Area libraries seek lifeline from state as project costs escalate 

  • Tilton Library in Deerfield was approved for state financing in 2017, but renovation costs have since gone through the roof. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Patrons enter the Jones Library in Amherst on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, August 29, 2022

In a bid to secure more American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money for pandemic-induced cost increases, Deerfield, along with Amherst, Orange and five other Massachusetts towns, has sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker and to state Senate and House leaders appealing for state relief.

In July, Deerfield, Orange, Gloucester, Grafton, Seekonk, Westborough and Westford were awarded Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) grants to fund their library projects, but the grant process requires libraries to apply for the grant years in advance, setting an award in stone, which means unexpected cost changes — especially those caused by the pandemic — are not accounted for. Amherst accepted its MBLC grant in 2021, but inflation has ballooned renovation costs for the Jones Library by more than $11 million.

“Here in Deerfield, we were ecstatic to receive the news that our grant application proposal — submitted in 2017 before the COVID-19 pandemic upended all of our lives — had finally been approved. It was to pay about half the cost of the project,” the Deerfield Select Board’s letter reads. “But Deerfield’s euphoria (and that of our seven fellow communities) has quickly faded. We have collectively experienced sticker shock upon examining the true post-COVID costs of building our library projects.”

Deerfield Select Board member Tim Hilchey said the letter is an opportunity to show the state that communities across Massachusetts are being hit by these cost increases, and with a supplemental budget expected to pass this fall, it’s a chance to dole out more ARPA money that the federal  government may “claw back” if it’s not spent.

“It’s obvious that all eight of these communities are going to have a hard time making up the inflationary post-COVID price increases,” Hilchey said by phone. “These cost increases are directly related to COVID and that’s what ARPA is for.”

Hilchey said he and fellow Select Board member Carolyn Shores Ness called the other six towns in this year’s round of MBLC grants — Amherst reached out to Deerfield — and asked if they’d join in on the letter.

“They’re all happy to participate in this effort,” Hilchey said. “All of the towns expressed interest in receiving more money and we hope that we can reach the governor in a timely fashion.”

Austin Sarat, president of Amherst’s Jones Library’s board of trustees, said Deerfield’s letter “states the problem quite accurately and identifies a way of dealing with the problem.” The Jones Library’s hard costs, including construction of the building and landscaping, were pegged at $26.9 million when the project was approved; those costs are now estimated at $38.5 million, if the project breaks ground in October 2023.

“This is not simply a problem of this town or that town, it affects many towns,” Sarat said. “Certainly the experience in Amherst is exactly what was described, the question is how can we deal with those escalating costs … (Deerfield) has put the ball in play, to use a sports metaphor.”

The Jones Library submitted its grant application in 2016 and the library was awarded a $13,871,314 provisional grant in May 2021. With the price increases, Sarat said the board of trustees and town will need to “enter into a set of conversations” about what their options are for funding at this point in the project, which is “finishing the schematic design phase.”

Options, he continued, could be a bigger fundraising push from the library, an increased contribution from the town or reducing parts of the project.

“No reduction of the cost of the building,” Sarat said, “is going to to cover that escalation of cost.”

In the letter to the governor, Deerfield presents the importance of a community’s library, referencing Andrew Carnegie’s famous description of a library as a “never-failing spring.”

“Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Polito, this is a generation opportunity to help nurture a ‘never-failing spring’ in each of these communities,” the letter reads. “We ask that you hear our plea and provide additional ARPA funds to our communities. We will use them in the spirit for which they were intended.”

While Amherst is currently in the design process, the seven towns in this year’s grant round have six months to match the grant, otherwise it is lost and the towns must start over. In Deerfield, residents will have a chance to decide on borrowing money for the Tilton Library’s project at an October Special Town Meeting and possibly during an election in November.

“We’ll see what the voters decide,” Hilchey said. “A library is a hugely important part of the community and we need to attract more young people and young families to the community, and one way to do that is to have high-quality institutions like libraries.”