Letter: Critical Information Missing in Preparation for Vote to Increase Library Project Borrowing


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

The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council on November 10, 2023.

The Town Council has announced that you will be taking up supplementing by $9,860,100 the bond authorization for the Jones Library Renovation-Expansion project over the next two meetings.  Given Amherst’s competing high priority budget needs and past assurances that the Town will spend no more money on the severely over-budget project, I find the information that has been made public regarding the current status of the project is seriously incomplete.

I request that before deliberating on increasing the bond authorization you provide the public and yourselves with the following critical information and include it in the meeting packets:

  1. The latest project cost estimate. The Jones Library Building Committee (JLBC) has been notified that a cost estimate required by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) to be produced at the 75% mark of the construction document phase was due to be received on October 30.  It is vital for the public and other stakeholders to identify what the current projected cost will be before authorizing a borrowing increase.
  2. Updated library project cash-flow analysis and long-range budget impact.  Prior to a large cost escalation in 2022, Finance Director Sean Mangano had produced a detailed cash flow analysis that broke down yearly principal and interest costs to the town for the 20-year term of library project debt. This analysis revealed that interest payments would total more than $9 million.

    What will the town’s debt service expenses be based on the current cost estimate.  What will be the annual budget impact?
  3. Updated Fort River School project debt and tax increase projections.  At a prior public meeting the Finance Director predicted that borrowing for the new Fort River School would require a $451 increase in the property tax bill for the average single-family home above regular increases allowed by Proposition 2 1/2. For the next 30 years.  What is the current expectation and how will directing more debt service to the library project impact it?

    The Town Council instructed the Town Manager to find by November 30 a town revenue source in reserves or elsewhere to reduce borrowing for the Fort River School by $5 million, thereby reducing residents’ property tax burden.  Where will this $5 million come from?
  4. Updated plan, schedule, and budget projections for funding the new DPW facility and Central Fire Station.  These capital projects are arguably a higher priority than expanding the Jones Library.  How and when will we pay for them if we increase borrowing for the library?
  5. Comprehensive list of “value management” changes. Due to cost-reducing feature downgrades and eliminations, the library project that the Town Council and voters approved back in 2021 has changed drastically from what designers are now proposing.  We need to understand if the lost features and inferior materials are worth funding.
  6. Weigh-in from Massachusetts Historical Commission on adverse impacts to a state- and nationally-registered historic property. Many members of the public have protested how the planned demolition and expansion of the Jones Library will destroy aspects of the registered historic property described in the Historic Structure Report commissioned by the town.  To date, the Massachusetts Historic Commission has not vetted the proposed design for adverse impacts as required by state law.
  7. Results of measurements required by 2023 Stretch Energy Code. The state 2023 Stretch Energy Code requires that new library construction meet a standard for Thermal Energy Demand Intensity (TEDI). Finegold Alexander Architects have claimed that TEDI modeling is “looking good” but this needs to be confirmed by a professional commissioning agent.

    MBLC regulations specify that an independent commissioning agent is to be hired during a library project’s Design Development phase to assure quality of the proposed design as it is being developed.  The library project Design Development phase ended in June, but the JLBC has still not announced any involvement by an independent commissioning agent.
  8. Historic trends in Jones Library annual attendance and number of books shelved. The library trustees claim that the Jones Library needs to be enlarged by 15,000 square feet to accommodate usage for the next 50 years.  Is this claim backed up by data?

    With some estimators saying that new construction is now approaching $1000 per square foot, it is very important to cost justify library expansion.
  9. Accurate disclosure of restrictions on the Library Capital Campaign’s grants and gifts.  The Friends of the Jones Library Capital Campaign claims to have raised $9.1 million in public grants and private gifts toward a commitment of $16.5 million in fundraising for the project.  The Campaign frequently claims that these donations are “non-fungible,” meaning that if the town does not agree to fund the full project, these funds will go away.

    This claim needs to be verified for all gifts and grants received.  If the Library were reduced to  “Plan B” – i.e. limited to major repairs and maintenance, how much money raised by the Capital Campaign could be used to support the costs?  If the answer is zero, why have town leaders allowed this very limited and self-serving approach by the Capital Campaign in pursuit of its shared commitment with the town?
  10. An accounting of compensation received by Capital Campaign fundraisers.  The Capital Campaign reports having spent $246,959 on fundraising personnel expenses to date.  This is money that will be deducted from the Campaign’s total commitment to the town and is therefore a public expense.

    Yet the Capital Campaign has refused a Public Record Request to provide a detailed accounting of fundraising compensation.  Good governance demands determining if there has been a conflict of interest or other ethical violation.
  11. Liability to the town if the Library does not fulfill its fundraising commitment.  With $9.1 million raised in 2 ½ years, the Capital Campaign remains $7.4 million short of its $16.5 million fundraising commitment.  To date, the Capital Campaign has only remitted $500,000 to the Town.

    When will the Capital Campaign be required to pay its full commitment so that the town can pay off its debt on behalf of the Library?  What happens if the Library has not raised the necessary funds?
    Forcing the Library to drain its endowment will severely restrict its operating budget and will likely require the town to once again come to its financial rescue.

The Town Council clearly does not have information adequate to responsibly support authorizing an additional $9.86 million in debt for the library project. If satisfactory answers cannot be provided to you and the public before the Town Council first takes up the question on November 13, I strongly urge you to cut the process short and reject the additional borrowing.

Jeff Lee

Jeff Lee is a resident of Amherst’s District 5

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4 thoughts on “Letter: Critical Information Missing in Preparation for Vote to Increase Library Project Borrowing

  1. Thanks Jeff for your detailed analysis of what information is needed before a fiscally responsible decision can be made regarding the increased borrowing authorization.

    I noticed in the bid posting for the temporary space to house the library during construction, it states a need for 28,628 square feet with ample parking. If that’s sufficient to run the library for two years, why do we need more than double that? It is 47,000 square feet now with virtually no parking. The Trustees plan is to enlarge it to 63,000sf, and add no more parking. SMH

    From the bid posting at https://www.amherstma.gov/bids.aspx?bidID=400
    “The property offered for rent or lease must be vacant and contain at a minimum 28,628 square feet of interior space. The property must be located within 20 minutes from the center of Amherst and be handicapped accessible. The property must possess restrooms that can accommodate staff and visitors and possess ample parking. The space must be flexible and able to be remodeled by the Town, if necessary, at the cost of the Town.”

  2. These are compelling points, Jeff. Any one of them is reason enough to postpone a vote on additional borrowing until Town Council receives the missing data.

    What I find most astonishing is that the Friends of the Jones Library are hiding their fundraising data behind their private 501 (c)(3) status, yet the Town of Amherst has obligated itself to pay the Friends’ fundraising costs. At more than a couple of hundred thousand dollars already — supposedly — these taxpayer-borne costs are obviously substantial.

    Here’s what “The Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law” says about exceptions to that law (page 6):

    “What if a records custodian claims that it is not subject to the Public Records Law?

    The Public Records Law only applies to Massachusetts governmental entities.
    The burden lies with the entity to show that the Public Records Law does not apply.”

    The Public Records Law mandates transparency in most aspects of governance, including public finance. The Jones Library Trustees and the Friends have deliberately engineered their irregular fundraising arrangement precisely to defeat this transparency. At one Trustee meeting that I attended, Trustee Lee Edwards was explicit about this. At least a majority of the other Trustees went along with it.

    Here, as you report above, the Friends’ Capital Campaign has simply SAID that it is exempt from the Public Records Law. It has by no means discharged its burden of SHOWING that this secretive setup is exempt. I would question whether the Town’s apparent acquiecense can deprive Amherst taxpayers of the relevant data.

    There’s a lot to be said for another Public Records Law request. This time it could go to the Friends, and perhaps to the Town, as well as to the Capital Campaign. An appeal of any denial would go to Secretary of the Commonwealth Galvin. It is high time to determine whether it’s legal to shut the Amherst public out of knowledge about the fundraising for their own public library.

  3. In the original post I mistakenly overstated the Capital Campaign’s fundraising personnel expenses. As of September 30 the Capital Campaign’s fundraising expenses totalled $277,957 with $246,959 being personnel expenses. Fundraising expenses reduce the Library’s remittance to the Town.

    Professional fundraisers working for the Capital Campaign include Kent Faerber, Matt Blumenfeld, Claudia Canale-Parola and Ginny Hamilton of Amherst, and Nancy Reeves of Northampton.

  4. So … would The Indy please consider filing that 3-headed Public Records Law request — or trio of such requests — as suggested above?

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