Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, November 13, 2023, Part 1
Read Part 2 of the report here.
This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen and Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), and Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne(District 5). Participating remotely: Dorothy Pam (District 3), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4) and Ellisha Walker (at large). Absent: Michele Miller (District 1) and Jennifer Taub (District 3). Lopes left early.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Griesemer Gives Background to Library Project
Because of escalating construction costs and interest rates, the Jones Library has asked the town to borrow an additional $10 million for the Jones Library expansion project, which the library trustees have pledged to repay through additional fundraising (editor’s note: it has yet to be clarified whether that pledge covers the full cost of the borrowing, that is principal plus interest, or only principal). Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), anticipating concerns from the council and the public, gave a lengthy introduction to the council’s vote to refer the matter to the Finance Committee. Griesemer stated that the purpose of this discussion is to begin the process for increasing the bond authorization for the library. According to Griesemer, the request to borrow an additional $10 million is not a request to increase the town’s contribution to the library, which, she said, will remain $15.8 million. The council will vote on this bond authorization after receiving a recommendation from the Finance Committee and holding a public forum. The topic is on the agenda for the council’s next meeting (on November 20) and a public forum has been scheduled for that meeting as well. Griesemer admitted, however, that the Finance Committee probably won’t have information it needs by that time.
She went on to say that estimates for only doing the necessary repairs on the library have also increased and do not include the latest statewide energy code changes and asbestos abatement. The impact of the additional borrowing on the town’s cash flow has not yet been estimated, but is expected to be available for the November 17 Finance Committee meeting.
She then spent time outlining the history of the expansion project, going back to the approval of the grant proposal submitted to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) by Town Meeting in 2017, the town listening sessions on four major capital projects [editor’s note: the public ranked the library project last behind the elementary school, fire station, and DPW in those sessions], approval of $1 million in Community Preservation Act funds for improving storage of special collections in 2019, allocation of $15.8 million of town funds to the project by a vote of 10-2-1 of the Town Council, and a 65% favorable vote by residents who voted in a 2021 referendum. Griesemer reminded the councilors that the expanded Jones Library will house the town’s Civil War commemorative tablets and meet sustainability requirements. She also said that it will function as a community center and be an economic driver for visitors downtown. She added, “…and something near and dear to my heart, it is often the other place where people who go to the Survival Center have a place to go, especially during winter.”
Town Manager Paul Bockelman then introduced Bob Peirent who has been hired by the town as Capital Projects Coordinator. Peirent said he is a registered engineer with 40 years of experience working on capital projects, and his job will be to see that projects are completed on schedule and on budget. He noted that the two cost estimates for the Jones received on November 8 were very close. Bockelman explained that the library is requesting additional money now, even though the project will not go out to bid until mid-January, because the MBLC requires that all money for its projects be authorized in advance of construction . Recognizing the impact of the pandemic on project costs, the MBLC recently added $1.7 million to its original $13.8 million grant, after advocacy from State Senator Jo Comerford and State Representative Mindy Domb.
Kent Faerber, chair of the Jones Library capital campaign, said fundraising has raised 55% of the amount needed, but still needs to raise $7.5 million over the next three years (editor’s note: this figure assumes that the latest cost estimate is accurate) Jones Library Treasurer Bob Pam said that if a small shortfall remains after construction, the library can self-finance from its endowment, which may impact the endowment’s ability to meet its obligation to the library’s operating costs. Pam thought that if the shortfall is more than $1.5 million, the library will have to borrow money, either as a line of credit, a commercial loan backed by the assets of the library, or tax-exempt bonds.
Several members of the council had questions about the library’s request. Cathy Schoen (District 1) wanted the recent, detailed cost estimates to be posted on the town website. She noted that despite successful fundraising, the gap of $7.5 million between what is pledged and what is needed, is greater than the fundraising goal of $5 million in the 2021 Memorandum of Agreement with the town. She also pointed out that the budgeted amount for furnishings and audiovisual equipment on the latest estimate was lower than in 2021, and wondered what the plan was for purchasing these items.
Pam Rooney (District 4) noted that, in addition to the $15.8 million from the town and the $1 million from CPA, the town is responsible for interest on borrowing for the entire project, and the interest rate has more than doubled since 2021 when the council voted for the project. Dorothy Pam (District 3) asked if the library fundraising could cover some of the higher interest payments, instead of the town being responsible for it all. She also objected to the $400,000 automatic book sorter that was planned to occupy the current Director’s office. She does not want to see the historic office destroyed and feels that the book sorter is not a necessary expense.
Ellisha Walker (at large) wanted to see the cash flow projections for the project and wanted to know why the topic was being taken up now, when bids will not be due until at least February. Griesemer said that “people are more likely to bid on a project if they know the money is there, and if they know the amount.” “Also,” she said, “ to encourage fundraising.” Peirent then clarified that the bidding is a two-step process. The town must prequalify contractors and subcontractors before even starting the bidding process. He said, “There is no commitment of funding to that, but it begins the process of defining who the potential pool of contractors would be.” The request for bids will be advertised in January for receipt in February or the beginning of March.
Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) then stated that, by her calculations, the estimates for only repairing the library would cost the town more than the entire demolition/expansion project. However, she had not considered the possibility that other funds committed to the library, such as CPA or federal or state funds, could be applied to a renovation only project.
Griesemer then called for public comments. Toni Cunningham said that “…time and again, I’ve heard the Town Manager say he cannot move forward with a project without having funds secured. Why is it different with this project? To date, only $500,000 of the trustees’ $16.5 million has been deposited with the town, and only one of the six MBLC payments has been received. We need to see the cash flow for the project showing when the additional MBLC and library share payments will be deposited with the town, and we need to see the financial model showing the impact on the town’s capital budget and reserves. Right now, I cannot see how this is not extremely risky and how it doesn’t jeopardize the timeline for all of our other capital projects and our ongoing capital needs.”
Jeff Lee felt that this supplemental borrowing authorization is being rushed and lacks adequate information for a good decision. He continued, “Griesemer and Bockelman’s description of the library project sounded more like an infomercial for the project than a balanced look at the pros and cons.” He also noted that the capital campaign has never offered any contribution to the repairs needed to the library, only to the new project.
Ken Rosenthal echoed what Lee said, stressing the rushed nature of this important decision even though it does not need to be passed for several months. He appreciated the work of the trustees and fundraiser, but said, “We want the best library for the town at a price the town can fairly afford.”
Vince O’Connor noted that much of the fundraising is actually taxpayers’ money from different sources. Then he raised a different point. He said the documents he has seen do not show how the project will be staged — will it necessitate taking all of the parking spaces behind CVS, which “will explode the downtown in a way that I think would cause so much disruption that the library project is not worth it? I would urge the council not to approve the bonding until they get a definitive statement as to how the construction is going to be staged and what the implications are for other downtown activities.”
Maria Kopicki noted that bids for projects often come in much higher than cost estimates, and that the library will likely need to raise far more than another $7.5 million. She aso objected to the seeming rush to allocate the extra money for the project.
Speaking for the project was Kelly Erwin, who said she is devoting a great deal of time to raising funds to support the library. Erwin encouraged those who are concerned about the funding to join the fundraising effort to “create the community jewel that we need in the center of our downtown.” She also pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce and the BID (Business Improvement District), as well as businesses downtown, are supportive of the project and have not complained that it will hurt their business.
The additional borrowing for the library will be discussed at the November 17 Finance Committee meeting, which is also a meeting of the full council, and brought back for a public forum and council vote after a recommendation by the Finance Committee. It will most likely not be voted on at the November 20 council meeting.