Amherst council rejects pulling plug on Jones Library project

A Jones Library patron exits through the front lobby of the building.

A Jones Library patron exits through the front lobby of the building. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2024 7:22 PM

AMHERST — A process to seek new general contracting bids for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library by the end of the year is continuing after the Town Council narrowly rejected an advisory calling on the town manager to immediately halt the $46.1 million project.

In a 7-6 vote Monday, councilors voted against a motion by District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen to tell Town Manager Paul Bockelman to stop the project over concerns about continued cost escalation for the project at the 43 Amity St. building, and the lack of legitimate cost estimates for a repair-only option.

The nearly two-hour discussion and vote on the motion, which would have instructed the town manager to notify the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners that the town was ending the project, came after Bockelman recently turned down a $42.7 million bid from Fontaine Brothers Inc. of Springfield. That lone general contracting bid for the project was at least $6.5 million over cost estimates, and well over what the town has in hand to complete the work.

The project to enlarge and renovate the building is being supported by $15.8 million committed by the town and with support from other sources, including an MBLC grant, federal money and private fundraising.

But trustees for the library have asked the MBLC, which meets Thursday, to grant an extension for soliciting bids from general contractors until Dec. 31.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said the expansion project will lead to a community center providing space for Amherst’s growing needs, while repairs won’t.

“No matter what we say now, once we begin the discussion of how to address the serious repair needs of the library, people will want to move a wall, add a feature or make it more consistent with sustainability guidelines,” Griesemer said. “All of that will cost even more.”

Reflecting on the years of delays to get a new elementary school built, Griesemer said she fears that the repair-only option will not lead to a lot of donated money and people will be unhappy with the results, which wouldn’t include new spaces or room for displaying the town’s historic Civil War tablets.

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“I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place, and there’s a no-win situation,” Griesemer said.

In voting against Schoen’s motion, Griesemer was joined by District 1’s Ndifreke Ette, District 2’s Pat De Angelis, District 3’s George Ryan, District 5’s Ana Devlin Gauthier and At Large Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg.

Schoen’s motion was supported by District 3’s Hala Lord, District 4’s Pamela Rooney and Jennifer Taub, District 5’s Bob Hegner and At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker.

Schoen said the council needs to pull the plug on the project to move ahead with estimates for repairs.

“I think, unless we stop the project, we will not have an estimate, and the hope we’ll get a real estimate will never happen,” Schoen said.

The discussion came after Finegold Alexander Architects last week presented potential savings to the Jones Library Building Committee, so-called “value engineering” as it looks to close a nearly $7 million gap. These savings totaled about $3 million, including not restoring some of the historic millwork and eliminating a $400,000 book sorter.

Trustees President Austin Sarat said any redesign should get the next bids closer to the cash in hand. “The hope is because simply going out to rebid won’t save $7 million,” Sarat said.

Bockelman told councilors that the goals it has set for him and guidance remains that the Jones Library is one of four critical building projects, which also include the new elementary school, a new Department of Public Works headquarters and a South Amherst fire station.

Bockelman said the town’s commitment of $15.8 million leverages about $30 million in funding from the MBLC and private fundraising. A memorandum of understanding between the councilors and trustees states that $1.8 million from the Jones Inc. endowment is on the line to move the project forward, with no costs being borne by the town to extend the bidding deadline.

Hanneke said that the most recent repair-only cost estimates are for between $19.4 million and $21.7 million, and don’t include asbestos abatement, specialized code compliance as of July 1, or removal of the natural gas boiler. Hanneke said the project as envisioned is more fiscally responsible, with the total project cost less relevant than what the cost is to the town’s taxpayers.

“When I think about what to advise the manager to do, I cannot ignore the fact that if new bids come in at the amount that we’ve authorized for borrowing for an expansion and renovation project, the cost to the town will be less money than if we abandoned the project now and move to a repair-only option,” Hanneke said.

A subsequent motion by Schoen to pause all or most spending, including paying architect fees, never got to a vote when De Angelis used her privilege as a councilor to postpone the motion. Schoen said she was disappointed because that may mean additional contracts and spending by trustees happens before the councilors next meet on June 17.

Taub said she is worried about the “value engineering” proposed, including making the building solar ready, but not having the solar panels installed, using an asphalt roof instead of slate, linoleum instead of wood floors and removing the historic millwork. She said it isn’t the same project that voters were presented when more than 65% of those who voted endorsed it.

Also voting for Schoen’s motion, due to worry about not considering the Plan B, was Walker. “I think we need to seriously consider the repair option,” Walker said.

“I don’t feel the town can put any more than what we’ve done,” Hegner said. “If it goes beyond that, I have to vote no, because we can’t afford it.”