Unrecognized Project Costs Trouble Library Trustee. Amherst College Gift Snubs Taxpayers


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

Treasurer Raises Building Project Concerns
The packet for the October 25 meeting of the Jones Library Building Committee (JLBC) included two letters from Treasurer for the Library Board of Trustees, Bob Pam.  Pam raised several concerns over rising budget line item costs and features cut or missing from the latest building design.

Pam observed that recent landscaping designs have added $815,000 or 37.8% to the estimated cost of sitework since September 2022.  He also pointed out that Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment (FF&E) for the building project are no longer being included in cost estimates.  He suggested that costs have risen about 25% since the last FF&E cost estimate which was $1.6 million.  Pam expects that furniture-related costs have risen by $400,000.

Neither landscaping nor FF&E costs are eligible to be paid for out of the $13.8 million state construction grant that has been used to justify the $46.1 million project. Budget restrictions may force further elimination of originally promised landscaping and furniture features in the way that “Value Management” has eliminated slate roofing, areas of cross-laminated ceiling tiles, an energy-friendly saw-toothed roof design and most likely solar panels.

Pam also worried that climate change and the increasing frequency of 100-year floods may render the expanded building’s outside drainage capacity inadequate.  And like several commenters at the Amherst Historical Commission review of the project, Pam felt that more needs to be done to address the stark contrast between the proposed new addition and the original historic library.

See related Historic Library Building Protections Limited at Historical Commission Review

In separate correspondence and in public comment Pam raised two additional questions.  He wondered if the renovated Board Room and/or Woodbury Room would be fitted with the ability to record and transmit meetings to a remote audience.  Library Director Sharon Sharry responded that “Zoomability” in these rooms will be available through data drops and wireless access, but whether technology to support hybrid meetings will be affordable is uncertain.

Pam brought up the fact that Feingold Alexander Architects (FAA) has had to design the new parts of the renovated library’s ground floor to be three steps higher than the level of the original building.  He asked where the steps were located that would allow passage from the Civil War Tablets Room and the Special Collections Room in the old building to the hallway of the new additions.

Sharry replied that a stairway to account for ceiling height differences would be located farther south. Pam objected, saying “I don’t think that the answer of there being [a stairway] 100 feet down the hall is in fact useful at all.”

JLBC meeting chair Austin Sarat pressed Owners’ Project Manager Tim Alix of Colliers for more information.

Alix replied that he would need to look into it and began pulling up the latest design drawings.

“Do you have anything else you want to say, Bob?” asked Sarat.

When Pam indicated he was done and no one else wanted to offer public comment, Sarat adjourned the meeting.  Pam’s stairway access concern remains unclarified.

New and old areas of the library design are offset by several inches, requiring steps.  Source: amherstma.gov

$1 Million Gift from Amherst College to Library Project Will Not Reduce Amherst Taxpayer Burden
Amherst College has pledged to contribute $1 million to the Jones Library Building Project as well as $250,000 to the Cooley Dickinson Hospital for its emergency department renovation and $75,000 to the Drake, a downtown Amherst performance venue.

Many will find a cause for jubilation, as the Town has long appealed to Amherst College for more financial assistance to compensate for the school’s exemption from local property taxes as an educational institution.  Amherst College is reportedly the largest property owner in Amherst and possesses a $3.32 billion endowment.

See related Issues & Analyses: Other Northeast College Towns Receive Much Larger PILOT Payments Than Amherst

However, a closer look at the terms of the library donation may bring disappointment. 

For one thing, the gift will be directed to the Friends of the Jones Library Capital Campaign who are committed to raising more than $16 million to cover their share of the total project cost.  The contribution does nothing to lower the expansion project’s demand on Amherst’s tax-levy-funded capital budget. The town share currently sits at $15.8 million plus an estimated $9.16 million in borrowing costs.

Secondly, it is not clear if the $1 million gift is contingent on the Town Council approving full funding for the nearly $50 million project as it is currently designed.  Project costs have ballooned by more than $10 million over the Council’s April 2021 borrowing authorization, leaving both the town and the Jones Library endowment facing greater financial liability.

An updated project cost estimate was due to be received last week.  Should the Town Council decide that, with an abundance of competing budget priorities, the town cannot afford to complete the renovation-expansion, what will become of the pledge?  Will Amherst College be willing to direct the $1 million to major library building maintenance and repairs that the trustees and town leaders have been deferring for ten years, or will it walk away from its commitment?

It is heartening to see that new Amherst College President Michael Elliot is hinting at future support by the College for Amherst schools and the fire department.  However, he should be aware that the Jones Library renovation-expansion project has been plagued by problems and controversy since its inception. In an April 2021 referendum, more than a third of the Town’s voters rejected town funding of the project, and that was before cost escalations hit.

Amherst College President Michael A. Elliot.  Source: amherst.edu
Spread the love

2 thoughts on “Unrecognized Project Costs Trouble Library Trustee. Amherst College Gift Snubs Taxpayers

  1. I’ve seen it stated in a couple of places that the Jones Library expansion project “will not raise taxes for Amherst residents.” This is a problematic, misleading statement. At best it’s disingenuous. The town will borrow $15.75 million to fund the library expansion, or more if inflation or cost overruns occur. That money will have to be repaid. Statements like the above make it seem like we get a new library for free. Of course that isn’t the case. That money, like all funding for public projects, will come from the taxpayers in the form of property tax. The only way the project will not raise taxes is if other things the town is already or should be spending money on are abandoned. Perhaps the town’s budget can cover the repayment of the bond through the normal increase in tax rates without a tax override. Great, but it will still be paid for with an increase in taxes. “No increase in taxes” is not the same as “no need for an override.”

    I’m not arguing against the town making improvements to the library. I’m not in favor of expanding the library according to the current plan, but I’m not making that argument here. I’m just saying that those who advocate for the project shouldn’t do so with false and misleading statements.

  2. Regarding the sentence above that “FAA has had to design the new parts of the renovated library’s ground floor to be three steps higher than the level of the original building…Sharry replied that a stairway to account for ceiling height differences would be located farther south.”
    If memory serves, when I took a tour of the library given by Kent Faerber in the run up to the Town Meeting vote to authorize the preliminary design and grant application in 2017, the existence of differing floor/ceiling heights and the need for steps between the original building and the 1993 addition was given as a reason for needing the expansion/renovation, and for justifying the demolition of that earlier addition. Does anyone else remember that? Now they are creating the same problem with this new $46+ million project. Do I have that right?

    As for the Amherst College gift, it really is a slap in the face to Amherst taxpayers that this is not being given to the Town to offset the town’s very generous share of the project cost. Instead it is being given to a private entity which owns this private library building. And to add insult to injury, if there were any “fundraising expenses” that led to this gift, Amherst taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill for that too. (Per the Memorandum of Agreement that Paul Bockelman signed, the Jones’ fundraising expenses can be deducted from the “library’s share” before depositing the monies raised with the Town Treasurer.)

    Heads up for all following along that there is an item on the Town Council agenda for Monday 13th November called “Jones Library Building Project Bond Authorization.” At this time, there is no detail in the meeting packet about what is being proposed but it should be added here:

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.