Jeff Lee: Amherst needs info before raising Jones borrowing cap

The Jones Library in Amherst.

The Jones Library in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By JEFF LEE

Published: 11-29-2023 8:43 PM

Next week the Amherst Town Council will be deciding whether to add $9,860,100 to the $35.3 million borrowing authorization it approved in 2021 to pay for a renovation and expansion of the Jones Library that has been years in planning. Given Amherst’s competing budget priorities and past assurances that the town will spend no more money on the over-budget project, the information that has been made public regarding the status of the project is disturbingly incomplete.

Here are nine things that the Town Council should understand and provide to the public before making such a weighty decision.

Justification of borrowing costs. Amherst officials have promised that spending on the library will not exceed the $15.8 million previously appropriated. Yet, with interest rates near a 20-year high, it was recently revealed that the town is now expected to incur $9.1 million in interest costs over the term of the debt. Would approving more debt not be a broken promise to the public?

Updated schedule for funding the new DPW facility and Central Fire Station. These overdue capital projects are designated in the Town’s Capital Improvement Program as a higher priority than expanding the Jones Library. How and when will we pay for them if we increase borrowing for the library?

Comprehensive list of “value engineering” changes. Due to cost-reducing alterations, the library project that the Town Council and voters approved back in 2021 has changed drastically from what designers are now proposing. We need to understand if the downgrades are worth funding.

Weigh-in from Massachusetts Historical Commission on adverse impacts to a state and nationally registered historic property. Many have protested how the planned demolition and expansion will destroy aspects of the library building described in a Historic Structure Report commissioned by the town. To date, the Massachusetts Historic Commission has not vetted the proposed design as required by state law.

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Results of measurements required by 2023 Stretch Energy Code. The Massachusetts 2023 Stretch Energy Code requires that new library construction meet a standard for Thermal Energy Demand Intensity. The project designers have claimed that TEDI modeling is “looking good,” but this needs to be confirmed by an independent professional mandated for state-subsidized construction.

Historic trends in Jones Library annual attendance and number of books shelved. The library trustees claim that the Jones Library needs to be enlarged by 15,000 square feet to accommodate usage for the next 50 years. Is this claim backed up by data? With some estimators saying that new public building construction is now approaching $1,000 per square foot, it is essential to cost-justify the expansion.

Accurate disclosure of restrictions on the Library Capital Campaign’s grants and gifts. The Jones Library Capital Campaign claims to have raised $9.1 million in public grants and private gifts toward a commitment of $16.5 million in fundraising for the project. The capital campaign frequently claims that these donations are “non-fungible,” meaning that if the town does not agree to fund the full project, these funds will go away. This claim needs to be verified for all gifts and grants received. If the library were reduced to a Plan B limited to major repairs and maintenance, how much money raised could be used to support the costs?

An accounting of compensation received by capital campaign fundraisers. The campaign reports having spent $246,959 on fundraising personnel expenses to date. This is money that will be deducted from the campaign’s total reimbursement to the town and is therefore a public expense. And it is increasing monthly. Budgeting and ethical governance demand that a full accounting of fundraising expenses be made public.

Liability to the town if the library does not fulfill its fundraising commitment. With $9.1 million raised in 2½ years, the capital campaign remains $7.4 million short of its $16.5 million fundraising commitment. To date, the campaign has only remitted $500,000 to the town. What happens if the capital campaign has not raised the necessary funds when their full payment becomes due? Forcing the library to drain its endowment will severely restrict its operating budget and will likely require the town to come to the financial rescue once again.

The Amherst Town Council clearly does not have information adequate to accountably support authorizing an additional $9.86 million in debt for the library project. If satisfactory answers cannot be compiled and presented to the public before the Town Council takes up the question, it will be irresponsible to residents and taxpayers to approve additional funding of the library project.

Jeff Lee lives in Amherst.