Opinion: It’s Time To Let Go Of The Jones Library Building Project

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Photo: https://www.joneslibrary.org/

Amherst’s $50 million Jones Library Renovation-Expansion Project has been controversial since it was first proposed more than seven years ago.  But town leaders’ recent announcement that an average $500 annual property tax hike on top of regular yearly tax increases will be required to fund the long-planned construction of a new elementary school casts a dark shadow on the library enlargement, which is projected to consume at least $25 million from the town’s capital budget for construction and borrowing costs. The ambitious library proposal, now in its design development phase, is simply unaffordable and financially untenable.

The Town Council had the opportunity to shut down the Jones project last summer when the average of two construction cost estimates came in $13 million over budget. However, eight of our thirteen town councilors voted to continue with the plan until construction bids are received in 2024, committing to racking up an additional $2 million in design and project management costs.

These councilors should have understood that trying to pay for two expensive building projects (the new Fort River School is expected to cost the town $55 million) at the same time would result in a severe drain on Amherst’s capital budget and a serious economic hardship for property taxpayers, and, indirectly, for renters.  But they either didn’t know or didn’t care.

Now the Finance Committee and others are scrambling to find a way to reduce the debt required to fund the new school – a debt that will be completely passed on to property taxpayers should voters approve a Proposition 2 ½ debt exclusion override in a town wide election on May 2.

Committee Chair Cathy Schoen, who also heads the Elementary School Building Committee, has proposed using $5 million of capital reserves to support the geothermal and photovoltaic systems in the new building.  Town Councilor Ellisha Walker, expressing concern for Amherst’s vulnerable citizens, has asked for directing $10 million of capital reserves to defray school borrowing costs.  New school proponent Toni Cunningham has suggested $15 million as an appropriate figure.  The Town has more than $22 million in its stabilization or “rainy day” accounts.

Finance Director Sean Mangano has cautioned that it may not be possible to fund four planned building projects – a new elementary school, the library expansion, a new central fire station and a new DPW facility – if capital reserves are reduced.

Something has to give, and the obvious answer is the library project.  Town government has been loath to assign priorities to the four building projects, but a 2021 survey by The Amherst Indy found that a new elementary school was the runaway favorite, while the library renovation-expansion was a distant fourth.

The new Fort River School plan has much to commend it.  It was developed through an open public process by a committee representing a spectrum of views on what a new school should look like.  It is subsidized by a state grant of $45 million and is expected to not exceed its $98 million projected cost. It will be among the first net-zero public schools in Massachusetts.  And it eliminates the costly Wildwood School whose capacity is no longer needed due to declining student enrollment.

The Jones Library vision, by contrast, was conceived and promoted by a handful of library trustees and fundraisers with comparatively little community input. While benefitting from a $13.3 million state grant, the project remains $10 million over budget. The renovated library will not be a net-zero building, only a net-zero-ready one.  And while the school plan is responding to a diminishing Amherst population of school-age children, the library plans to add 15,000 sq. ft. in large part to enable an increase in youth and children’s programming.

If Amherst wants to maximize the chances that a school debt exclusion will pass it should terminate the Jones Library project and repurpose its appropriation to minimize the tax burden needed to sustain the school project.  Amherst values its library and will not let it crumble to dust through neglect.  But it may place even greater value on the ability for low and middle income people to afford to live here, and small businesses to afford to operate here.  The Town Council and Finance Committee would be wise to recognize this.

Jeff Lee is a resident of Amherst and a frequent contributor to the Amherst Indy.

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9 thoughts on “Opinion: It’s Time To Let Go Of The Jones Library Building Project

  1. I respectfully disagree. Public libraries are essential to community well being. Forgive me, as I have only lived in Amherst for the past 3 years, but my first impression of the Jones Library was/is why has the town neglected this essential public institution for so long? Yes, we are fortunate to live in a “college town” and all it adds to our town yet I do not use their libraries as I do not feel a comfortable welcome as part of the community as I do with our public library. I wholeheartedly support efforts to renovate the Jones Library as an effort to provide residents,especially lower income residents, with a public library that does not appear to be simply “good enough.”

  2. I think everyone agrees with the need to renovate and re-think the use of space in the Jones Library. Many, though, disagree with the bloated size and cost of the project as developed by the Trustees, and also are distressed at the process by which this project was developed and placed at the head of the list of capital projects, using available funds and requiring that the town seek voter approval to raise taxes to build a new elementary school.

    It is so sad. It would have been easy for the Trustees to develop a renovation project, perhaps even one with a modest expansion, in a way that garnered the support of many, like me, who oppose the project as it currently stands.

  3. I generally agree with Jeff Lee and I appreciate the reporting he has done for the Amherst Indy.
    I also generally agree with Judith Schiavone’s comment. I too, would like to know why maintenance of the Jones Library has been deferred for so long, (along with many other buildings in Amherst.) Timely and consistent maintenance with replacement of worn out systems would keep the Jones in serviceable condition for another 100 years. I only respectfully disagree with her assertion that simply “good enough” is not enough. In today’s world of Resource $carcity combined with our ever increasing list of Wants and Needs, I’m of the opinion that “good enough” is perfect.

  4. I wholeheartedly AGREE with what Jeff Lee has written in his well-expressed article! I have lived and worked in Amherst for most of my 70+ years! When I was a child, the Jones Library was a welcoming place for children and adults alike. In my view, it has become less and less so, as the years have gone on. A library should be just that: a LIBRARY; not a building used for so many, many purposes. This building project was predicated on a study that was misleading, at best, in terms of the population that would be using it! The SIZE of this new building was predicated on the premise that ALL of the college students living in this town would be using it, in addition to the year-round TAXPAYING residents of this town. The tax burden in Amherst falls mainly on these year-round property owners, many of whom are on FIXED INCOMES! We cannot afford $500 MORE in additional property tax! That would be IN ADDITION to the amount that will be added to our property taxes if the “debt exclusion” is voted in. This additional tax burden will go on for many years. Many of US are in declining years! Our incomes will NOT be increasing. This additional tax burden COULD BANKRUPT many of us! We will be forced to sell our homes here, and try to find a place to live in other communities where we can “make ends meet.” Please consider this. Many of us ARE NOT WEATHY!

  5. My “good enough” comment is a polite way of saying,I am tired of deficit thinking that affects policy and has detrimental effects for residents. Clearly, ‘good enough” thinking has contributed to the town’s neglect of the Jones Library over many years, increasing costs to taxpayers. And, please do not get me started on Amherst’s use of AARPA funds-irresponsible comes close to describing the charade- did the Town forget how to budget, for example, a new ambulance/fire truck? And, was a new dog park built with Community Preservation funds,which could have been built with fundraising by those using it, tell me how does a dog park improve the lives of those most in need in Amherst? After years of neglect, a clear adherence to a neo-liberal approach to provision of public services,that makes our public services a commodity,and incorrect assumptions about students using the public library(please let’s be honest, students are a transient population with little to no investment in Amherst’s needs) and if serious about their studies would not be using the Jones Library as the libraries on campuses are far better equipped to meet their needs. And, lastly, it is clear to me as an outsider, a relative newcomer to the area, that profit$(with its deference to the false wisdom of the business community), a clear neo-liberalism approach to policy suggest that though Western Massachusetts is known for “Social Justice” the truth is the image is more akin to a paper tiger with ego attachments, image enhancements and profit$ as the seemingly guiding factors with allegiance to the myth of a “Fair Market” economy.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Judith and others. I agree that public libraries are essential and that the Jones Library has been sadly neglected. The reason for the neglect is a bit of a long story.

    Historically library upkeep has been accomplished through the town’s yearly joint capital planning process where all the town’s capital needs are reviewed and repairs and upgrades funded in accordance with available revenues. Major additions to the library building, which is privately owned by Jones Library, Inc., have been largely paid for using the library’s assets and fundraising by the Friends of the Jones Library, with the Town of Amherst kicking in a modest contribution. The 1993 addition of 15,000 sq. ft. was built with a town contribution of $1 million.

    A few years before you moved to town, Judith, the library trustees and Friends concocted a plan to apply for a state grant to help pay for demolishing and replacing the 1993 addition, and adding an additional 15,000 sq. ft. to the back of the historic building, ignoring the fact that the Jones was already larger than the average size Massachusetts library for a town of Amherst’s population. They succeeded in landing a $13.8 million grant from the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners, the largest ever awarded by its construction grant program. Unfortunately the Town would need to kick in $16 million to meet the grant requirements — also, as far as I have found, the biggest expenditure of capital funds by a municipality in the history of the library construction grant program. And Amherst is not a wealthy community. State statistics show that Amherst’s average income per capita is 12th lowest in Massachusetts.

    The trustees and their town council allies have clung to this renovation-expansion plan even as escalating costs have put the project more than $10 million over budget, and after projections show that taxpayers will need to absorb a $478 per year tax increase on top of regular annual tax increases that have recently averaged more than $300, if we want a new state-subsidized elementary school.

    My opinion is that we should abandon the misguided library expansion project, stop deferring maintenance, and support necessary improvements the old way — through library fundraising and the Town’s regular joint capital planning process. And if we can land a new grant, fine, but let’s be very careful what we commit to.

  7. Let me add a footnote of sorts to address Judith’s concern (and Jim’s and Jeff’s responses) about deferred maintenance:

    During a term on the Amherst Select Board 15+years ago, I served also on the Joint Capital Planning Committee (as Jeff alludes, that coordinates “the town’s yearly joint capital planning process”) and urged the then-Library Director to seek additional funding to renovate the antiquated heating and ventilating systems in the Jones.

    I don’t recall if the Library requested such Jones-HVAC improvements in its subsequent capital budgets, or whether appropriated funds were ever expended, but one gets the impression that the current Library Director and a majority of its Trustees been so dead-set on the current demolition/expansion plan for much of the past decade that such an expenditure would seem imprudent.

    Perhaps the time is ripe for them to re-think their hypotheses?

  8. Hello! Does anyone know where I can find more information about the May 2 town-wide election? I googled it and came up with nothing. Thank you so much!

  9. You can find the language here but the amount that you will be asked to approve is still being debated.
    https://www.amherstindy.org/2023/02/24/finance-committee-approves-cpac-projects-and-override-ballot-language-chair-delays-consideration-of-motions-to-use-reserves-to-decrease-impact-of-tax-increase/

    The Finance Committee will discuss, likely at their next meeting, two motions to use the town’s reserve funds to reduce the amount of the tax increase that voters will be asked to approve. And prior to May, both the town and the Indy will distribute information on precisely what a yes or a no vote on the obscurely worded ballot proposl would mean.

    Look here for information on a residents’ group that is organizing to promote a yes vote (i.e. approval of) the tax increase needed to build the new school.
    https://www.amherstindy.org/2023/02/17/group-forms-to-encourage-passage-of-override-for-elementary-school/

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