Guest columnist Betsy K. Mathews: Jones Library: ‘We don’t need; we can’t afford it’

  • An artist’s conceptio shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Lawn signs are up, websites have been launched and the local press is awash with persuasive ink as the campaigns for and against the Jones Library expansion vie for your vote on Nov 2.

In the face of a deluge of opinion pieces, as well as professional promotion, many loyal friends and supporters of our libraries remain unconvinced about the necessity and affordability of the proposed renovation and are still inclined to vote “No.”

The objections can be succinctly summarized — “we don’t need it” and “we can’t afford it.”

‘We don’t need it’

Amherst is a very fortunate community. It enjoys the luxury of three fine, functioning public libraries, each serving scores of loyal users, each indubitably in need of improvements: physical, programmatic and organizational.

But at this moment of existential uncertainties (climate collapse, record low birth rates, supply chain failures, pandemic unknowns) it cannot reasonably be claimed that the Jones, Munson or the North Amherst Library is in critical need of complex large-scale expansion.

When the planning for potential renovation began, the library’s 48,000 square feet should have been professionally assessed for more efficient and responsive use. The failure to undertake this preliminary, fundamental investigation has been a conspicuous and costly abdication of due diligence.

In this regard it is interesting to note the striking improvements recently achieved in the dear, diminutive North Amherst Library where there is barely room to swing a cat. In that tiny space culling the collection and shifting the minimal furnishings have created a new, more spacious sense of comfort and welcome.

On the other hand the current vision for improvements at the Jones Library calls for a 25% increase in size to 66,000 square feet. Amherst residents should ask hard questions about why Amherst, a town of 38,000 citizens, needs such a large library.

We can’t afford it

Notwithstanding a $13 million grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, if this proposed expansion is not defeated on Nov. 2, Amherst taxpayers will be left to bear a $22 million debt burden (the town plans are to commit $15.75 million for the project, and $6.6 million from other private and public sources).

Look at your real estate tax bill. Amherst has the ninth highest property tax rate of 342 towns in Massachusetts. Given that Amherst has few other revenue streams, this additional burden will inevitably fall on property owners.

Now look at your neighbor looking at her tax bill, or his as the case may be.

The cost of the proposed library expansion together with the other urgent, multimillion dollar capital projects will increasingly burden all property owners of all income levels, and serve as a barrier to young families settling in Amherst.

Friends and supporters of our libraries, who know that simpler and more affordable improvements to the Jones can be conceived and carried forward, will vote “No” on Nov. 2, confident that Amherst can start over with planning that without burdening many will better serve all residents.

Betsy Mathews lives in Amherst.