Opinion: Who Will Decide The Future Jones Library?
Amherst’s Jones Library is a special kind of hybrid. It is a charitable, non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation filing Federal Form 990 and exempt from federal taxes, just like other prominent Amherst charities such as the Kestrel Land Trust and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. But its board of trustees is elected by Amherst town voters, and it is very much dependent on taxpayer money for a major renovation project like the one it is currently planning.
It’s counting on almost $31 million of taxpayer money to complete the project: $16.8 million from Amherst taxpayers ($15.8 voted by Town Council and $1.0 million from the Community Preservation Act Committee) and $13.9 million from all the taxpayers of the commonwealth through a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Unfortunately, now that the projected costs have jumped from $36 million to $50 million, and still rising, those taxpayer funds will be far from sufficient.
The questions now are, who will monitor the design and budget changes that will be necessary for a library we can afford, and when will they do it? The answers, like so much of the planning that has gone into this project, are a bit slippery.
The library’s board has just approved an amendment to the memorandum of agreement between the town government and the library. As the draft of that amendment has evolved, early and regular oversight of the project’s costs by the Town has slipped farther away. An early draft said that “given the urgent need of the Building Repairs, Library staff will work with Town staff, at least once every quarter from the date of this agreement, to discuss the nature, scope, feasibility and design of the Building Repairs and to develop a repair plan and schedule should the Project not proceed.” Some would say that “at least once every quarter” is too infrequent, but at least it is specific and periodic.
But the version adopted by the library’s board of trustees now says that “given the urgent need of the Building Repairs, it will work with the Town to develop a repair plan and schedule for the Building Repairs should the Project not proceed.” Not a word here about when or how often the two should meet. The implication of the change suggests the library wants to wait as long as possible, maybe even until contractors’ bids are in more than a year from now. With our national economy rapidly changing, and especially as Amherst plans four major building projects, more frequent collaboration not less should be expected for the Jones.
And here’s another interesting change from the earlier draft. The earlier version, in Paragraph 4, spoke of “The Town’s decision not to proceed with the Project….” But now, Paragraph 4 says “The Town’s decision to proceed with the project….” The way I read it, in the earlier draft if the Town did nothing the project would proceed, but now, if the Town does nothing the project stops. This means that before the library will be allowed to move forward with the demolition and renovation that is now planned, there will have to be affirmative actions by the Town Council and Town Manager to assure sufficient funds are available. That makes good sense. Unfortunately, that positive action will come very late in the process, perhaps even too late, to make necessary design and financial changes. Wouldn’t it be better to have the project subject to earlier, more frequent oversight so that realistic adjustments in project scope and budget can be made in time to give us a new library we can afford?
Ken Rosenthal lives on Sunset Avenue in Amherst. He was Chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals and of the former Development and Industrial Commission, and was a member of the Select Committee on Goals for Amherst.
2 thoughts on “Opinion: Who Will Decide The Future Jones Library?”
Excellent points, Ken. I note also that the draft Amendment states: “Whereas, as of the date of this Amendment, the Town is at the end of the schematic design phase and will expend an additional sum of approximately $1,800,000 to complete the design development, preparation of construction drawings, and bidding ….”
It can scarcely be accurate that, “as of the date of this Amendment, the Town [will be] at the end of the schematic design phase….” This is because the Library Trustees and the Town have done nothing as of yet to comply with the Massachusetts Historic Preservation Law. They evidently intend instead to demolish significant parts of the historic, 1928 Jones Library without going through the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s mandatory consultation process for changing the schematic designs, if necessary, to eliminate, minimize, and mitigate such destruction.
The Library Trustees and Town are thereby jeopardizing the entirety of their $13.7 million state construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. One would think that they would safeguard their continuing eligibility for those funds. One would, apparently, be wrong.
According to Article II, Section 1 of the Bylaws of the Board of Trustees of the Jones Library, Inc. and the Amherst Town Library (https://www.joneslibrary.org/DocumentCenter/View/368/Trustee-Bylaws-PDF): “The inhabitants of the town of Amherst are hereby authorized to elect six members of the Board of Trustees for three year terms arranged so that two are elected each year.”
This sensible plan ensures continuity in the leadership. Unlike what is required by the bylaws, the current trustees all have terms that expire in 2024 (https://www.joneslibrary.org/trustees). The absence of continuity that staggered terms would afford raises concerns as the trustees and town grapple with the decisions in the years ahead.