Town Manager to Explore Moving $53M Library Project Forward



Outlines Four-pronged Approach to Addressing Lone Construction Bid

On May 7, Town Manager Paul Bockelman updated the Jones Library Building Committee (JLBC) on the construction bids received for the estimated $46.1 million Jones Library Renovation-expansion.   In what Bockelman described as “an awakening,” the town received only one general contractor bid which was $7.2 million over the projected construction cost of $35.5 million.

See related Jones Library Expansion Project on Hold. Town Manager and Public Respond to High Cost Estimate

Bockelman said that more information is needed before an informed decision can be made on how to proceed and described four options that the town would pursue to keep the project viable.

  1. Accept the Fontaine Brothers Bid.
    Bockelman said that he has until June 10 to accept or reject the bid and acknowledged that the Town Council would need to increase the $46.1 borrowing authorization it approved in December if a contract were to be signed. The additional money would come from town funds or “from someplace else,” he said.
  2. Re-bid the project.
    State law allows the town to reject the lone bid and go out and re-invite bids in the hope of a more competitive response.
  3. Wait until September when the market may have improved, and re-bid.
    Discussions with the Colliers project management team and Finegold Alexander Architects (FAA) have led to speculation that the unexpectedly high bids were the result a low number of subcontractor bids and only a single general contractor bid being received.  More interest from bidders might be seen in an improved market.
  4. Make design changes that would lower the cost and re-bid.
    This would entail asking bidders why they set their bids so high and adjusting the design accordingly.

The Town Manager then explained a final alternative.  “The last option is to say the bid came in too high, we don’t have enough funds, we will now terminate this project.”

The May 7. 2024 Jones Library Building Committee Meeting

Pam Rooney, recent Town Council appointee to the JLBC, asked if the town could negotiate with the lone bidder.  Amherst Capital Projects Coordinator Bob Peirent answered no, that this would probably be flagged by the state Attorney General’s office as circumventing the bidding process.

JLBC member Alex Lefebvre asked what is the role of the JLBC in this process.  Bockelman explained that if there were to be design changes, the JLBC would become involved, but the decision is ultimately up to the Town Manager.

Rooney said that she understood that the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) who have awarded $15.6 million in state grant funds to the project will not allow scope changes, but asked if they might reconsider given the dire situation.

Library Director Sharon Sharry responded that the MBLC has been clear that this would not be allowed.  “This grant program is not in place for building maintenance, building repairs, that kind of thing,” said Sharry.

JLBC member Christine Gray-Mullen asked what the process is for moving forward if funding is insufficient.  Bockelman replied that he is first working to understand why the bid came in so high.

“No one has stepped up from the council or private sector and said ‘hey, we can cover that’ so I’m not looking at that as the first option. It might be a situation where we have multiple solutions.”

Pointing out that it is still early in the analysis, Bockelman said, “There are going to be a lot of people who are going to have to make decisions along the way before we get there, if we’re going to accept this bid. That’s the operating principle.”

He added that he has heard that Fontaine Brothers is a good company to work with.

Asked for advice, Colliers Owners Project Manager Tim Alix explained that a typical strategy would be to look at cuts to equipment and other things that could be purchased out of Operating Capital in coming years, and reduce features that do not affect programming such as landscaping and finishes.

Ellen Anselone, a principal of FAA who have to date been paid $1.8 million for design services and producing construction documents, said that an unusually low number of trade (subcontractor) bids were received, and suggested that more might be interested in the fall.

Library Trustee Farah Ameen asked if the MBLC construction start deadline of June 30 could be relaxed.  Bockelman indicated that if an option such as re-bidding in the fall were pursued, permission from the MBLC would need to be sought.

Rooney pointed out that a number of design and project management invoices had been paid without JLBC approval and asked it Colliers and FAA would continue to be paid during this decision making period.

“We have not had that discussion at this point in time,” answered Bockelman.

Rooney commented that the unusually high number of construction document addenda and repeated extensions of the bid deadline may have played a role in the high bid.

FAA’s Anselone argued that the 24 addenda could be attributed to the electronic bidding system.

“With BidDocs, every time they got a piece of paper they made it an addendum,” she said.  “The substance in the addenda was minor.”

Analysis by the Amherst Indy found that the 24 construction document addenda totaled 1175 pages and included the addition or replacement of entire sections and schematics.  Four addenda were released during the last week of the bid period and after sub-bidding had closed.

Town Treasurer Jennifer LaFountain reported that Jones Library Capital Campaign (JLCC) remittances to the town stood at $1,600,000, not the $1,650,000 reported by the JLBC in their April 1 report.

Rooney pointed out that Amherst has received one disbursement of $2.7 million in grant money from the MBLC and asked if it would need to be returned if the project does not go forward.

“I think their expectation is that we would pay them back,” said Bockelman.

OPM Alix presented invoices from FAA totaling $78,738.50 and a Colliers invoice for $10,978. These were approved unanimously.

Public Commenters Question Wisdom of Continuing Project
During the Public Comment period Jeff Lee asked if the Town Manager has considered how prolonging the library project might have an adverse effect on the upcoming $97 million Fort River Elementary School project.  Fontaine Brothers, the lone library general contractor bid is also one of four general contractors submitting pre-qualification proposals for the school project.

“I don’t know if [Fontaine Brothers] can do two projects at once. If they can’t it would reduce the competitive bids from contractors on the school project,” Lee said.

Ken Rosenthal appealed to the JLBC to abandon far flung ambitions and look to repair and renovate the existing structure without tearing down the 30-year-old 1993 addition.  One reason he gave was that advancing technology increasingly allows patrons to retrieve library materials electronically without setting foot in the library.  He pointed out that more than half the town population is college-age students who have three very large institutional libraries of their own.

Rosenthal concluded, “In my experience donors are giving to projects they believe in. If they believe in this library and if you come forward with a new plan the donors aren’t going to walk away. They want what’s best for the town and what’s best for the library.”

See related Popp Report Offers Affordable Alternative To Costly Jones Library Expansion

Maria Kopicki chastised the committee for not meeting for the past four months to review thousands of dollars in invoices that had been submitted.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “You got an extra year [after a previous $10 million cost escalation] to do all this changing and said ‘let’s take it to bid and let’s see what happens’ and then you said if we don’t have [funds raised] by then and if the bids come in high, we’re going to go to something else. You said that!”

“This is the Town’s money,” she continued. “It is the town that’s going to be on the hook for this. If anybody has any faith whatsoever in anything you come up with from this point on, I mean that’s just nuts.”

See related Opinion: Town Leaders Need to Get Real

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13 thoughts on “Town Manager to Explore Moving $53M Library Project Forward

  1. When the sole donor for wonderful North Amherst Library accessibility/enhancement/improvement project — a project whose cost doubled, and then doubled again, during design a bidding process! — publicly states that she’s ready to go to jail to stop this out-of-control Jones Library demolition/expansion/historical-desecration project, maybe the person or persons continuing to push on with this should think twice?

    Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

  2. The FAA contract for the bid phase was for $81,750. According to documents shown on the screen at this meeting and received via a public records request, it looks like FAA has been paid $342,836 since the bid phase began.
    How is it permissible to pay well beyond the contracted fee?
    If you had an architect provide you with an estimate for their work and then they needed to revise and revise again for whatever reason, would you pay for all that rework?

    This project has racked up more than $2.3 million in expenses to date. This exceeds the $1.8m agreement by half a million dollars. That is a lot more than the Regional School Committee is asking for to retain critical teachers. The FY25 budget projects spending $1.3 million on Library project debt service alone.

    Somebody needs to stop the bleeding and stat. We were told “just let it go to bid” and that if the bid(s) were above $46m, and there wasn’t enough in contingency to cover the difference, then the expansion project wouldn’t move forward. But now the Town Manager is considering “options”? The only responsible option at this point is to reject the bid and quickly move to replacing the HVAC system and possibly the roof. Enough already.

  3. Rob, your comparison of the library project to Pete Seeger’s Waist Deep in the Big Muddy couldn’t be more apt.

  4. I have yet another question: who makes the decision about whether to continue the Jones project or scuttle it and maybe turn to upkeep, repair and renovations? Town manager? Jones Trustees? Jones building committee? Town Council?

  5. What also comes to mind is “Full speed ahead — damn the torpedoes!” This is a strategy that can work, though there are no guarantees. It worked out pretty well for David Farragut, originator of the phrase. However, the same plan of action didn’t work out so well for the Light Brigade, though they did end up with a nifty poem to guarantee their immortality.

  6. This lone high bid comes after ‘value engineering’ altered the voter-approveds plans for an ecologically-sound library, And altered Not in a good way–the plans now yield a building possible, at some future date, and with additional funds, to be ‘green’.
    This lone high bid is a reality-check. The wise would take heed. Renovate Only.

  7. In all of these issues there should be a “Tax Cost Clock” which is a clear but conservative financial cost estimate for ALL of these major buildings (1) Fire (2) DPW and (3) Senior Center. We are considering these issues with horse blinders one at a time. So far the “Cost Clock” is roughly at $125 Million with School and Library. The Fire and DPW could add $35 Million more and the Senior Center cost??? $160 Million minimum for all projects? So all of these projects with rising interest rates or further delays or normal cost overruns could push these projects towards $200 Million? I am not a conservative tax opponent but anyone within reason has to demand a total cost picture – even if these are just rough estimates. And we should work NOW to find cheaper build options NOW because research takes time and elbow grease. Other towns form committees with resident and local board experience and this cost is minimal. If Town Staff says they are too busy for future planning and budgeting then all the more reason for committees as other towns are doing.

  8. I vote for renovations of all the delayed maintenance at the library, and do a needs analysis of what services and resources are needed to be improve or implemented, and what “excess properties” we have to deliver those services and resources, whether through the library or the town.

    My hope is that Wildwood School could be the additional community space, upgraded over time, get what funding and grants for various things, and at the same time we are land-banking a well located public asset that the town can use for a senior center, teen center, black box theater, early childhood center, and other things that may be clarified by a needs assessment of our community.

    note: I am combining my own point of view with several intelligent ideas I’ve heard from other Amherst residents

    Town leaders have stated publicly that the land will likely not fetch enough from private developers to make it a windfall; I take from that it’s worth more to the town than to a developer.

    This is a time for a divided town to tolerate and even appreciate each other, so that we can control the chaos of exhorbitant tax bills and public needs not getting met. We need to collaborate to explore some creative solutions, or we’re in for more lose/lose.

  9. I continue to be completely mystified by the grasping at straws, telling lies big and small, and just the general willingness to go for desperate measures to push this unaffordable and unnecessary boondoggle forward. What I don’t understand is why the people trying to force it through are so adamant. It certainly can’t be good financial management, given the town’s many other important and urgent priorities and the additional property taxes our already overtaxed citizens are going to have to cough up. It can’t be the need for additional library services our more than adequate library provides. Is it an attempt to paper over the years of demolition by neglect the building has suffered? Is it resume building or a vanity project? I don’t believe there’s any venal corruption going on. So what is it? Why are some people so intent on pushing this thing?

  10. Louis Conover: I don’t believe there’s any venal corruption going on. So what is it?

    However one feels about the original project, the underlying proposal has modified, and the cost has increased. Sticking with a project even as cost increases and value decreases is the very definition of the sunk cost fallacy.

  11. Janet, to answer your question about who has the power to determine the fate of the Jones Library project, Town Manager Paul Bockelman has stated that “ultimately it is the town manager’s decision,” and his statement is backed up by Section 3.2 of the town charter which assigns the town manager the responsibilty of “awarding and executing procurement contracts.”

    Even the Town Council appears powerless to stop the library project unless going forward requires increasing the $46.1 million borrowing authorization.

  12. Couldn’t the Town Council rescind the $46.1 million borrowing authorization? It could determine it is no longer financially viable and take a vote to rescind it.

  13. Yes, Toni, you are correct. The Council could vote to rescind the $46.1 million borrowing authorization for the renovation-expansion.

    Given the fact that the Jones Library Board of Trustees has just approved recommending that the Town reject the single construction bid, and considering the town’s other budget pressures, rescission would make a lot of sense.

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