Amherst council asks state to allocate some of its ARPA money for Jones, other library projects

  • A Jones Library patron exits through the front lobby of the Amherst library in 2021. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Monday, October 10, 2022

AMHERST — Calling on the state to once again be a “library champion,” the Town Council is appealing for more money to help fund the “once-in-a-generation” Jones Library construction project.

Councilors agreed Monday to send a letter to state officials asking that they allocate American Rescue Plan Act funds for the Jones project, which has seen construction costs jump significantly in recent weeks, as well as for other libraries being expanded, renovated or replaced across the state, including in Deerfield and Orange.

“We know you have been a library champion in the past,” reads the letter, signed by Council President Lynn Griesemer and endorsed by her colleagues at Monday’s meeting. “This grant is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our community to have the improved library facility and services it needs, wants and deserves, for at least the next 50 years.”

“We ask that you be a library champion again, and do all you can to provide additional ARPA funds to Amherst and the other 11 municipalities. Please help us make our library the true community hub it has the potential to be.”

The council voted 10-1 in favor of the contents of the letter, with two councilors abstaining from the vote. Only At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker objected to signing onto the letter, expressing worry that ARPA money should be prioritized for low-income residents and others with higher needs. District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen and District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney abstained from the vote.

Another concern came from District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam, who asked whether ARPA money might also be sought for projects being funded through the Massachusetts School Building Authority, including Amherst’s planned elementary school project that would replace both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools.

Griesemer said that effort is being considered, though school buildings are funded through a different pot of money based on the state sales tax.

The letter comes as concerns arise over whether the $13.87 million grant awarded by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners will be sufficient for what had been projected as a $36.3 million expansion and renovation. Recent estimates have shown that cost could be $10 million or more higher.

Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano, as well as Amherst’s legislative delegation, state Rep. Mindy Domb and state Sen. Jo Comerford, are expected to receive the letter.

The letter spells out challenges specific to Amherst, including the four major capital projects, which include the new elementary school, Department of Public Works headquarters and fire station, as well as the inflation and supply chain issues affecting all communities.

It also notes that the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program grants handed out $96.3 million for projects estimated at $235.5 million, while those estimates have gone up by 37%, to $323.2 million.

“To say we’re experiencing sticker shock is an understatement. The MPLCP funding has gone from providing our towns with 41% of the total project costs down to 30%,” the letter states.

Already, a letter was sent by the affected communities to the Baker-Polito administration asking to include an additional $87.7 million of ARPA money earmarked for library construction projects in the supplemental budget now being created. That would bridge the cost gap created by the pandemic.

Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry told trustees at a meeting in late September that libraries should know by Thanksgiving whether more state support will be provided. She said people who support the project should advocate on behalf of libraries in what ways they can.

Should the renovation and expansion project not move forward in Amherst, the town would still have to do work on the building to make it accessible, repair the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system and atrium roof, and do upgrades to other mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Those would cost the town between $14.4 and $16.8 million, according to estimates provided by a consultant two years ago.