Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, September 19, 2022, Part 1
This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
In the Town Room At Town Hall: President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Andy Steinberg and Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large)
Staff: Dave Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Council Clerk)
Participating remotely: Michele Miller and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), and Ellisha Walker (at large)
Despite this being the first meeting in which the public was allowed to attend in person, no member of the public came to Town Hall. About 19 residents were present on Zoom.
Public Comment On The Library Project
Bob Pam, Treasurer of the Jones trustees, said he believes the risk of the library project makes stopping now the most prudent course. His full comment is included in this week’s Indy.
Ken Rosenthal urged the council to accept the professional advice from the library’s paid planners — that it is not advisable to continue with the project. The town should take the money it would allocate to further the current design and use the same planners to develop a plan for a renovated library on the same footprint.
Laura Draucker said, “I want to respond directly to the comments that Ira Bryck submitted to the Indy, where he said that you should inform yourselves by reading coverage in the Amherst Indy, written by many intelligent and diverse neighbors. Not only is this completely patronizing and condescending to you all, but it is saying the quiet part out loud, that he feels the 18 or so people who, according to their website, regularly contribute to the Indy are more intelligent and their voice should matter more than the 3,231 people in town who voted yes for the library last November. Wouldn’t it be great if Amherst came together and saw this obstacle [increased costs] as an opportunity to fight for more of what we need, an opportunity to fight for state government not to allow towns to bear the brunt of the record-high inflation and supply chain shortages? Why are we responsible for all of that increase? I’m not trying to be naïve — I know this might not work out in the end, but let’s not give up now.”
Discussion Continues Regarding Increased Costs For The Library Expansion
Because the estimated costs for renovating and expanding the Jones Library have increased from $36 million to $46 to $53 million since the initial council vote in April 2021 and the referendum in November 2021, there needs to be a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the library and the town. The town must borrow the entire amount for the project and then will be paid back $13.8M by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) as well as any funds raised by the Jones Library trustees as agreed upon in the MOU. Finance Director Sean Mangano listed the debt service on the higher amount to be borrowed but keeping the town’s contribution stable at $15.7 million.
The Finance Committee initially voted 3-2 on September 13, to recommend that the town proceed with the project. In an effort to achieve unanimity, the trustees proposed to reimburse the town for the additional $1.4 million in design fees that is needed to bring the project to the point at which bids could be obtained, if the town decides the project is too expensive to continue. This compromise garnered the votes of Cathy Schoen (District 1) and Ellisha Walker (at large), who had previously voted against the new MOU. The proposed language states:
“In the event a decision is made not to proceed with the project when the construction bidding process is completed, the Trustees will reimburse the town for the cost incurred in design development and preparing construction documents up to a specified amount or pledge to invest the equivalent of that amount at least for HVAC, roof repairs, and/or other necessary capital improvements at the Jones Library or identify some other means to ensure that the costs to the town are otherwise covered.”
However, at the 9/19 town council meeting, Schoen said she has been losing sleep over the project since the Finance Committee took its vote. She said she abstained on the original April 2021 vote because she worried that the costs in the proposal were underestimated, but she was reassured when Council President Lynn Griesemer said that the library would “not get another dollar from the town” over the $15.7 million stated in the MOU. Now, Schoen admitted, she is ”terrified”, despite the fact that the library trustees remain optimistic that they can raise $16 million to meet the new cost projections. She has also remembered that all of the features being eliminated from the original design to cut costs are the same kind of cost cutting that was done in 1992 and led to the flawed 1993 addition that would now be razed.
This is not the same project that the council and the voters approved (in 2021), she said, and it is also putting the library at risk. “If the town proceeds for another 18 months and then realizes it is too expensive, we will have lost the time and over $2 million, and have no plan to fix the library. Even if the town’s costs are reimbursed by the endowment — it will hurt the endowment and consequently, the function of the library.”
Pam Rooney (District 4) also worried that there would be no alternative plan if the current plan is deemed not to be feasible. She proposed that the council review the estimates again in spring of 2023, at the end of the design development phase, not just when the construction documents are finished in the fall.
Dorothy Pam (District 3) noted that when the votes on the library project were taken by the council and the voters in 2021, specific costs were listed, but now it seems that these costs were based on false premises. She likened the proposal to the Vietnam War, where the country said “we had invested too much to withdraw” or the Challenger space flight incident, where NASA ignored the warnings of its engineers in order to proceed with the well-publicized launch. With the loss of so many features in order to cut costs, she was reminded of the story of “The Emperor Has No Clothes” “[The town] will end up with…not the library we want, not the library we need, and certainly not with the library we can afford.”
Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) told her fellow counselors that the library serves many other purposes besides a place to obtain books. She said it is a warming and cooling place for the unhoused and for when the electric power in town goes out. It sponsors concerts, and rents musical instruments and garden tools. She said she feels it would be disingenuous to go back to the repair plan devised in 2020 because it, too, cost more than previously estimated, and she said that no state money is available for it. She encouraged the town to work “as a partner with the trustees”, stating that there is “little risk” to the town at this time because no additional money is being borrowed.
Jennifer Taub (District 3) agreed with both Schoen and Hanneke, but added that the library can be everything it needs to be in its present footprint. She thought that it would be a heavy lift for the trustees to raise $6M, their earlier goal, and that raising the $17 million needed to meet the new cost estimates is not realistic and not fair to ask of the trustees, especially when the treasurer of the trustees, Bob Pam, strongly advises that proceeding with the project is imprudent.
Trustees Austin Sarat and Alex Lefebvre countered that all of the trustees, not just the treasurer, have an obligation to protect the endowment. They reasoned that the citizens of Amherst had endorsed a vision for the library to meet the needs of the residents, and added that it “cannot be done” in the existing footprint, according to library staff.
Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) said that she was not alive for Vietnam or the Challenger explosion, and that the story of the emperor’s new clothes is fiction, but that she knows of all three because of books she borrowed from the library. She recounted what the library has meant to her personally, and told the other councilors that a friend who was a student at UMass has used the Jones Library for nonacademic books. She asserted that the Jones is not available to all and that repairing the building is not feasible because of its current deteriorating condition and inaccessibility.
Anika Lopes (District 4) expressed the hope that the Civil War tablets will not be politicized. (A room to display the tablets was one of the last additions to the plan and could be eliminated in cost cutting efforts.) Lopes said that if they are included in the library as planned, “they would be the first time that within any town building the true history of Amherst has been inclusive.
Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) admitted that “the risk factor is huge,” but added that “by backing away at this point, what we’re signaling to the MBLC and all the other state grants [that the town might apply for] is that we apply, we win the grant, and then we back away.” “We never ever give it a shot of working through or getting to the point where we can make a more informed decision,” she said, “so maybe we should, as a council, discuss that and not apply for state grants—because there will always be a gap.” Also, she said, we should learn from the school, which is now estimated to cost $35 million more than the failed 2016 plan would have cost. She added that we should trust the trustees’ plan and the “miracle [of the] excellent group of fundraisers.
Miller also spoke against pausing the project without knowing the true cost, saying that “so many people have put so much work into [it]”.
But Ellisha Walker worried that not enough safeguards have been built into the MOU between the town and the library. She also thought it would be detrimental to the library itself if the project is halted in 18 months and no alternative plan has been developed to fix the library. Steinberg answered that an alternative plan developed by Western Mass. Builders had been updated by Kuhn Riddle Architects in 2020.
Griesemer said, “We are at the beginning of a tough capital process. We have five buildings that we have ignored, but does this mean every time we approach some bumps in the road, we’re going to start backing off? I’m willing to stand up to the state [ to try to get more funding]. I am not willing to give up some level of vision for our town and our future.” Steinberg said that if we decide not to go forward, we can’t go back to the MBLC for another grant. He hopes that “if the project doesn’t succeed, it won’t be for lack of trying.”
Griesemer pointed out that available state and federal funds will not become available until the budgets are developed next year and that it is hard to raise funds if there is “a hatchet hanging over” the project. She said we should trust the town manager to negotiate a contract with the library. Pam said she wants to trust the town manager to use his best judgment in negotiating a new MOU without it being tied to his yearly evaluation by the council, which is currently underway.
Rooney’s motion recommending an evaluation of the project’s plan and costs after the creation of a detailed design development failed 4-8-1 with Pam, Taub, Walker, and Rooney voting for it and Schoen abstaining. The original motion for the town manager to revise the MOU and proceed to the permitting stage passed 8-5 with Pam, Taub, Walker, Rooney, and Schoen voting no.
Despite emphasizing the risk of increasing costs with each delay, the trustees—who do not have the needed nine votes on the council to approve more borrowing—have delayed the bidding process until fall of 2023. As a result, construction bids are not expected until December 2023, which is after the next town election for the council.
New Access Gained To Holyoke Range Trails
Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek announced a gift to the town of over five acres at the base of Mount Norwottuck in the Vista Terrace cluster subdivision in South Amherst. The land was part of the 2018 agreement between developer Paul Cole and the town when the 11-lot subdivision was permitted. There will be a public parking area for six or seven cars and an easement on the private way for people using the trails. Ziomek said there would be no loss of tax revenue to the town because the Conservation Commission has ruled that the land cannot be developed.
Other Council Reports
The council proclaimed September as Suicide Prevention Month in a proclamation sponsored by Miller.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion language was added to the charges of the council committees: the Finance Committee, the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee, the Town Services and Outreach Committee, and the Community Resources Committee.
A ribbon cutting was held at the new community garden at Fort River on September 20.
Schoen announced that larger incentives for ground source heat pumps by Eversource will lower the cost of the new elementary school by $1.2 million and federal funds may lower the cost of the planned solar panels on the school.
The Town Services and Outreach Committee will hold hearings for parking at Hope Church and on Lincoln, Sunset, and Elm Streets on October 13. Lopes is the new chair of the committee.
The Community Resources Committee will hold another public forum on the proposed Rental Registration Bylaw on October 24.
DeAngelis shared a moving story on how two Amherst police officers were kind and sensitive in dealing with a troubled friend of hers. She cautioned that the public should not draw a wedge between the police and the new CRESS responders program.
Eversource will install a new pole on Pomeroy Lane to bring power to a new home that will be constructed at 157 Pomeroy Lane.
Town Manager Evaluation
Evaluation forms for the annual evaluation of the town manager have been sent to staff and committee chairs. The public may comment on the Engage Amherst site https://engageamherst.org/tmeval2022. Feedback must be received by midnight on September 30.
The meeting was adjourned at 9:25. The council will next meet on October 3.