Library Trustees Keep Expansion Project on Life Support


Report on the Meetings of the Jones Library Trustees, May 20, 2024 

The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded.  The recording can be viewed here.

Tamson Ely, Austin Sarat (Chair), Farah Ameen, Lee Edwards, Eugene Goffredo, and Bob Pam

Sharon Sharry, Library Director

Ellen Anselone and Josephine Penta, Finegold Alexander Architects

Eurene Goffredo recused himself for most of the meeting because his spouse, Ginny Hamilton, is on the payroll of the Jones capital campaign.

25 members of the public were present, nine of whom asked to speak during public comment.

Jones Library Trustees Meeting, May 20, 2024
The main item on the agenda was consideration of a motion to send a letter to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), asking them to extend their funding deadline. The MBLC grant of $15.3 million to the town stipulates that construction for the library demolition/expansion project begin by June 30, 2024.  The Trustees voted 4-1 with Bob Pam dissenting to approve sending the letter requesting the extension though the contents of the letter were not discussed nor available in the meeting packet. 

Public Comment preceded the vote.  Supporters of the library project endorsed the effort to seek more attractive bids in the fall and praised the trustees for efforts to keep the demolition/expansion project alive in the face of escalating costs. Critics of the project asked what keeping the project alive for another six months would cost (estimates have been over $100,000/month) and how would those costs be covered?  Those questions were not addressed by the committee.

Discussion of the Motion to Seek an Extension
Trustee Chair Austin Sarat said that receiving this extension would allow the board to move forward with their renovation and expansion plan. He anticipates sending the project out for rebidding in September 2024. Town Manager Paul Bockelman rejected the lone bid received by the town fulfilling a request for that action from the Jones Trustees.  Sarat said that between now and the September call for new bids, the Trustees would work with Jones Library Building Committee to change the design to reduce costs, acknowledging that it is unlikely that any design changes could reduce the costs significantly. The hope, he said, is that “changes to the design might bring in more competitive bids which could close the gap between what is budgeted and what the project actually will cost.” However, there was no discussion of what those changes to the design might entail or how they might contribute to enticing lower bids. 

Sarat noted that the lone bid came in at about 18% (or $7.2 million) over the projected cost.  Library Director Sharon Sharry added that the subcontracting bids came in $64,000 lower than anticipated, but Bob Pam noted that the total for subcontractor bids did not include the costs of elevators for which no sub-bids were received.

Pam continued, “We want the costs of the project to go down but we also need to raise more money to make this work.  How is this playing out in the capital campaign?” he asked.

Lee Edwards responded, “If this motion passes and if negotiations with the MBLC go forward then the capital campaign will vigorously seek more pledges before new bids come in.”

Pam responded, “In the past, one of the explanations we’ve been offered for the slow rate of contributions is the uncertainty shadowing the project.  The uncertainty will continue to shadow the project as we don’t know how the new bids will sort out.  Is there any reason to believe that the uncertainty won’t impact fundraising efforts?” he asked.

Edwards responded that the trustees will urge the capital campaign “to pull all the stops out to collect statements of intention, because the more commitments we have, the more likely it is that the project will go forward.”

Will Getting More Bids Lower Project Costs?
The ensuing discussion focused on the theory that bringing in more bids would lower project costs. Why only one bid was received in the previous solicitation was not discussed, other than a suggestion that it might have been the result of seeking bids during the busy “summer slam season.” 

Sarat repeated the assertion from the trustees that a single bid tends to drive the cost up 20% and claimed that “if we can get more bids it is likely that the project cost will go down.” This assertion was challenged by Maria Kopicki during public comment (see below).

Anselone said that cost estimators for the project based their estimate on anticipating receiving five bids. When fewer bids are received the costs tend to go up and this happens industry-wide, she said. Absent competition, the project is going to cost more, she said. Notably, at the May 7 building committee meeting, Tim Alix from Colliers, the Owner’s Project Manager said “we pre-qualified six General Contractors. Sometimes people pre-qualify to keep their options open and don’t necessarily intend a bid. So we would not have expected, and I would be shocked and amazed, if we pre-qualified six General Contractors and actually received six bids. That would be very, very unusual. If we were to get three to four bids I would say we were doing great; two to three would be typical. We only got one which is unfortunate and unusual.” 

Sarat said that the Building Committee was going to make a purposeful effort to encourage more contractors to bid on the project but no one asked what that might entail. He added that the MBLC does not allow the square footage to decrease or the programming to change, implying that changes would have to come from elsewhere. He later hinted that perhaps just changing the timing of requests for bids might bring in more bidders which then might result in lower project costs. 

Pam expressed doubts.  He said “When someone is trying to sell a house, the wisdom is that you do it in the spring – because that’s when most people are looking to move. We put our project out in the spring because that’s when work is lined up by construction firms. If we put this out in the fall, will all of our prequalified bidders already have a full slate of jobs?

Sarat thought that asking for bids in September might be even better timing.

Anselone added “Our independent estimators suggested that there is less of a crunch for contractors in the fall. Summer months are crazy with all of the college campus and school contracts.”

Edwards wanted to know how the plans might be modified and whether those modifications will be fully in the plans going out to bid so there won’t be a lot of addenda this time around.

Anselone responded that there are always questions from potential bidders and those will be responded to in addenda but there will be no new specs going out as there were the last time, implying that no design changes would, in fact, be incorporated into the new bid package.

Pam wanted to know how substantial the anticipated redesigns would be and what they will cost.

Sarat said, “we don’t know but we hope that the changes will be sufficiently significant to save a substantial amount of money.”

Edwards wanted to know if the MBLC would likely be amenable to an extension and Sharry assured her that she had already broached this with the MBLC and that they want the project to move forward.

Public Comment
Clare Bertrand thanked the Trustees for keeping the project alive.  She said that the increasing expense “is just a bump in the road” and that she believes that the people of Amherst want this project to move forward.  “The town voted for this”, she said “and costs have gone up across the board.”

Jeff Lee asked how much the new design work will cost and who will be paying for it?  “The town has already incurred a significant cost for moving the project forward.” he said.  He also asked to see the proposed letter to the MBLC and wanted to know why it was not in the packet.  

Pam Rooney shared Lee’s concern about the costs of redesign. She also questioned whether the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the town and trustees needs to be restructured,

Letitia LaFollette said she was speaking for her entire family, including District 3 Town Councilor George Ryan. She repeated that  “there was a town-wide vote in favor of this” and that the added expense was “just a bump in the road,”  so the town should not give up.

Kelly Erwin thanked the trustees for keeping the project going.

Arlie Gould said that she recognized possible benefits of moving forward but also benefits to shifting to a more modest project of repair and restoration.  She said she believes that by moving forward with the project, the town would be taking on too much risk.

Maria Kopicki told the board that they should not be voting on a recommendation to seek an extension when they don’t know the cost or who will pay for it. She added that “we don’t even know who is responsible for the money that has already been spent on keeping the project going. How can you direct folks to move forward when you don’t have a plan?“  She pointed out that in believing that bringing in more bids would drive down the costs, the trustees were confusing correlation for causation. “The cost was not $7.2 million over estimates because you only had one bid;  You only got one bid because the project is so expensive,” she stated.

Kent Faerber, Chair of the Friends of the Jones Library, strongly supported the request for extension and proposed rebid process.  He said, “More bids and changes in the plan and more fundraising offer us an opportunity. If the project is abandoned right now, the town will be wondering 10 years up the road why we left them with unresolved problems. The Police Station and High School were considered extravagant at the time and proved to be worth it. We ought to pull out all of the stops to make this happen.”

Prior to the vote, Pam asked to make a statement.  He then read a prepared statement in which he argued that the expansion project was no longer viable. He said that he hoped that the capital campaign would have come forward with a lot more money by now and that he saw no possibility of the project becoming affordable.  He urged the committee to not seek the extension and to dedicate their efforts to a more modest and affordable repair and restoration. He noted that redesign expenses for the rebid would cost $250,000 or more.  (Design expenses of the last several months have average over $100,000/month). New contributions from December to May totaled $425,000,  of which $250,000 came from Amherst College.  Local, non-institutional gifts are averaging $25,000 per month but, he said, the project needs four times that to meet its goals, and with the anticipated increased costs, the monthly requirement has at least doubled.  “What will change for the capital campaign in the next six months?” he asked.  “Relying on bidders to reduce the cost of the project is just unrealistic. The risk to the library’s endowment and to the town is considerable.”  

Pam then condemned a letter that had been widely circulated by a consultant to the library that disparaged critics of the project as liars and bullies. He said, “We can’t ignore or silence those voices that have concerns, or disparage those who don’t want the project to move forward.”  He asked the Trustees to make an explicit statement disavowing  the letter and such tactics, but the Trustees did not respond to this suggestion.

Sarat did say, “I believe that we have listened respectfully and have not been dismissive in any way.” He added, “If we abandon the project we abandon the needs of teens, children, English language learners, and diversity in the community. So we will seek a less costly way to make this happen. We need to determine the best way to make this project work.”

Pam reported that the current value of the Jones Library endowment is 8.9 million. 

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7 thoughts on “Library Trustees Keep Expansion Project on Life Support

  1. Sometimes a picture is worth the proverbial thousand words.

    Also consider this: For $45 to $50 million, Baystate Health will build a new, 90,000 SF state-of-the-art community health center. For a similar sum, Amherst will get 15,000 SF and some degree of renovation.

    Sometimes hanging on to what you desperately want means you can’t see what else you might possibly have.

  2. I write this as a now disinterested bystander — what are you going to do if you demolish the existing building and then realize that you don’t have enough money to build a new one?

    Inflation is back — it may turn into the double-digit inflation of the Carter years and it may go away — I don’t want to go into politics here but both possibilities are possible.

    And let’s look at some of the serious mistakes UMass has made. There were supposed to be SIX North Apartments (not just three) but the price of steel went up so much that they didn’t have enough money to build the other three. And there were supposed to be SIX (not five) Southwest towers — that’s why Washington is called ‘Tower 6″ to this day.

    “Tower 3” wound up becoming a dining commons because they ran out of money, the revenue on their bonds didn’t produce the income anticipated and they simply didn’t have enough money to build the third tower of the first SouthWest project.

    What is going to happen if you wind up with a hole in the ground and not enough money to build your new library???

  3. FAA and Austin Sarat argue that a primary reason for the extremely high bid was that only one bid was received, and the logic they are pushing is that a rebid in September might attract a greater number of bids, hence resulting in a much lower bid than the one that was $7.2 million over budget. Setting aside for the moment the many reasons why contractors chose not to bid on this project, I looked into this argument about more bids = lower bid to see if it justified keeping the project going.

    I found reference in the cost estimates to the study by the US Army Corps of Engineers that Ellen Anselone of FAA said cost estimators use. There is a chart called “Effect of Competition on Prices,” which shows the Number of Bids and a corresponding Bid Factor. With only one bid, the bid factor is greater than 1.20, or more than 20% above the estimate. Two bids = 15% over. Three bids = 10% over, and so on. To get to a bid factor of 1, where the bid matches the estimate, you would need seven construction bids — but there were only six pre-qualified General Contractors.

    At the Jones Library Building Committee meeting on May 7, Tim Alix from Colliers (the OPM) said he would have been shocked if all six pre-qualified contractors submitted bids. In fact, Alix said “two to three bids would be typical.” Using that chart, even if we did receive three bids, the lowest bid would likely be 10% over budget. Plus, if I heard him correctly, Alix said this week that by pushing the project back another six months to try bidding again, cost escalation alone would add $800,000 to $1.2 million to the project cost.

    Costs will continue to increase, the building has already been extensively value-engineered, and the probability of a bid coming in below the $35.5 construction budget ($46.1m total project cost) is zero. With all this in mind, why would a decision be made to rebid?

  4. Is there a limit to how much we are going to spend on this project? And who will make that decision?

    Keeping the project on life support comes with a cost. The taxi meter of accumulating costs is ticking as the project has been sent back to the architects for redesign and the preparation of new bidding documents. Design and OPM invoices for JAN 24-MAR 24 ran over $100k/month. Now we are asking for more design work and the preparation of new bidding documents. Those costs will continue to add up for the next six months as the town prepares to send the project out for rebid in September against the very unlikely chance that costs will go down. Who will make this decision of how much more to spend? Who will pay for these added expenses? If it’s going to be the town then shouldn’t these costs be capped given that design expenses are already way over budget? As a matter of good faith with Amherst taxpayers, the decision (whether to spend more) ought to go back to the Town Council for a formal appropriation decision on whether to pour more funds into this floundering project.

  5. I can understand the reluctance to be the decider who pulls the plug on this project. There will be anger and resentment, no matter what happens. I do hope the needed robust discussion happens, at the Town Council level, even if it’s the manager’s decision. If a full discussion of the Town Council, with public input, results in the decision to shift to Plan B/ renovation, it will need facts and reason and fairness and understanding, and some leadership in the healing department. If it was to result in the Town Council guaranteeing the new total, they’d really need to explain their reasoning, and their math. This should not be continued because nobody wants to say no. That’s not how a household works, and not how a town should work.

  6. An earlier commenter mentioned the “sunk cost fallacy” at work here with the Jones Library demolition/expansion project: we’ve sunk so much into it already, so we should continue to sink even more into it, in the vain hope of recouping our already-likely-lost investments.

    As much as a mathematician might prefer to reason axiomatically about whether the Jones project should have even more of Amherst’s buried treasure sunk into our titanic ship-of-books — whether it should sink or swim? — it seems that idiomatic reasoning is preferred around Downtown because, even if it leads to nonsense conclusions, it’s a lot more fun — and really good for business!

    It’s even more fun to reason with mixed idioms or malaphors — a neologism at which the spell-checker aboardThe Indy tilts when the windmill blows — so here goes:


    1. If those of us who think it wise to abandon this project immediately are truly the “rats” of Amherst, then what does that say about our titanic ship-of-books?

    2. And why are the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness howling about the need to rearrange its deck chairs — at even greater public expense!— over the next 3 months of navel-gazing engineering, just to have an slim opportunity to recoup perhaps a fraction of that expense by virtue of having possibly more than one “O Captain! My Captain!” to bid on the chance to guide this ship-of-fools”?

    Q. E. D.

    Or, in the more aethereal world of foil fencers fencing on the head of a pin:


    Ginsberg: 1
    Dickinson: 0
    (Whitman, referee)

  7. Just to put in perspective the cost of the project
    For $14Million you can buy all the houses currently listed for sale in Amherst, we could have a spread out library throughout all neighborhoods and at the same time, solve some housing issues (i.e. splitting the larger houses into a ground floor library, upstairs house, or with the rest of the expected expenses build an ad-on unit as permitted by zoning

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