By Nick Grabbe
I confess that I used to be skeptical about the $35.3 million project to expand and renovate the Jones Library.
I have been a regular visitor to our beautiful library for 37 years, and have always thought that it met my needs very well. I rarely had a problem finding my way around its many rooms, and the children’s room seemed adequate to me.
After the pandemic made me unable to go inside the library for 15 months, I felt sad that the project would make the building inaccessible during construction. Since I know Carol Pope, the designer of the lovely garden behind the library, I sympathized with her desire not to have the expansion infringe on it.
But I will be voting “Yes” next Tuesday on the referendum to affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in support of the project. As Councilor Alisa Brewer related one resident’s succinct message to her, “To refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective.”
I’ll summarize these four perspectives, but truthfully, I have two other reasons why I’ll be voting “Yes” that pertain to the kind of town we want Amherst to be.
Finances. The library project is a great deal for taxpayers. The Town’s $15.8 million share of the cost (only 39 percent) is being borrowed and will not cause a tax increase. A “No” vote would mean spending about the same amount on the repairs that are needed because of 30 years of deferred maintenance – with no state money! After a minority at Amherst Town Meeting rejected $34 million in state money to help finance a new elementary school, which will now be much more expensive, it makes no sense to now reject $13.8 million in state money for an improved library. Re-establishing credibility with state funding sources is critical. A campaign to support the project has pledged to raise $6.6 million. And if a “no” vote wins, approximately the same amount of taxpayer money will have to be spent on repairs to the building — without any state aid and without all the benefits. The library project is not an unnecessary expense; it’s an opportunity to buy something we need at a bargain price.
Climate. The library project will represent a major step toward meeting the Town’s climate goals by moving away from the use of natural gas. It will result in a significant reduction in energy use even though the amount of floor space will increase. I don’t understand the reasoning of some climate activists who maintain that the project will result in a net increase in energy use because of the new materials to be used and the old ones to be discarded. Several local energy experts have said unambiguously that this project as a whole represents a big win for climate action.
Education. The Jones Library has a responsibility to the many visitors who come to Amherst to see the archival materials related to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and others in Special Collections. There have been at least four water leaks that resulted in damage to rare books in the past five years, due to a malfunctioning heating and cooling system. In addition, the Jones Library provides 16,000 hours a year of English as a Second Language instruction, and the space provided for this important service is inadequate.
Social justice. As I transitioned from skeptic to supporter, I realized that my own needs for the library could not be my most important consideration. I had to think about the physically disabled people who can’t fully use the building, the residents who rely on the library for computer use, and the newcomers who can’t find the bathrooms or meeting rooms. Most of all, I had to consider the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be using the Jones Library in the coming decades.
All of these are important factors. But for me, there are also two overriding issues. The first one relates to the reason why we’re having this referendum in the first place. It’s all about democracy.
The library Trustees who were elected to their posts worked out the details of this project. Voters favored Trustee candidates who supported the project over those who didn’t. Many Town Councilors backed the library project in their campaigns three years ago and were then elected in a high-turnout, competitive election. Opponents of the project have had ample opportunity to state their case. Council President Lynn Griesemer was, like me, skeptical before she fully considered all the reasons to proceed with the project. The vote on the Council to support the project was overwhelming.
But that was not enough for the determined opponents. They circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the library project, and were not deterred when they failed to collect enough certified signatures. Even though some who signed the petition said they misunderstood its purpose and asked for their signatures to be removed, the opponents went to court. They forced taxpayers to pay for much legal consultation, and then the Town Council scheduled Tuesday’s referendum, which is what opponents were seeking. I hope a “Yes” vote will put an end to the debate.
I was a member of the Charter Commission, and I remember saying that the “voter veto” provision that’s been invoked by library opponents should make overturning a Council action “difficult but not impossible.” I now regret that the commission did not restrict this “voter veto” to Council votes that were closer.
When you lose a political battle, as the library opponents did, instead of continuing the fight, it’s better to accept defeat. The “voter veto” provision of the charter should be used only when the Council vote was close and there’s good reason to believe it does not reflect public sentiment, or when there’s been new information or some change of circumstances.
One of the key principles of democracy is that sometimes you have to live with results you don’t like.
The other overriding issue for me is the willingness of library opponents to use deception in their campaign. Many of us received a postcard last weekend with a manipulated image of a wrecking ball about to strike the Jones Library building. The facade of the library will not be demolished during the renovation project, but the opponents apparently believe that some voters will be influenced by this false image. (This postcard shows why referendums are risky; residents who haven’t paid attention to an issue are more vulnerable to this kind of deception than a town council.) I don’t want to see this brand of smash-mouth politics become standard practice in Amherst’s political campaigns.
Library opponents have also been spreading false rumors. No, the project will not cause a tax increase, and no, it will not mean the closure of the branch libraries. We have debunked all of those rumors here and here. I don’t mind disagreement about important local issues — that’s inherent in a democracy — but I support the old-fashioned notion that facts matter.
It’s OK to be skeptical of proposals made by Town officials, but it’s important to look at the facts. By voting “Yes” on Tuesday, we’ll be doing more than just voting for an expanded, energy-efficient, accessible library. We’ll be casting a vote of confidence that Amherst can move forward in updating our public infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.