Library Supporters Turn Out in Force for Jones Renovation: Vote on More Town Borrowing Postponed Until December 18


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Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, December 4, 2023

This meeting was conducted in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here

In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen, (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes and Pam Rooney (District 4), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), and Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Participating remotely:  Michele Miller (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3 and Ellisha Walker (at large).

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Griesemer announced that there were 30 to 40 people in person in the Town Room and 56 on Zoom.

Well-organized Supporters Dominate Public Comments
As opposed to the November 20 council meeting, where those opposed to borrowing another $10 million for the Jones Library expansion made up the majority of speakers, this meeting saw supporters of the project come out in force, many of them wearing campaign buttons to show their  support of the project. Most echoed the points made by the paid director of the library’s capital campaign, Ginny Hamilton, in the Amherst Current.

During the robust public comment period, which lasted over an hour, several supporters cited the results of the November 2021 vote in which 64% of those voting supported the project, falsely claiming that the vote was 64% of Amherst residents. Others spoke for the town’s needing a “first-class library” and of the “successful fundraising campaign” so far. Several speakers claimed that the library project would have no impact on other needed projects in town, such as a new fire station or DPW building. Speaking in favor of the increased borrowing authorization were Katherine Appy, Neil Immerman, Ellen Boucher, Christine Piet, Erika Zekos, Carol Johnson, Bill Wehrli, Gretchen Plotkin, Jennie Riley, Todd Holland, Nancy Ratner, Cheryl Zoll, Susan Tracy, Rebecca Nordstrom, Deb Leonard, Nina Mankin, and Monica Moran.

Anne Harrington maintained that sustainability measures were preserved during the value engineering of the plans, and that she and her spouse “definitely do not want our donation put toward patching up the existing building,” which she claimed would cost the town more than the town’s budget for the larger project. She also said that the concerns about the DPW and fire station being delayed have already been addressed. Janice Lefebvre offered to give the full amount of her five-year donation at this time “to help silence possible concerns about fundraising.”

Dale Peterson and Nancy Campbell compared the Jones project to the failed mega-school proposed for the Wildwood site that was voted down in a townwide vote, followed by  a town meeting vote, in 2017. Peterson said that the soon-to-be built net-zero elementary school at Fort River cost the town an additional $30 million and meant students and staff had to “endure facilities which were unhealthy and dysfunctional, and the same situation exists with the Jones Library.”

Cammie McGovern cited the need for a teen room, alleging, “When you have a door you can shut, you have teens empowered to create their own programming that they can take care of themselves, talk to each other, form bonds. The Jones could do all of that. They only need the space. They currently have two bean bag chairs for a teen space, which is not adequate.” Laetitia LaFollette asserted that the expanded library is “critical to the future of Amherst as an inclusive community” and “will also serve as an important economic driver, as you have heard from the BID [Business Improvement District] and small business owners in town.”

But urging caution about the increased borrowing were Rudy Perkins, Toni Cunningham, Jeff Lee, Maria Kopicki, Rob Kusner, Janet Keller, Lou Conover, and Vince O’Connor. Cunningham said the campaign for the increased library bond has been “filled with exaggeration and mistruths with the best-case scenario for [the large plan] — and the worst-case scenario for plan B [repair only]. She pointed out that the trustees are unlikely to meet their schedule for reimbursing the town, severely impacting the town’s 10-year capital plan and reserves. Perkins suggested changes to the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the library and the town, to better protect the town by having the library pay the interest on the short-term loans needed for the project and adding a way to enforce that the library pays what it owes the town.

Kopicki decried the fact that several councilors on the Finance Committee and the Town Manager were willing to spend some of the town’s capital reserves to decrease borrowing for the library if fundraising comes up short, when they had refused to lessen the tax burden on residents for the new elementary school because, they had said, those reserves had to be saved for the needed new fire station. She said, “It’s been long clear that there is nothing that several members of this body could learn that would lead them to vote no on the library project. Their lack of critical questioning makes it clear that it really doesn’t matter to them how much it costs, how much risk it entails, or what impacts it would have on other town needs.” 

Janet Keller said that the library is not the highest priority for the town and that repairing streets and sidewalks, building a new fire station and DPW, and investing in net zero upgrades in town buildings should take precedence over funding so much of the library expansion.

Convoluted Discussion Results in Postponing Vote on Increased Appropriation for Library
The Town Council’s discussion began with Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg stating that the committee recommended that the council approve the increased borrowing with a change in the MOA specifying that the library must raise $13.8 million toward the project by one year after the building is completed. He reported that several officials met with the Jones Library Trustees on December 1. He said the Trustees agreed verbally to a new MOA and would begin to transfer funds from three bequests left to the library totaling about $290,000 as soon as the extra borrowing has been approved.

Pam Rooney (District 4) wanted to be sure, however, that the library would be liable for cost overruns and that the town’s contribution would be limited to the $15.8 million already agreed upon. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the new MOA only authorizes a total of  $46.1 million that the town must borrow prior to reimbursement from other sources and fundraising. He explained, “If the bids come in one dollar more than that, the council will have to authorize additional borrowing,” which requires the approval of nine councilors. 

Dorothy Pam (District 3) worried that once the project is started, the town will be forced to spend more to cover cost overruns, and that it would be at the cost of public safety. Cathy Schoen (District 1) said the MOA needs a table to list anticipated funding sources and when payments are due, along with assurance that any shortfall will be the responsibility of the trustees. (Some anticipated funds, such as more than $1 million in historical tax credits, are counted in the funding but might not be awarded.) She also thought that the trustees should share in paying the interest owed on the short-term bonds that are needed, which has risen from $48,000 in the original $36 million MOA to a current $750,000. She said,  “We don’t have a Plan B [repair only] [because]  Plan B has fallen by the wayside. We need to increase public space, so I am a cautious yes — if we can tighten the MOA and ensure that the library won’t come back to the town for funding for [things like] furniture or AV equipment.”

Council President Lynn Griesemer said the library is looking toward collecting money that has been pledged to the project earlier than planned to reduce the need for short-term borrowing. Pledges to be paid over time are from Amherst College, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. 

Rooney and Jennifer Taub (District 3) wanted the amended MOA, specifying the additional fundraising commitment of the trustees as well as the above-mentioned points to be signed prior to the council vote authorizing additional borrowing. Griesemer countered that this could delay the vote  and that she was not sure when the trustees will meet again. Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) stated, “The trustees have agreed in principle to signing that MOA, I don’t see why we cannot trust our fellow elected officials that they will uphold their word on that agreement.”

Ellisha Walker (at large) said she has not received the information she requested on the impact of this increased borrowing on the town’s five- and ten-year capital plans and on the town’s reserves. She wants to review that information before casting a vote on the authorization. Griesemer referred her to the questions and answers presented at the Finance Committee meeting, but Walker explained that she wants more specific information on how the cash flow will affect plans for other capital projects.

Shalini Bahl Milne (District 5) did not feel that the MOA needs revision, because the trustees have raised $9 million, which, she said,  “almost covers the increase.” “We have an amazing group of people here who are raising funds. It is something we should be celebrating. We have all these agencies supporting the Jones Library. Seventy-five percent of the emails we received have been in support of the project, but I do want to acknowledge the 25% with concerns about increases in taxes. This is not going to increase your taxes. Whatever [money] we committed to is what we’re doing right now, and the rest is being taken on by the trustees.”

With the significant number of councilors expressing reservations about voting on the increased borrowing, Michele Miller (District 1) recommended that the vote be taken up at  the December 18 meeting so that Bockelman can  approach the trustees about firming up their expected contribution to the project and sharing in the increased interest costs. Bockelman did say he would suggest the changes in the MOA, but cautioned the council that it would be up to the trustees to accept or reject them. The vote was 10-3 to postpone the vote until December 18. Bahl-Milne, Pat DeAngelis (District 2), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) voted no.

Solar Bylaw Referred to Community Resources Committee
The Solar Bylaw Working Group (SBWG) completed its draft of a proposed solar bylaw, which included a map-based solar assessment of the town, a summary of community-based preferences for solar installations, and a draft of a solar bylaw. The SBWG consisted of Dwayne Breger (Chair, Energy and Climate Action Committee), Janet McGowan (Planning Board), Laura Pagliarulo (Conservation Commission), Jack Jemsek (Water Supply Protection Commission), Robert Brooks, Daniel Corkran, and Martha Hanner.

Planning Director Chris Brestrup summarized the proposed bylaw, which would apply only to solar installations of an acre or more. She noted that Massachusetts General Law prohibits towns from unduly regulating solar installation, except to protect health or welfare. She said the SBWG recommended that solar installations on farmland employ agrovoltaics, with crops grown under the solar panels, unless it is not feasible. The group decided not to limit the area of forests that could be cut for solar and not to require mitigation to replace trees lost because these limitations are not imposed on other types of development. The SBWG did recommend that the council consider measures to protect forest lands from all forms of development in the future, and that it encourage solar on the built environment.

Brestrup added that the draft bylaw still needs review by the Conservation Commission, the fire department, and the town attorney. She recommended that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) work to further complete the bylaw. Griesemer wanted the final bylaw to include protection of the water supply and battery storage safety, which she said she is increasingly concerned about. The draft bylaw was unanimously referred to the CRC, with a report back to the council by June 30, 2024.

Rental Registration Bylaw Vote Postponed Until January
With the meeting running past 10 o’clock, Schoen noted that there was no time for a complete discussion about the proposed Rental Registration bylaw. She said she has several suggestions about the policy. She asked for legal advice about the privacy implications of required inspections of rental units. Bahl-Milne also wanted to postpone the discussion, because of concerns expressed by landlords and tenants. Instead of delaying the discussion until January, the council sent the proposal back to the CRC for revision. Councilors were to convey their concerns and suggestions to CRC Chair Hanneke by December 8 for discussion at the December 14 meeting. Steinberg noted that Building Commissioner Rob Morra wants the policy finalized as soon as possible, so that it can be in place for the next rental cycle, which begins in fall 2024.

Other Topics Postponed to Additional Council Meeting on December 11
The state-of-the-town presentation, the Town Manager evaluation, the Town Manager goals, and the executive session to negotiate the Town Manager’s salary were postponed to an added council meeting to take place on December 11, after the orientation for incoming councilors. The new councilors, library trustees, and school committee members will be sworn in at a ceremony at the Bang’s Center at 6:30 p.m. on January 2.

The vote for increased borrowing for the library and the discussion of the FY2025 financial guidelines will occur at the December 18 council meeting.

The meeting adjourned at 11:06 p.m.


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2 thoughts on “Library Supporters Turn Out in Force for Jones Renovation: Vote on More Town Borrowing Postponed Until December 18

  1. Since when do we approve borrowing first and negotiate the terms of the borrowing afterwards? Who does this?

    The current MOA specifies that the town is responsible for interest payments on borrowing. Since interest payments will increase with additional borrowing – how is this not increasing the town’s contribution to the library expansion?

    Councilor Schoen has proposed a “compromise” in which the town splits additional interest costs with the Jones trustees and that this be written into a revised MOA. The Town Manager points out that a revised MOA can’t be forced on the trustees since they are “equal partners” in this project. Of course, the town is a partner as well and can’t be forced to borrow more money. If the trustess want even more money from the town, they should pick up the added costs of borrowing this money.

    If the town and its taxpayers are NOT going to be responsible for the escalating costs of the library project as town leaders and trustees keep asserting is the case, then the trustees must agree to cover the costs of all additional borrowing and that agreement should be included in a revised MOA, and that MOA should be signed BEFORE any additional borrowing is approved.

    Councilor Griesmer said that the trustees will not likely have time to consider a revised MOA before the vote on borrowing is held on December 18. That vote should be postponed until a revised MOA is signed with a commitment to cover ALL additional costs, including those for additional borrowing.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Art Keene’s statement above. The town needs an MOA that states clearly the town will not be responsible for any amount of money above what is already agreed upon.
    And it needs this MOA signed first. Mandy Jo Hannecke’s trust in the trustees is not good enough for me. Reading Jeff Lee’s columns on the library project is an education in the board’s ha it if disunformation. The town, it seems, is responsible for the interest on the 15 million dollar plus it would borrow. This comes to over 9 million more, above the “capped” amount.

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