Amherst piecing together capital projects puzzle  

  • Finance Committee Chairman Andrew Steinberg emphasized the need for the town plot out how it will proceed on four major projects — and build community support for the work — in a recent memo to the Select Board. JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Saturday, September 14, 2019

AMHERST — With more than $150 million in building projects looming, including a new elementary school, a renovated and expanded library, a new Department of Public Works headquarters and a fire station for South Amherst, town officials are trying to create a process by which each will be able to proceed. 

But not knowing when the various projects will commence is making it difficult for the Finance Committee and Joint Capital Planning Committee to begin crafting a strategy for funding the projects and sequencing them. The work has been made more difficult because the town is waiting on state grants for the school and library.

Still, in a memo sent to the Town Council by the Finance Committee this week, there appears to be consensus on the need for a mechanism to continue to update the community about grants for the projects, to get updated project costs, and to identify other factors that affect the projects and future community conversation.

“We need to build a community understanding about the need for these projects, the options costs, including the cost of no action, and the timetable,” Finance Chairman and At-Large Councilor Andrew Steinberg wrote in the memo.

That memo came after a joint meeting of the Finance and capital planning committees held earlier this month, at which Steinberg said that once the town starts moving on the first project, it will have to determine a schedule, or sequence, for the others. As this happens, the Town Council will need input from residents.  

“We really need to find ways that all of us can hear from constituents,” Steinberg said.

The council could use district meetings as a way to provide information and hear back from the public and may also call a forum on the topics, potentially modeled after ones the School Committee has done for the elementary school project.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said outreach and consistency will be vital.

Even if a plan is developed, it is evident that officials will be asking taxpayers for significant support, even if the Massachusetts School Building Authority accepts the town into the program for funding in December, and next summer the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners OKs a grant for the library.

Over the winter, estimates for the four projects in the pipeline were unveiled, including renovation or replacement of the aging Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools at between $47.4 million and $76.8 million, constructing the new DPW headquarters at $38 million, building a new fire station for $24 million, and renovating and expanding the Jones Library for $35.6 million. While the school and library are in line for state support, the other projects would be paid for entirely with town money.

Whether those estimates are accurate is uncertain. Griesemer said the precise costs of the police and fire projects has never been determined and won’t be known until schematics are put together.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said the expenses are “sobering” and that Amherst will not be able to do all four projects without successful passage of one or more Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion overrides that will require a significant increase in property tax bills.

“We need to absolutely have an idea as to whether the residents of this town can accept overrides and how much they might be able to accept overrides,” Hanneke said. 

The Finance and capital planning committees will offer guidance to the Town Council as it begins to make decisions.

One way the public could stay informed is through an online tool being created by Sean Mangano, the town’s capital projects manager.

Although this hasn’t gone live yet, the interactive tool will give people some sense of how much the building projects will cost, along with various funding scenarios for them.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.