×

Jones trustees back off reliance on endowment for library project

  • An artist’s conception shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. finegold alexander ARCHITECTS



Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2022

AMHERST — Trustees for the Jones Library are rescinding a recent commitment in which the entire Jones Inc. endowment would ensure the planned expansion and renovation project continues, but the elected board is pledging to cover all costs associated with getting the project out to bid next summer.

As the estimated cost of the project have risen from $36.3 million to $46.4 million, with the latest estimate coming after $1.9 million in reductions were recently made by the Jones Library Building Committee, the trustees’ decision on Monday commits to covering the $1.4 million or so that will ensure Finegold Alexander Architects and owners project manager Colliers International prepare the bid documents over the next several months.

Trustees President Austin Sarat told the Finance Committee on Tuesday that his board is still “all in” on the project, though using the $8.2 million endowment to backstop the entirety of project spending didn’t make sense for now.

“Given this other motion we passed, we wanted to focus the attention of the town on what is right before us, which is getting us through the construction bid phase,” Sarat said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he plans to sign a revised memorandum of understanding with the trustees. That arrangement, which takes into consideration the revised costs and the plan for covering those costs, is subject to approval by the Town Council. The memorandum is designed to protect the town’s investment in enlarging the building from 48,000 to 63,000 square feet, modernizing it and making it energy-efficient.

The Town Council approved the town’s $15.8 million spending for the project in April 2021 through a borrowing authorization from local property tax revenue, matching a $13.9 million grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, and $5.6 million in fundraising, and a $1 million grant from the town’s Community Preservation Act account.

With significantly higher projected costs, stepped-up fundraising is currently the means of making up the difference. Trustees and their fundraising team presented a chart showing that they can raise $14.1 million by the end of 2026 from the community, foundations and corporations, state and federal grants, and historic tax credits.

“This fundraising is scary, but I’m more comfortable with this than I ever thought I would be,” council President Lynn Griesemer said when presented with the plan Tuesday.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said Amherst officials need to find out the real project costs, and that can only happen if bids go out and contractors respond. Hanneke said it would be fiscally irresponsible not to find out what bids are next year, noting also that the town has not been asked to contribute any more yet.

“We need to give this project a chance to show that it’s only going to cost the town $16 million,” Hanneke said.

Repair-only estimates for the library, provided by Western Builders of Granby in 2017 and then revised by Kuhn Riddle Architects of Amherst in 2020, show costs between $14.4 million and $16.8 million.

With inflation, though, the costs of repairing the atrium roof and upgrading the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems could be as high as $19.5 million, with no grant from the state and no enlargement of the building. Hanneke said Amherst might be looking at significantly more outlay for an inferior product.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said she is disappointed in the process from the state due to the time between the grant award and the project going out to bid. But saying no would mean returning more than $1 million already disbursed to the town from the state.

In addition, the town would be left with a building that is environmentally inferior to the new one and doesn’t provide the space for programming and community building needed, or as Bahl-Milne put it, “we’ll end up paying more than we are expected to pay right now and be stuck with the old building.”

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis, though, said she worries that the path being followed is locking the town into a “grandiose” library, and the project may prevent paying attention to other building needs, including a new Department of Public Works headquarters and a fire station for South Amherst.

Similarly, At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said she worries about those municipal needs.

“My concerns are not just with the costs of this project in a vacuum, but in terms of other projects that need to get done,” Walker said.

The decision to not put the endowment at risk for the moment appeared to satisfy District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who said while it’s a decision of the trustees whether they tap into it, the endowment contributes about 12% of the operating budget each year.

“If it goes away, we have a hole in the operating budget by at least $300,000,” Schoen said.

Trustee Alex Lefebvre said the decisions about how much to draw from the endowment for the annual budget depend on numerous factors, including the town’s contribution and fundraising by Friends of the Jones Library.