Opinion: Councilors Approved Another $10M for Jones Expansion but Got Nothing in Return


Photo: Daniel F. Pulu. Creative Commons

Art Keene

When Amherst Town Councilors voted to borrow another $9.8 million for the Jones Library expansion project on December 18, they made little effort to take into consideration the widely-held concerns about fiscal risks to the town that the additional borrowing entailed.

The weak protests from a handful of town councilors, arguing that they have misgivings but no choice but to approve further borrowing, was really a failure of those councilors to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to the town. They have essentially handed the Jones Trustees a blank check, ensuring that each time that they come back to the town with their hands out – and they have already indicated that they will – that councilors will have no choice but to grant them more money.

Even if the councilors felt that they had no alternative but to cave to the demands of library zealots, they might have acted more forcefully to protect the fiscal interests of the town and its residents. Each councilor has a vote. Withhold five and you can hold up the borrowing process and gain concessions. But even without five votes, speaking up would have helped to raise awareness about the growing risks to the town. Councilors had every opportunity to ameliorate those risks. But councilors who professed to have misgivings about the project pretty much surrendered without a fight.

Here are sIx demands that councilors who professed misgivings might have made to ameliorate risks to the town that came with additional borrowing
1. Jones Trustees Should Absorb The Risk: The town entered “negotiations” for a revised MOA with the Jones Trustees, seeking six measures that would protect the town’s fiscal interests. The trustees rejected all six and indeed, insisted on an MOA in which the town took on all of the risk as well as added fiscal obligations. It is baffling to this resident why the Jones Trustees call all the shots and why the town’s representatives refuse to act in defense of the town’s interests. Right now, the town assumes all of the fiscal risks for this project. If the trustees fail to raise the dollars that they have promised or to meet their payment schedule (resulting in added interest costs to the town), that is solely the town’s problem. The new MOA gives the trustees even more wiggle room to (fail to) meet deadlines. Councilors should have insisted on more protections.

2. Jones Trustees Should Pay Interest for All New Borrowing: Councilors should have insisted that the Jones Trustees pay all of the interest on any new borrowing. This only makes sense after the promise from most councilors prior to the recent town elections that the town’s commitment would be frozen at $15.8M (plus nearly $10M in interest on that amount). No reasonable explanation was offered as to why these additional expenses should be the town’s responsibility, nor did anyone raise the issue. The excuses proffered by trustees that interest doesn’t count or that interest on the additional borrowing will be minimal are deflections that deserve to be challenged. The burgeoning costs of the library are out of control. The trustees have promised to pay for all cost overage beyond the original town commitment, and that should include interest.

3. No Items Should Be Paid by the Town at a Later Date: The trustees have removed items from the latest cost estimate (e.g. furniture, landscaping, and possibly a book sorting machine) in order to make the cost of construction appear to be less expensive than it really is. The library director has already stated that she will come back and ask the town to pay for these items at a future date. The new MOA promises to not make these requests – which, in today’s dollars, look like they would require over $2M to fulfill, until after library construction is complete – a pretty weak deal for the town. Councilors could have prohibited these requests or insisted that such known expenses be included in the cost estimate and the plans that go out to bid.

4. How Much is too Much? Put a Cap on Maximum Town Contribution to the Library: It is highly likely, if the other library projects around the Commonwealth (or indeed our own Centennial Water Plant restoration) are any indication, that this library is going to cost A LOT more to build than the $46.1M currently projected by the trustees, and that will mean more borrowing and more interest burden on the town. Several trustees and councilors have indicated that the project must proceed forward regardless of the cost. The Town Manager and Finance Committee member Cathy Schoen have said that if the project becomes “too costly”, that the town will have to walk away. But no one has been willing to say what too costly means. Before approving additional borrowing, councilors could have demanded a cap – saying that we will approve no more beyond another $X Million. Personally, I think that investing in a $50M library is ridiculous but councilors should make a commitment and say explicitly where they will draw the line – no more than $60M or $70M, or $80M or more. Otherwise, we really have granted the trustees a blank check, and at the expense of many other pressing town needs.

5. What are the Impacts of Burgeoning Jones Costs on Meeting Other Town Needs?: Several residents have been requesting an analysis of the impacts of additional expenses on other capital spending. The Town Manager has indicated that there will indeed be impacts but has declined to provide an updated financial model or spending analysis. Councilors had a responsibility to identify what those impacts are before they committed to further spending on the library.

6. More Transparency: The trustees seem quite comfortable with spending our tax dollars but not so comfortable with being transparent about their actions. Their meetings are, for the most part, not recorded and recently, not broadcast over Zoom. Key documents are excluded from meeting packets or, in the case of the latest cost estimate, withheld from the public. (The Indy had to file a public records request to gain access). Figures provided are of questionable veracity or are difficult of verify, and bookkeeping for the capital campaign, is hidden from public view. Given the dependence of this project on the town’s largesse – the trustees ought to be more transparent and more forthcoming. This is something that councilors could have required in exchange for their votes

Art Keene is a resident of Amherst’s District 3, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass, and the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy. His four children are graduates of Amherst Regional High School. He was head coach of the ARHS girls cross country team for 17 years.

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4 thoughts on “Opinion: Councilors Approved Another $10M for Jones Expansion but Got Nothing in Return

  1. Art makes good points all around. It’s a pity that the populace hasn’t focused on these. In addition, some functions shoehorned into the Jones could have been located at the Bangs Center. When I taught a course there a few years ago, the building was half empty much of the time. An old saying comes to mind: no good deed goes unpunished. Those believing this project is exempt are likely in for a surprise.

  2. The Town will, in fact, get a much better library facility that serves everyone.

    Let’s not forget that the Jones is the Town of Amherst’s public library.

    And yes, while I am a 29 year taxpayer and resident expressing my personal opinion, I am also working professionally on the project.

  3. Meanwhile, the Town will not, in fact, get a safe and appropriately functioning DPW building, new Fire Station or Senior Center that serve everyone, at least not in the foreseeable future.

    And, lest we forget, the Jones is but one of three Amherst public libraries and is not owned by the town.

    And yes, while I am a 46 year taxpayer and resident expressing my personal opinion, I am not also working professionally on the project.

  4. It’s unfortunate that Town Council and Management decided to push the Library before the DPW and Fire Department needs Seán.

    When I started working out of the DPW in 1975, the building was in bad shape then. We did our best to add office space and have heat but after 38 years there, it was good to go to the Treatment Plants and get out of the building. I can just imagine what it is like now!

    With the upcoming Tax increase for the school, like you say, the DPW and Fire will be slighted again. Very disappointed in the voter turnout in this town and the avenue our town council took in this regard.

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