribution of $2 million toward the construction, any more than that would leave a significant hole in the library’s operating costs. He also pointed out that depleting the endowment could endanger the Jones’ state aid, which  requires the library to  spend a certain amount of money on materials. 

Hanneke said that 65% of Amherst residents supported the project in a November 2021 vote and that the trustees are willing to pay the estimated $1.4 million necessary to prepare the project for construction bids, so the new MOU will “keep the town whole”.

Bahl-Milne said  that although proceeding would be a risky decision for the town to make, starting over would increase costs, and the costs for only doing repairs have probably increased too.  She concluded that the town should trust the experienced  fundraisers  to raise money for the expansion. Griesemer thanked her for her comments and noted that the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners recently opened a new round of funding opportunities and 40 communities are interested.

Several Councilors Point To Dangers Of Proceeding
Dorothy Pam (District 3) wondered, “Who is the OPM [representing] the taxpayers of Amherst? The town is being led on and on, until we’ll  be told we can’t turn back.” She also emphasized that other much-needed town projects are threatened by the project as it now stands and that the past vote and MOU included specific spending amounts (that are now moot). The town should not assume that the public would approve a vastly more expensive project. Jennifer Taub (District 3) agreed, pointing out that the council should not delay the decision on the project  “until the train has left the station.” 

Ellisha Walker (at large) asked if proceeding with the project is a responsible decision to make in light of other responsibilities, including four firefighters whose service is currently funded with ARPA funds that will expire in 2026 and the increases in funding that will probably be required for the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and the CRESS program. She encouraged the council to think of worst-case scenarios if the trustees  are unable to meet their fundraising goals. Schoen worried that the library would shift funding  for some of the project to the town via the Joint Capital Planning Committee.

Pam Rooney (District 4) noted that any shortfall in fundraising for the project is likely to impact the library’s operating budget and that the previously projected costs of all of the capital projects planned by the town  will probably require additional money.   The new elementary school is the most important of the projects, she emphasized, and she doesn’t want increased borrowing for the library to hinder the town’s ability to borrow for the elementary school. Rooney encouraged the town to use the estimated nine months before the bids for the library renovation are received to re-explore the costs and feasibility of a repair and renovation to the building. 

Many Uncertainties Remain
Several councilors expressed frustration about the  many uncertainties that continue to plague the project. Michele Miller (District 1) noted that the Jones trustees’ meeting conflicted with the council meeting, so councilors do not know the trustees’ updated information and decisions. She suggested that the chair of the Finance Committee meet with the president of the trustees prior to the 3:30 Finance Committee meeting the next day (September 13). 

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said she was unsure whether the town should proceed with the library’s plans and was trying to understand what is at risk if the project goes ahead. She worried that the town will lock itself into building a grandiose library, but will have little money left for a firehouse and DPW.

Anika Lopes (District 4), who is on the Jones Library Building Committee, said she wants the town to have the facts about the project and not rely on personal opinions to make the best decision for the town.

Andy Steinberg (at large) said the library had originally decided only to repair serious deficiencies when the project was first planned, and  that if this project does not go forward, the town will have to pay for all of its deferred maintenance in addition to  new accessibility requirements. He blamed the MBLC for not allowing significant changes in size and programming of approved applications, which  would make the project more affordable, and in its funding amounts to offset increased construction costs. He said he could not guess how Amherst voters would respond to the project’s increased costs.

Griesemer informed the council that State Senator Jo Comerford and Representative Mindy Domb are very interested in the shortfall in MBLC funding throughout the state, and had told her and the library director, Sharon Sharry, that  they are trying to form a coalition with other towns whose applications had been approved by the MBLC before costs had increased. She said three of 14 libraries facing shortfalls are in Comerford’s district.

Devlin Gauthier said that the town will need to spend money on the library whether it accepts the MBLC grant or decides to repair the current building. She did not believe that the trustees would pledge the entire library endowment “without having a plan” to cover operating expenses. She stressed that the town needs to present a strong, united front, and said that Amherst should join with other towns to advocate for more financial support from the state.

Griesemer noted that the purpose of the discussion at this Town Council meeting is to gather more questions for the trustees to answer, and said that the trustees’ responses will be discussed at the September 19 council meeting.

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2 thoughts on “Council Discusses Options For Moving Forward With Jones Expansion Project

  1. State funding is definitely from tax-payer money. There is no “check box here” for worthy projects, and that is why we all paid for the Big Dig..in Boston…where we don’t live.

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