The Jones Library expansion project casts a shadow over every major fiscal decision that is being made in this town. No matter that the Town Manager and the Town Finance director insist that the town is only committed to spending $15.8M on the project. Those who have been paying attention know that the town’s share is going to be far greater. And as a result, the push for frugality (except when it comes to the library) has been ubiquitous. Indeed, for a town that boasts of its outstanding fiscal health and great bond rating, the ever-present plea of poverty is dissonant. Almost any proposed expenditure or proposal for a new undertaking is met with the lament “There’s just no money.” Want a fair contract for the teachers? There’s no money. Want to lower the burden of the school override on taxpayers? Certainly no money for that. Want to start talking about creating a senior center or a teen center? No money for that either. How about expanding CRESS, which already is understaffed, to meet the considerable demand for its services? Once again, no more money. And even the proposal to reform trash pick up in Amherst, a project expected to save residents money, is met with cautions from the Finance Committee that it might end up being too expensive to consider right now.
But when it comes to the library, there will be plenty of money. Indeed, there are apparently no limits to how much money there will be. At least two town councilors and five of the six library trustees have stated that they intend to see the project through to completion as currently planned regardless of the cost. And while the Town Manager has said that it is possible that the final bid for the project may exceed the ability of the town and the trustees to pay for it, neither he, nor anyone associated with the project will say what the ceiling is. Indeed at the most recent library budget committee meeting, when Treasurer Bob Pam asked the group to discuss contingencies in case the project becomes unaffordable (something he believes has already happened), he was silenced by his colleagues and told that will never happen and hence is not appropriate for discussion.
Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg has been explicit in this regard. At a Finance Committee meeting several months ago, he argued for budgetary language that warns of possibly necessary austerity for the CRESS and DEI departments because we have to prioritize paying for the four capital projects (see also here and here for finance committee’s concern about library cost overruns). And since the town is placing the entire burden of the school project on the taxpayers, and it has no plans to commence with construction of the fire station and DPW headquarters in the immediate future, it is apparent that when we talk about paying for four capital projects, what we are really talking about is a worry about how the town is going to pay for the library project.
Here’s where we stand with that. The most recent cost estimate provided for the Jones demolition/expansion was $50M back in September of 2022. Since then the the Jones trustees have value engineered away some of the attractive components of the original design (or example replacing much of the steel roof with a manufactured wood product called Hardie Board, which needs new paint every ten years) but even with those cost reductions the estimated cost is still about $7 million over the budget estimate submitted to the state library commission.(Following those revisions, the most recent estimate pegs the cost at about $46.1M (low estimate = $43.2M, high estimate = $49.6M). There has not been an updated cost estimate since September of 2022 and of course construction costs have escalated at an eye-popping rate since then. An updated cost estimate is expected in May and bids are not expected to come in until January 2024. In the interim, costs continue to escalate, interest rates continue to rise, the library endowment declines in value, and the emerging banking crisis is increasingly ominous.
While library trustees still talk of costs possibly going down, I see no reason to think that the final project cost will not be closer to $70M than the original estimate of $36M. Remember that the final bid for the Centennial Water Treatment Plant repair was $21M, ( $300% over the original estimate of $7M), and the final bid for the North Amherst library was $2M (400% more than the original estimate of $500,000). The Friends of the Jones library have promised to raise all of the funds needed to cover any budget overage. To date, they have raised $4.6 million, most of that in taxpayer dollars coming from the state, including CPA funds as well as .9M from un-guaranteed gift pledges. The prospects of the Friends raising another $10M or $20M or $30M if the project follows the trends is quite fantastic.
But let’s be optimists and imagine that they can actually do this, and that they are correct in their assumption that the money will start to pour in once construction starts. Even so, the town must borrow the entire cost of the project up front and pay interest on this. And the trustees have not committed to start to reimburse the town until two years after the library expansion is complete. The town will have to pay debt service on the full amount of borrowing — $43 million? 60 million? $70 million? — until it is reimbursed in full. Where do those costs appear in the town’s financial planning, and how will they impact other spending needs? And if the trustees can’t raise all of that money, the town will then be left to pick up the tab.
And so if you are wondering why our town with our AA+ bond rating is engaged in so much austerity talk — it’s the library. We can’t afford things in this town because those who hold the purse strings are rightfully worried about a big tab coming due for completing a very bloated project.
In the meantime, our public school educators are engaged in a struggle for a fair contract, and taxpayers are saying that following the anticipated average property tax increase of $487 assuming a successful override, in addition to the annual 2.5% property tax increase, plus a dramatic increase in water rates to pay for the Centennial plant, and the overall burden of inflation, Amherst will become even more unaffordable and drive many out of town. And when taxpayers have asked for some relief (for example using a portion of $24M in cash reserves to lower the tax increase burden), the Town Manager and the Town Council responded that they can’t divert any money to lower the cost of the override because they are saving those reserves to pay for the other capital projects. But what capital projects? Not the school. They want the cost of the school to be paid for exclusively by the taxpayers as the town finance director and town council president repeatedly remind us. And surely not the fire house or the DPW, for which there are no active plans, nor realistic cost estimates, nor identified sites on which to locate them, and for which construction is unlikely to commence for at least another five years. They are planning for the fiscal crisis that is inevitably coming as a result of an over-priced, extravagant expansion of the library. In exchange we get austerity.
Art Keene is a resident of District 5 (soon to be District 3), the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass Amherst,. His four children are graduates of Amherst Regional High School. He was head coach of the ARHS girls cross country team for 17 years.