Trustee and Director Call Repairs-Only Option For Building Project ‘Fiscally Irresponsible’
Last week’s meeting of the Jones Library Buildings and Facilities Committee featured a discussion of “Plan B” which refers to addressing maintenance required by the library building in the event that the Amherst Town Council chooses not to approve additional borrowing for the $10 million-over-budget library renovation-expansion, thereby terminating it.
Library Director Sharon Sharry characterized pursuing Plan B, which would entail surrendering a $13.8 million state grant toward the renovation-expansion now budgeted at $46.1 million as “fiscally irresponsible.”
“The town is gonna have to do HVAC, do the roof, do the the fire system, the you know the panel, and the pipes along with the carpeting and the Hazmat removal and on and on and on,” she argued.
Trustee Farah Ameen joined in deriding Plan B. “It just seems like the smart thing is to go ahead with the project at this point in spite of all the loud voices saying ‘no’ […]. Just like, look at the schools — it’s costing us so much more to build these schools, and our kids, well my kid, is not being able to take advantage of it,” she complained.
The tenor of the meeting reached the point where Trustee Treasurer Bob Pam felt moved to make a public comment.
“People who have had concerns about the ability to move forward with Plan A [the full renovation-expansion] are not evil people and I just want to make sure that that is not the impression people get from hearing the discussions that go on […]. That is not an accurate way of thinking about people who say that that the plan is either too large, too expensive, or will have effects on other projects that the town is concerned about,” Pam said.
Library Dependence On Town Funds Is Not Backed Up By History
The Director and Trustees appear unaware that the assumption that the town would be substantially responsible for library repairs and improvements is a recent one.
The Jones Library was built in 1928 with $662,000 bequeathed in the will of Samuel Minot Jones. No contribution from the Town of Amherst’s budget was required.
In 1954, according to The Jones Library in Amherst: 1919-1969 by Frank Prentice Rand, the town began contributing an annual appropriation toward library operations of $6500. In 1967 the Jones Library, Inc. Trustees successfully requested an increase of the town contribution to $11,500, while the Board directed its own resources toward reconstruction of the original building’s auditorium wing. That project cost $223,000 with $44,500 being covered by a federal grant.
The library undertook a more ambitious capital improvement in 1993, adding a glass-roofed center courtyard which connected new reference, audiovisual, and reading rooms to the original building. Toward this $5 million effort the town contributed a modest $1 million, while the Library paid $1 million and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) awarded the project a $2.6 million grant.
In recent years this balance between town and library-provided funds has been seriously distorted.
With a near total absence of public knowledge or input, a Library Feasibility Committee led by the Director, Trustees and library fundraisers decided in 2015 that “funding from the Town of Amherst and other sources of funding must adjust to developing service needs and future growth.” The group applied for and received a $13.8 million MBLC library construction grant toward a project that was estimated to require a Town of Amherst contribution of $15.8 million.
Ignoring precedent, in 2021 the Town Council committed Amherst taxpayers to this extraordinary investment of funds in the Jones Library by approving borrowing of $36.3 million. Pandemic-fueled cost increases have since driven up estimated project costs to its currently budgeted $46.1 million.
Later this year or early next year the Town Council will be asked to vote on increasing its borrowing authorization to cover the entire cost of the library renovation-expansion, and assume responsibility for any fundraising shortfalls that the Jones Library Corporation is unable to meet.
And the $11,500 annual contribution that the town approved in 1967 to help with Jones Library operations has risen to $2,213,530 for Fiscal Year 2024.
Rand Laments Advent of Public Funding
Jones Library historian Rand, himself a former trustee, writes disapprovingly of the transformation of the Jones from independent to partially publicly funded. This change, he writes, “of course implies advice and consent by the citizenry.”
Rand noted how the library’s acceptance of town funding meant that it was no longer the “free library” envisioned by its benefactor. He concludes, “freedom from fees, the kind of freedom the founder had in mind, already no longer exists except as the book borrower happens to be exempt from local taxation.”
A rough estimate calculates the portion of the average homeowner’s tax bill that will need to go toward servicing $35.3 million in library project debt should the renovation-expansion move forward will be $172 a year for 20 years.
Special thanks to Matthew Berube of the Jones Library Reference Department for research assistance.