Amherst finance panel backs raising town borrowing cap for Jones Library project

The Jones Library on Wednesday afternoon in Amherst.

The Jones Library on Wednesday afternoon in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-30-2023 11:15 AM

AMHERST — A nearly $10 million increase in the town’s borrowing authorization to match the full cost of the $46.14 million expansion and renovation of the Jones Library to ensure the project moves forward is being recommended by the town’s Finance Committee.

With a large amount of information in hand, including documents showing estimated debt service for the project and cash flow projections, the committee on Tuesday voted 3-1, with the three non-voting members in support, to endorse the request for a supplemental appropriation for the project. District 5 Councilor Ellisha Walker voted against the recommendation and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen abstained.

The projected cost of the project has increased from the $36.3 million borrowing limit approved by councilors April 5, 2021.

In a related 4-1 vote, with Walker voting no and the three non-voting members in support, the Finance Committee recommended that a memorandum of understanding between the Town Council and trustees for the Jones Library, last amended on Oct. 27, 2022, be updated to reflect the latest cost estimates. That memorandum give protections to the town from covering any additional costs.

The Finance Committee votes set the stage for the Town Council to act Monday on increasing the borrowing authorization, with nine of the 13 councilors needing to vote in favor before the project goes out to bid.

“It is not a request to increase the town’s local share, which will not change,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman wrote in a memo. “The town’s share will remain at $15,751,810.”

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The funding for the project, in addition to the $15.8 million from the town, includes $1 million from the town’s Community Preservation Act, the $13.8 million original grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, and a $1.69 million supplement from MBLC last spring, with the remaining $13.8 million coming from various parts of a capital campaign, including a $1.1 million federal earmark.

Council President Lynn Griesemer, also a member of the Finance Committee, said the town has already received a $2.76 million payment from the MBLC, while the library has previously made a $500,000 payment. The town will not have to pay any borrowing costs until 2026, Griesemer said.

“We are not in a position at this point where we have to borrow anything,” Griesemer said.

Projections presented show that the interest to be paid by the town for the project will be around $8.7 million. Those estimates come from $764,070 related to Bond Anticipation Notes and $7.9 million for the town’s share of a 20-year bond.

The town has a $145 million debt limit, with $53 million committed for the library project and the reconstruction of the Centennial Water Treatment Plant.

Griesemer said there have been calls from people in the community to explore whether Amherst College, which recently pledged $1 million toward the library project, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, also contributing $1 million, can speed up their gifts. These discussions will be in progress, Griesemer said.

There have also been concerns that the town is footing some of the bill for the capital campaign. Bockelman said the capital campaign costs are not borne by the town.

Schoen said she wants people to understand that increasing the borrowing authorization could have an impact on the town’s five-year capital plan, and that the town might lose wiggle room for other needs.

Advocates of the renovation and expansion project point to the projected $19.4 to $21.7 million cost to repair the Jones Library and bring it into code compliance, meaning that the town would have to pay more than its costs for an expanded building. Those repair estimates could be higher based on asbestos abatement and bringing the building into compliance with the energy code.

In answers to questions posted by the Finance Committee, officials provided a memo asserting that rejecting the increase in borrowing comes with risks.

“While only time will tell how a decision to not increase the debt authorization will affect federal, state, and charitable support for future town initiatives, it is very likely that it will,” the memo reads, pointing to the 2017 Town Meeting vote that defeated a new twin school at the Wildwood School site.

“When the town rejected the first elementary school project the efforts to repair the town’s reputation as ‘difficult community to deal with’ took significant effort by town board/councils and individuals to develop restored confidence by the MSBA. But, it cost us. We are now paying for a beautiful school at double the cost of the previous proposed project,” the memo reads.

Finance Committee member Bernie Kubiak supported the increase in the borrowing authorization. It is important to stay in good standing with the state and show that Amherst is willing to remain a partner, he said. “That stuff gets looked at, and it gets looked at very hard,” Kubiak said.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, who chairs the Finance Committee, said library projects take time and Amherst could be instructed by what is happening in a neighboring community, where Shutesbury voters rejected a library project in 2012 and, 12 years later, might break ground on a new library in 2024.

Some residents continue to worry that the cost of the library project will have an impact on funding for roads and sidewalks, along with a new Department of Public Works headquarters and a fire station for South Amherst.

South Amherst resident Maria Kopicki said an increase in the borrowing authorization could increase the likelihood that town officials dip into the capital stabilization fund for routine expenses.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.