Jones Library Project Grabs $1.1M Federal Earmark. No Asbestos In Boilers Says Director


Jones Library News Highlights For The Week Of January 2, 2023

Building Project Is Lone Amherst Recipient Of Earmarks From $1.7 Trillion Federal Spending Package
President Biden, on December 29, signed into law a $1.7 trillion federal spending package for FY23 that included $225 million in Congressionally Directed Spending – also known as earmarks – for Massachusetts nonprofit projects and initiatives. The sole beneficiary in Amherst was the Jones Library Renovation and Expansion which will receive $1,110,661 towards a project estimated to cost nearly $50 million. 

The earmark was one of two awarded to Hampshire County communities in U.S. Representative Jim McGovern’s 2nd District of Massachusetts, the other being $413,000 for Grow Food Northampton’s community farming effort.  In addition, Representative Richard Neal garnered $2 million for construction of a senior center in the Hampshire County town of Worthington which he represents.

Ironically, the expenditure which is supported by federal tax dollars will not reduce the $15.8 million that the Amherst Town Council has committed from the property-tax-supported capital budget.  Instead it will go towards reducing the Friends of the Jones Library Capital Campaign’s obligation to generate $14 million through fundraising, as spelled out in a Memorandum of Agreement with the Town. A separate Memorandum of Understanding between the Jones Library Trustees and the Friends specifies the scope of the Friends’ fundraising appeals as being “private.”

Congressman McGovern’s Community Project Funding Requests web page describes the Jones Library project as creating one of the most climate-friendly libraries in the Commonwealth, providing full accessibility, expanding to meet programming needs and restoring and preserving one of the town’s iconic buildings.

McGovern’s endorsement letter to the House Appropriations Committee was dated April 27, 2022 – well before revelations in the Amherst Indy and Daily Hampshire Gazette that the Jones Library has seen steadily decreasing annual attendance since 2006 and a professional library consultant recommended efficiency improvements that would allow the library to meet its programming needs within the existing building’s footprint.

The congressional practice of attaching earmarks, also known as pork, to appropriations bills has been criticized as circumventing the merit-based or competitive funds allocation process and has resulted in scandalous examples of government waste such as the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. Congress banned earmarks for eleven years beginning in 2011, but the practice was reinstated in 2021.

Board Of Health Is Told No Asbestos Danger From Library Boiler Fire
Last month’s report of a fire in one of the Jones Library’s 50-year-old boilers raised alarm among several Indy readers over the possibility of carcinogenic asbestos being released, and prompted Amherst resident Sarah McKee to ask the Board of Health if the incident might pose a threat.

The Board of Health inquiry and the library’s response to the fire and the asbestos question are related in a set of email records obtained by The Amherst Indy through Amherst Records Access Officer Susan Audette.

The fire emergency and subsequent damage assessment were described by Facilities Supervisor George Hicks-Richards in an email sent to Library Director Sharon Sharry on Monday, November 28, the day after the fire occurred.

In a call on the afternoon of Sunday, November 27, Hicks-Richards was informed that scheduled maintenance staff person Jose could smell intense heat and found flames shooting from boiler #4.  The maintenance staff shut off the boiler which stopped the flames.  Hicks-Richards contacted library HVAC contractor Grodsky who advised that the turned off boiler posed no imminent danger.  The fire alarms were not set off, there was no excessive smoke, and staff and patrons were not endangered by being in the building, reported Hicks-Richards.  Had the fire system been triggered, the building would have been evacuated.

In searching for replacement parts for the damaged boiler the HVAC contractor determined that the boilers date back to the 1970s, at a time when asbestos was still allowed in boiler installations. Hicks-Richards concluded that “It does not seem logical that they were installed in the building prior to the 1990’s expansion so it must be assumed that they were purchased as retrofitted units to save money.”

On Monday Sharry forwarded Hicks-Richard’s report to the library trustees and staff and to the Town Manager and members of his staff.  She added that,

“I was given a ‘tour’ of our 4 boilers this morning by Grodsky and George.

  • Hopefully the 3 remaining boilers will last one more year. If they don’t, we will have to replace them at great expense. According to Grodsky, a system that relies on something other than fossil fuels is NOT an option, due to excessive cost.
  • Replacing the boilers during the winter would mean having to empty all the water lines in the Library, so as to prevent freezing. The Jones would have to close.
  • According to Grodsky, once an order for a new boiler is placed, it can take 56 weeks for it to arrive.”

After learning of the fire, resident McKee wrote to the Amherst Board of Health pointing out that asbestos, a hazard known to produce mesothelioma, was allowed in boilers until 1984,and asking whether there might be a cause for concern.

Health Director Jennifer Brown followed up with Sharry who put the asbestos question to Hicks-Richards.  He replied, “The boiler does not contain asbestos. They would not have permitted the installation in the 1990’s renovation.”

Sharry forwarded the reply to the Health Director, and added that “Grodsky has also confirmed there is no asbestos in the Jones boiler.”

Damage from November 27 boiler fire. Photo:

The boiler fire email chain includes communications indicating that the Jones Library and Town Administration are not entirely on the same page regarding contingency planning, with the Library hoping for full replacement of the HVAC system as part of the proposed renovation and expansion project.

After learning of the incident, Town Finance Director Sean Mangano emailed Sharry and Hicks-Richards to say, “It seems like a plan for addressing these boilers will be needed regardless of whether the larger project moves forward. Is this something you are working on?”

Sharry’s brief answer was, “We have Grodsky on speed-dial. We will not replace them [the boilers] unless absolutely necessary.”

The library director and facilities supervisor expressed a level of frustration in a follow up email exchange.

“It just blows my mind that with all the screaming we have been doing nobody seems to get how critical the needs are….,” wrote Hicks-Richards.

“I’m pretty furious…,” acknowledged Sharry.

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