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Amherst finance panel taking hard look at Jones project funding

  • An artist’s conceptio shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. Scott Merzbach



Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2022

AMHERST — In trying to confront the significant cost increases facing the project to expand and renovate the Jones Library, and the possibility the project may not move forward, town officials are beginning to explore whether undertaking only repairs and renovations to the building is possible.

On Tuesday, the Finance Committee drafted a series of questions that it will present to the Jones Library trustees and staff that will indicate whether some combination of fundraising, grants and state support will allow the full-scale project to proceed, even as it has gone from an approved $36.3 million cost to one now estimated at around $49.3 million, after $1.7 million in “value engineering” reductions.

The committee was starting a process that will lead to the Town Council deciding soon whether the project — which might hinge on the library’s contribution through fundraising and other sources increasing from $5.6 million to $18.6 million — is achievable.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said any decision on proceeding, or halting the project, will need to be made expeditiously, likely in the next few weeks, as costs are only expected to rise should there be delays.

“There is no fixed date, but time is of the essence,” Bockelman said when asked about a deadline.

Finance Committee Chairman Andy Steinberg, who is also an at-large member of the Town Council, said the session was a “learning opportunity” for councilors, as their original approval of the expansion and renovation plan, granted on April 4, 2021, was for a $36.3 million project.

That plan included a $15.75 million local share, coming from property taxes through a borrowing authorization, a $13.87 million Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners grant and a $5.66 million commitment from the Jones Library trustees. There was also $1 million provided from the town’s Community Preservation Act fund.

The Finance Committee will meet a second time on the topic, and the Town Council will also discuss the plans at its meeting on Monday. “This is an extraordinarily complex issue,” Steinberg said.

Before the project can go out to the bid, likely next summer, there could be as much as $1.5 million to $2 million more spent for Finegold Alexander Architects of Boston to complete the schematic designs, and for Colliers, as the Owner’s Project Manager, to oversee the project.

Bockelman said a strong funding plan for the entire project needs to be in place before that outlay can be made.

An existing memorandum of understanding between the Town Council and trustees for the library calls for the $5.6 million fundraising commitment to be backstopped by the Jones Inc. endowment, which was $8.2 million as of Sept. 1. “That was the guarantee for the town for what the commitment was,” Bockelman said.

Still, Bockelman said the council could pledge more taxpayer money to cover the costs of the project, including the expenses associated with getting the bid documents ready.

Lee Edwards, a member of the trustees, though, said it might be helpful to have trustees carry all the costs to the bid process.

“I think that’s an option for the trustees to offer that,” Bockelman said.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who is also a member of the Finance Committee, said the Town Council has to look beyond just one building, with plans to construct a new elementary school, a Department of Public Works headquarters and a fire station in South Amherst.

“We, as a Town Council, have to step up and look at the whole thing,” Schoen said.

If the library project as envisioned can’t move forward, Schoen wondered if the town could “turn on a dime” to a backup plan to repair and renovate the library, with earlier estimates that doing only that work would be in the $15 million range.

“Could we get a proposal back to us in the spring of 2023?” Schoen asked.

At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said one of the questions she needs answered is what happens if fundraising falls short of expectations.

“If we don’t reach the fundraising goals, what would be the course of action then?” Walker said.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller said she would need to understand what happens with needed repairs should the preferred project be scrapped.

“I think it would be good on us to somehow express to the public clearly what this process is,” Miller said.