By Nick Grabbe
Rumors about the referendum on the Jones Library project were smacked down Friday by Library Director Sharon Sharry and other town officials.
One persistent rumor is that if voters affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote (with one abstention) to support the project, the library’s trustees plan close the two branches. “Absolutely not,” Sharry said. “The branches are not going anywhere. The trustees are committed to maintaining them. Both buildings are owned by the Town, and the deeds require that libraries be maintained there.”
Town Manager Paul Bockelman added that the rumor makes no sense, because an expansion of the North Amherst Library is already in the planning stages. It will provide a meeting room, accessible bathrooms and a lift, all paid for by an anonymous donor.
Another rumor is that current library staffers will be laid off because the project includes an automatic book handling system. “This will help staff manage increased usage and will perform tasks staff don’t need to do,” Sharry said. “They can then focus on patrons. No staff member is going to lose their job.” She added that this book-sorting system is typical for renovated libraries.
Opponents of the project have speculated that the library project would put approval of funding for a new elementary school in jeopardy. “Our goal is to not pit projects against each other,” Bockelman said.
The $36.3 million library project is funded by a $13.87 million state grant, $15.75 million in borrowed funds approved by the Town Council, $5.6 million in private fundraising and $1 million from the Community Preservation Act. Unlike the school project, it will not require a tax increase.
The debt payments on the borrowed money will not be burdensome because the Town’s indebtedness will drop to near zero in three years, “which is unheard of for an enterprise the size of Amherst,” Bockelman said. He added that interest rates are low and the Town’s bond rating is high.
The library rumors came up at “Cuppa’ Joe,” a program in which Bockleman meets regularly with residents and answers their questions.
The advocates of a “no” vote Nov. 2 have signs that read “Start Over Smart.” Sharry was asked Friday if the library could seek another state grant if voters insist that the current one be rejected and the entire project is reconsidered.
“The mechanical systems are all at the end of their lives, and it’s time for them to be replaced,” she said. The next round of grants would be in eight to 10 years, and Bockelman said that with construction costs rising at 4 percent a year and the possibility of 6 percent interest rates then, the scope of the project would be greatly diminished.
Town Council President Lynn Griesemer said she “struggled” with her position on the library project. But after two years of considering the facts, she was convinced to support it because without the state grant, the Town would have to spend almost as much money on library improvements, without getting an improved building.
“The real choice is ‘Do you want the existing library with the same facade and building, or do you want a modern library?’ Either one has the same cost,” she said.
Another rumor is that demolition of parts of the library would create more greenhouse gases than greatly improved energy efficiency in a renovated building would save. This assertion has been refuted by one energy expert on this blog, and another expert will be writing a post on this topic soon.
Town Council candidate Michele Miller asked how the library was advancing the goal of racial equity. Sharry said that last summer she received a comment that the Jones Library is not welcoming to people of color and is seen by some as a “white space.” “The library’s mission is to provide buildings that provide services that are open to everyone,” she said. “If someone is not comfortable, we are not meeting our mission. The library has never had this conversation, and it’s time we did.”
This equity initiative includes book displays, programming and even art on the walls. The library removed “a big painting of a wealthy white man so it is no longer the first thing people see” when they enter the building, she said.
The library’s endowment is now near $10 million, and trustees spent 4 percent a year to help cover operating expenses, Sharry said.
In other news at Friday’s webinar:
- Ken Rosenthal urged that the Town officially celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Amherst College and Hampshire College’s 50th anniversary, both this year;
- Bockelman said that the University’s Covid testing program has been extended to the Bangs Community Center, where residents can pick up tests, take them home, drop them in a box and get results in 24 hours;
- Asked about participatory budgeting, Bockelman said, “Given the budget restraints, to set aside a significant amount of money is not possible.” He urged residents to submit capital requests on the Town’s web site and come to a forum that will take place before budget priorities are set.
You can watch the video of the conversation here.