Council Narrowly Defeats Move to End Jones Library Expansion Project


Architect's rendering of the proposed Jones Library addition. The Jones Trustees voted on June 4 to adopt several value-engineering cuts to the plans incudling substitution of smaller "store front" windows for curtain windows. Photo: Jones Library

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, June 3, 2024.  Part I

This hybrid meeting was recorded. It can be viewed here. Thirty two members of the public attended on Zoom as well as three in Town Hall.

Present: Present
Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, Ellisha Walker (at large), Freke Ette and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), George Ryan and Hala Lord (District 3), Pam Rooney and Jennifer Taub (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier and Bob Hegner (District 5).

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

The Jones Library expansion project was finally on the Town Council agenda, after requests by several councilors prior to the May 6 and May 20 meeting were ignored. After a prolonged debate, a motion by Cathy Schoen (District 1) to advise the Town Manager to halt the project was rejected by a 6-7 vote. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) then used the charter provision that allows any councilor to stop discussion on a second motion, advising the Town Manager and Jones Trustees to rebid the project as it is, without incurring extra expenses for redesign and without value engineering that eliminates most of the sustainability and historic preservation aspects of the project.

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) will decide whether to grant Town Manager Paul Bockelman’s request for an extension of the June 30, 2024 deadline to begin construction on the Jones expansion at 10 a.m. on Thursday, June 6. The architects Finegold Alexander Associates (FAA) requested that a contract for additional design work, estimated to be $800,000, be signed by June 10.

Bockelman Presents Options
Bockelman stated that there is general agreement that the library needs repair and renovations, and that the trustees had deferred capital requests for the past decade in anticipation of the expansion project. He said that when he makes decisions, he takes into account what the town wants, and that the library expansion has been approved every time at every decision point by the Town Council and the public. He added that many people working on this project for many years, faced the challenges of COVID-19 and cost escalations and that the one bid on the project far exceeded the funds allocated. 

Bockelman maintained that the subcontractor bids came in under budget, but he neglected to account for the plumbing and electrical bids that were withdrawn. When these bids were replaced by the next lowest sub-bids, the total was $69,000 over budget. Also, there was no bid submitted for the elevator. He acknowledged that the project presents many challenges, including a restricted site, historical restoration, and asbestos abatement. He noted that the designers hoped that a rebidding process would garner multiple bids and that competition would lower costs, although he acknowledged that cost escalation would also occur over this period. He listed three options facing the town:

  1. Stop the expansion project and repair the library.
  2. Rebid in the fall, in the hope that market conditions will have changed to bring the cost of the project closer to what the town could afford.
  3. Value engineer the design to lower costs and then rebid in the fall. This would entail substantial design costs, estimated to be about $800,000 and would involve elimination of environmental and historic features. 

The town, however, must first obtain an extension from the MBLC, which stipulated in its $15 million grant that a construction contract be signed by June 30, 2024. Bockelman asserted that the $15.8 million that the town committed to the project leverages $30 million from the MBLC and the promised additional fundraising efforts. He estimated that repair work alone would cost about $20 million plus about $2 million in design costs and still involve relocating library services for a period of time, though others have challenged that estimate. He did concede that there was risk in continuing to pursue the project.

Councilors Take Sides on the Project
Bob Hegner (District 5) asked how confident the fundraisers were that they could raise the additional funds for the library’s share of the project, with more than $20 million needed for the current bid. He said that it is very clear that the town cannot commit more than the $15.8 million specified in the Memorandum of Agreement between the town and the library. 

Cathy Schoen pointed out that the $15.8 million did not include interest on short term bonds that the town would also be liable for. She added that the council was assured by the library that, if the additional $10 million in borrowing was approved in December, donations would increase, but they have remained low, and the library is still $900,000 short on the January 31, 2024 payment due to the town. 

Pam Rooney (District 4) noted that rebidding with value engineering as discussed at the last Jones Library Building Committee (JLBC) meeting would involve continuing to spend money on design services and most likely lead to further escalation in construction costs. She asked who would be responsible for the extra design costs, because there is not enough money left in the grant money paid from the MBLC to cover these costs.

Supporters of the expansion among the councilors voiced their arguments for continuing the project. Andy Steinberg (at large) asserted that repairing the library with no expansion  could cost more than the expansion, citing the four-year-old Kuhn Riddle estimates and the escalation costs added by Projects Manager Bob Pareint. He noted that the repair plan did not include asbestos abatement. 

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) agreed that the repair option may cost more than the town’s commitment to the expansion project, and suggested that it may be cost-effective for the town to increase its contribution to the expansion above the $15.8 million in the MOA. She said that the statement that the town will not give the Jones “a penny more” was made by President Lynn Griesemer, and was not a statement of the full council.

Griesemer then seemed to backtrack on her own words, hinting that she might be amenable to devoting more money to the project. She said that the library was essential for growing community needs and would be a home for the Civil War tablets, now displayed at the Bangs Center. She asserted that the worst time to go out to bid on a project is in the spring, and that more competitive bids would be likely in the fall. Schoen pointed out that the bids were supposed to go out in January, but were not ready, requiring over 1000 pages of addenda. 

George Ryan (District 3) and Freke Ette (District 1) cited the imperfect information available about the cost of the expansion project and repair option. Ryan felt that the trustees should pay for any redesign costs. 

Hala Lord (District 3) said she loves the Jones Library, but worries that the town will be “on the hook” if the fundraising for the expansion falls short. She has been hearing from her constituents that they are concerned about their children losing services and educators due to budget cuts while the library project continues.

Ellisha Walker (at large) said that the library is in this desperate condition because of deferred maintenance, and she did not want to delay fixing it any longer. She also asked why the town should be fully responsible for repairs. She stated that the trustees should be willing to fundraise for repairing the library, not only the expansion project. Griesemer countered that most of the donors she knew would not contribute to a repair project, and that the town does not ask residents to donate to schools or other public buildings. Jennifer Taub (District 4) disagreed, saying the town she last lived in had a fund drive for library repairs. 

In making her motion to halt the expansion project, Schoen said that several councilors have been asking for a comprehensive and updated repair plan for over a year, but she did not believe that any progress would be made until the larger project was halted. Bockelman agreed that the town has been concentrating on the expansion project, and that developing a repair option would be a complex process. Rooney said that the three main things that need to be done are to fix the leaking roof, replace the HVAC, and replace the fire suppression system. Hanneke added that “asbestos abatement is not optional” and that library patrons in wheelchairs deserved an elevator large enough to allow them to turn around in. She felt rebidding the project was the best option.

The motion advising the Town Manager and trustees to abandon the expansion project failed by a vote of 6-7, with Schoen, Walker, Lord, Rooney, Taub, and Hegner voting for it. Schoen then proposed resubmitting the same bid, and not removing sustainability and historical features from the plans and paying for more design costs. 

DeAngelis Uses Right to Postpone to Stop Debate and Prevent Vote on Second Motion
Steinberg , Griesemer, and Hanneke felt the second motion was not a valid motion for the council, and Ryan felt it encroached on the trustees’ right to make decisions about the library. Hanneke noted that the charter gives the manager the authority to enter into a contract, not the council. 

Ana Devlin Gauthier noted that the public voted for the expansion project in November 2021 but Schoen pointed out that the proposed value engineered design was vastly altered from the design presented to the public in 2021. Devlin Gauthier countered that the ballot question only authorized borrowing $35 million for the project, not the design. “There’s no picture in the motion language,” she said. When Taub pointed to the claims made about the project in the brochures circulated by the Friends of the Jones Library that are not applicable to the current project, Devlin Gauthier replied, ”Oh I know, but people put out campaign literature all the time.”

Debate was ended when Pat DeAngelis (District 2) moved to postpone the vote until the next meeting. The charter allows any councilor to postpone a vote until the next meeting of the council. There is no debate on the motion to postpone. Schoen noted that the next meeting is scheduled for after the contract with the designers is due to be signed on June 10, so Deangelis’ action has the effect of depriving the council of the opportunity to discuss the issue before a decision is made.

Public Comment Weighs Against Library Project
Maria Kopicki thanked the councilors who persevered to get the library project on the agenda, but unfortunately it happened after the Town Manager filed for an extension with the MBLC. She noted that the project cost has risen from $35 to $55 million, and now the designers propose to gut the historic integrity and sustainability features of the plans in an attempt to lower costs.

Toni Cunningham maintained that the Jones Library expansion project is nonviable, and the trustees still owe the town $900,000 in agreed payments from January. She said, “I can guarantee that the Town Manager will be back before you in December asking for more money.” 

Meg Gage said she has observed that public opinion is changing on the library expansion, and that some prior supporters have changed their mind. She recommended a listening session or survey to better gauge community support for the project.

Arlie Gould stated that the Jones Library has failed to meet the requirements of the MBLC grant and is now asking for an extension. Meanwhile the problems of the library continue to worsen. She spoke for ending the funding for this project and bringing back a more modest plan to renovate the building and reconfigure the space.

Process for Filling Vacant Position on the Library Trustees Set to Begin on June 16
Jones Library Trustee Treasurer Bob Pam is moving from the area, leaving a vacancy on the trustees. The town will use the same process that was used to fill vacancies on the school committee and Housing authority. Interested applicants should fill out a Community Activity form and submit a statement of interest. Candidates will be interviewed by the councilors and the remaining trustees who will vote on which candidate to select. The trustees will meet with the council on Monday, June 17 at 6 p.m. to discuss the process.

According to a timeline proposed by Griesemer, the vacancy will be posted on June 18, and applications with statements of interest due by 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 9. Interviews of applicants are projected to be on Monday, July 15.

A description of the Jones Library Trustee charge may be found here.



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2 thoughts on “Council Narrowly Defeats Move to End Jones Library Expansion Project

  1. “Griesemer then seemed to backtrack on her own words, hinting that she might be amenable to devoting more money to the project.”
    It certainly seemed that way. So much for her word on “not a penny more.”

    The fiction that the expansion would cost the Town “just” $15.8 million needs to be called out every time. We should be using the figure $33 million cost to the Town for the expansion project (not counting the interest on long term borrowings).

    As Schoen accurately pointed out, the very substantial short term (BAN) interest that the Town Manager unforgivably committed the Town to paying is on top of the $15.8m. So add at least another $2 million for that.
    There’s $250,000 for the utility upgrades at the fire station that they have cut from the latest “value engineering” plans, as well as another $250,000 in “deferred” items. So add $500K.
    They cut $1 million from the furniture budget in the last round of VE and Sharry indicated she will come back to the Town for. Add $1m.
    And since the Library Capital Campaign has only handed over $1.6 million to date, it would be prudent to assume the Town will be backstopping the full remainder of the cost. There is no guarantee that any of the claimed pledges to the capital campaign will materialize. The library director is now admitting they are no longer expecting to get historic tax credits, and some of the other grants were contingent on maintaining historical preservation or sustainability, both of which have been all but cut from the project.

    Even if the project was doable for $50 million, the only money we can count on is the state’s $15.5 million (which takes a few years to come in) and the $1.6 million received from the Library so far. That leaves the Town with a tab of $32.9 million.

    According to the awful MOAs that the Town Manager signed, the Town will be paying all of the interest on both short and long term borrowings as it waits to be repaid by the library and the state. Judging by the fact that the library has been unable to pay $900,000 that it owed by January 31, 2024, I wouldn’t bet a dollar on them being able to pay their share. The shortfall now far exceeds the entire library endowment, which was being used as collateral.

    And to add insult to injury, if this project does happen, we also can predict electricity and building maintenance costs will be much higher since the latest design is for a crappier building (single pane windows, low quality roof and siding, no solar, etc.)

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