Councilors’ statements on the Jones Library project

Below are the remarks that Councilors made immediately ahead of the April 5, 2021 vote on the Jones Library project, in the order they were given, as well as their ultimate votes. Transcriptions have been lightly edited for clarity. You may watch the recording of this meeting here; the statements begin at approximately 2:43.

Cathy Schoen, D1, Abstain

One of the things I wanted to raise in my comments is that we are being asked – the total project is $36.3 million and the Library has said it will raise an amount that will help shrink the gap between that and the grant and that the Town will then pay $15.75 million. But we are being asked to take on the full debt, the full difference, because the Library has not raised that amount of money. So in fact, in my opinion, this is a high financial risk, because as you can see from the financial order it is more on the order of $20-22 million that the Town will be taking on, and then part of it is an interest-free loan that will be repaid by the Trustees if they can get the pledges. So we have to hope that that will happen, and we have an Memorandum of Understanding [with the Trustees of the Jones Library] that we can tap into the endowment fund or potentially put a lien on the building but really we don’t have this secured. The Library is not putting up money, so that is the financial order. What has always concerned me – I love the Library and want it to be renovated.  I think it needs repairs but I think it is a high cost risk and no matter how many questions I ask I still have uncertainty that we will actually keep our share to what is – when I add the [Community Preservation Act contribution of $1,000,000] to the ask – $16.8 million- that is $ 2.5 million more than the repair estimate. But it could be still more if we don’t get the payback.

Mandi Jo Hanneke, At-large, Yes

A century ago, the Jones Library Trustees had a vision of a library that would be more than just a warehouse for books. The building would look and feel like a home. It would welcome and support residents’ desire to learn, not just from books, but from each other. The building would welcome performers and speakers. It would be not just a building for learning, but a building for community. And 95 years later, that vision is still alive – it is a place where our residents go to learn, to relax, to socialize, and to become part of our community. It is our living room, office, library, and entertainment space – a place to become find books, a place to learn a new language in a new country, a place where a parent and child new to town can meet other families, a place where a resident who has no home can spend a day out of the cold or heat, a place where people can be less lonely and socialize with others, a place where a student can study without distraction or where teens can work on group projects without the worry of being judged by the size or condition of their own homes, a place where someone without a computer or broadband at home can search for and apply for a job, and a place to enrich ourselves culturally without needing to spend money. The Jones is a second home for all of us. And, 100 years on, that home needs to be upgraded and expanded to be able to carry out these needs for the next 50 years.

Our job as Councilors is to serve the residents, a large majority of whom, based on past Trustee elections and statements to us, support this project. It is also our job to vote in accordance with our policy goals. This year’s Performance Goals and Objectives for the Town Manager include six Goals that directly relate to this vote. We told the Town Manager we will evaluate his job performance based on making forward progress on these areas. We, ourselves, must also act to show we are serious about these Goals. A yes vote helps us meet the Climate Action Goals we adopted in 2019 by getting rid of the fossil-fuel heating system and dramatically improving the energy efficiency in one of our largest public buildings. A yes vote helps our future economic health and well-being by bringing more visitors to town. A yes vote addresses social justice in our society – by providing sufficient space for programs that serve the less privileged among us – those that have no home, those who don’t speak English, those who don’t have a computer or broadband internet at home, and those that have trouble navigating stairs and other impediments. A yes vote is financially prudent with an eye to the long term, given the nearly identical costs the Town would incur to repair the building with a fossil-fuel heating system and little improvement in energy efficiency. A yes vote ensures that the building will serve our residents over the next 50 years, while spending nearly the same money just on repairs does not. As a Council, we cannot expect the Manager to follow our goals if we ourselves do not. The time is now to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I will proudly and enthusiastically vote yes.

Darcy Dumont, D5, No

I very much respect the amount of time and work that has been put into this project by so many people committed to the Jones, a library that we all love. Despite that, I have many concerns about the proposal for the expansion/renovation project. The fact that our own Finance Committee didn’t make an affirmative recommendation was concerning to me. These are my main concerns.

First, I believe that the Town needs to look at the full picture of our capital and operating budget needs for the next decade and to get input from the residents. Let’s look at our critical needs first. For many in town the library is the lowest priority of the buildings planned after public safety, public works, and schools. And those are just the buildings. That doesn’t take into account all of our other capital needs. To me, the library expansion is not a need, it’s a want. I am afraid that a vote to fund this major project will convince folks to vote against the school project when the school override vote comes up. In addition to not looking at the full picture of our standard needs, we need to be factoring in our new goals of racial equity and climate action. The proposed climate action and resilience plan is slated to come before the council in just a few weeks and will include plans for what we need to do to cut emissions by 25% by 2025. There will be short- and long-term initiatives that may take priority over other existing spending plans. We should not be committing to a major expenditure before knowing what is being proposed in that plan.

Secondly the Library Sustainability Committee, as great as it was, I very much respect all the people on the committee , didn’t look at – wasn’t asked to look at – emissions for of what I believe is the most climate-friendly action, renovating and retrofitting the existing building to make it more energy efficient using renewably sourced energy. It only looked at how to make the expansion project sustainable. And not providing a comparison to this action is really hard to get past. Also comparing the projected emisono of the expansion project to leaving the building as-is is not helpful when leaving the building as-is is not one of the actions that was on the table, and assuming that the emissions of the as-is model would remain the same over a 60-year period is simply not correct because it would need to be retrofitted to take it off fossil fuels under any new climate action plan and it would be using renewably sourced community choice energy.

Additionally, I agree with the suggestion that we should try to design any library expansion or any municipal building so that it also gives our town a climate resilience hub that would provide power during power outages and other climate emergencies and a heating and cooling center for vulnerable residents. Northampton is planning its first such resilience hub. Lastly, I see the need to preserve more money in the operating budget. Our wonderful staff is way too stretched. Many positions needed to make us that town that we could be are not being filled. I am also quite concerned that funding the project would impact the operating budgets and services of the other branch libraries. In the era of two global emergencies, the climate crisis and the pandemic, we need to be planning for new priorities and how we can best provide the pace [?] for our residents in the era of the new normal. Our overall priorities should determine our way forward, not the existence of grant money. 

Evan Ross, D4, Yes

I am speaking tonight in support of the project as proposed because I believe it represents progress for our community, specifically in line with our values of sustainability and social justice.

In November 2019 we passed ambitious climate action goals that I am proud of, and the Energy and Climate Action Committee is in the process of developing a Climate Action Plan. But climate action goals and a climate action plan are only valuable if they are followed by action. So approving this project would be the most significant action this Council will take on climate. The project will make our library net-zero ready, eliminate on-site fossil fuels, and dramatically decrease energy use. When we decarbonize our electric grid our library will be able to serve our community without emitting carbon into our atmosphere. To me, this project helps us take a tangible step towards our climate action goals and sends a strong message to our community that we are serious about achieving those goals, whereas forfeiting this opportunity now will only make it more difficult down the road to achieve those adopted goals.

I have often said that I believe the library project is the biggest social justice project facing our Council. And I do believe that. We have heard in some emails and in forums that “the library works fine for me” or “I like the library the way it is.” And for many I am sure that is true. For me, a native English speaker who is able-bodied, who has a computer at home, and who uses the library primarily to check out books, the library does work just fine as-is. But for so many in our community the library is not working. For folks using it for access to technology, for folks using it to learn English or prepare for a citizenship test, for those with physical disabilities and mobility impairments, the library doesn’t work. So if you are someone who says “the library works fine as is”, if you are someone who sees this project as a want and not a need, consider that is in part because of your privilege and that maybe this project isn’t for you. This might be a time for us to check our privilege and consider that for many the library “as-is” is not working. If we are committed to social justice for our low-income population, our immigrant population, our disabled population, we should support this project. I am voting yes for those populations, not for those like me for whom the library already works.

And we can do this project and work towards those climate action and social justice goals for a cost that is on par with doing basic repairs. We can do it without an override and without raising taxes. We can do it by taking advantage of state funds and significant fundraising, including nearly $1.2 million already committed, before a project is even approved. Those state funds and fundraising dollars are not available if we turn this project down. To me, a yes vote is the fiscally prudent vote.

I know that the project might not be perfect. Maybe you think it is too big. Or you don’t like the shape of the roof or the location of the teen room. But we can’t let perfect be the enemy of progress. So I am voting yes

Dorothy Pam, D3, Yes

I have two types of comments, the practical and the emotional. We have talked about this library for a long time and I certainly have been amongst those who have questioned many, many of the assumptions, the plans, the design, the financing, and I feel very proud of the work that many people on this Council have done in making us come up with a better plan or helping us to encourage changes in design, and I think that we have come to a place now where it is prudent to go forward.

We have many things that we have to think about but at the moment I think that the emotional fact is more important to me. We are just coming off (knock on wood) an incredible year – I lost two birthdays, a year of staying inside, of seeing no one, of not even seeing my grandchildren for months on end, and the town when you drive in your car in town there is nobody on the streets –  it’s as quiet as can be. So we are hoping to come together as a civil, social, intellectual, political body again and the library is going to be, I think, the place where we are going to do it. I am hoping, positively looking forward to the new reading room on the second floor that is going to have these little skylights – I think it is going to be the place we want it to be. We are going to have the teen room that we’ve asked for  and we heard last meeting that the Civil War tablets will be placed in the ground floor meeting room which will be a very meaningful thing.

So we have this library right in the heart of downtown and we are hoping for a reawakening of our town, of our society and at this moment having gone through the budgets at some point you just have to take things on faith, and I am going to make the leap of faith and trust that the work and the numbers that we have been shown are accurate and that we will be able to do it and I will also hold the board of Trustees to their promise – that if they have cost overruns they will not come back to the town they will do additional fundraising. I think it’s a very important thing, a very important matter that was brought up.  But that we can come together once again at the library and be together in Amherst – that is my hope.

Andy Steinberg, At-large, Yes

So I wanted to respond to a couple of things that were said and generally speak in favor of this motion. One comment was made that the Finance Committee did not make recommendations and something should be read into that, and I want to make it clear that that is absolutely not the case. We were asked not to make a recommendation because we were looking at this as a Finance Committee certification of financial information and investigation of financial information, but the decision belonged to the Council. So the motion that we passed within the Finance Committee is very specific and said that the Finance Committee finds that the information provided in this document [referring to a long document in the meeting packet] is a reasonable projection of the costs and funding plan for the renovation/expansion plan and the repair alternatives, and recommends that the Council rely on this information.

So going on then to my own personal assessment of this, I served on the Joint Capital Planning Committee for a number of years when we recognized that there were significant repair needs for the library and a deliberate decision was made to not do the repairs because we would have an opportunity to do them in the future when we made the decision that we are making tonight. The reality is that the repair costs are going to be pretty much the same as the cost the town will ultimately have to bear. And finally, knowing that I am running out of time, I also wanted to respond to the assertion made earlier that we are taking on a huge risk. I don’t think we are taking on a huge risk. I think the Memorandum of Understanding provides substantial security, it has been carefully crafted to achieve that result, and I have been very impressed that the fundraising has already raised well over $1,000,0000 in donations and that a number of people have indicated that based upon the vote tonight, if it is favorable, that they will make donations, so there is a lot of money yet to come in. I recommend, I am very strongly in support of, this motion.

Pat De Angelis, D2, Yes

Many of you in the community and on the Council have talked with me of your objections to this project, and I acknowledge that voting yes is taking risks; will the Trustees meet their fundraising goal, will project costs be held in check, will we retain our commitment to sustainability if we face burgeoning costs, will the project keep us from completing the other capital projects – the fire house, DPW, the school project, and renovation at Crocker Farm.

But not doing this project poses risks as well: piecemeal repairs that will cost almost as much as  renovation/expansion, losing state funding and losing credibility with state funders, ongoing impacts to English Language Learners, low income residents, and limited space for community gatherings, which in the past have included use by members of the Muslim community, workshops on anti-racism, book groups, political gatherings, and the usual contentious community meetings. 

In the end, I came down on the side of the risks of saying yes.

Steve Schreiber, D4, Yes

My colleagues have really said much better what I am going to say. We have heard a lot from the public that we should be prioritizing public safety, schools, and infrastructure, and I can’t think of any project in our community that exemplifies all three of those. Libraries are all about education, and more so it’s about education of everyone. Libraries are the most democratic buildings; town commons are also democratic; but libraries literally the most democratic institution invented in this country. Proud that Massachusetts was a pioneer in this, proud that Amherst had the foresight to invest in a public library 100 years ago. Public safety – we’ve heard a lot about how education and public safety are linked to each other, so the more education, the less need for policing. And so much about this library is about exactly that – finding a safe place for members of our community to become engaged with the community. Infrastructure – we can define it as pretty much everything or specifically about things like computers. We got emails from longtime residents of Amherst, about how the public library was the first place where they could access the internet. So we don’t know what the next infrastructure developments will happen in the future, but we expect they will come through the public library.

In my remaining minute, I want to address one tenet –  the greenest building is the one that is already built. Another tenet is – Cash for Clunkers. This is a real thing.  In fact, one of our fellow Councilors implored the entire Town Council a year ago, she implored all of us to get rid of our gas-using vehicles and trade those in for electric vehicles. And part of that messaging was the fact that the state and federal government had a discount, so basically there was an incentive for us to get our gas-guzzlers off the street. So quite frankly, I see this [library project] as a Cash for Clunkers on steroids. It’s something that serves the entire community, it’s all about the social capital as opposed to electric vehicles which are all about the individual. So I strongly support this project.

Sarah Swartz, D1, No

The library is incredibly important to me. Pre-pandemic, I have visited the library with my children at least five times a week. Four years ago, when my family met poverty standards, I still served the library in as many ways as I could, including doing story time and taking toys and puppets home to clean them, on my own time, and bring them back to the library. There has been a lot of talk about equality tonight. I have to ask everyone in this room, at this meeting, who is either a town employee or who represents the town as an elected officer, how many of us have missed a paycheck since March 16, 2019, which was the beginning of the pandemic? I would wager, not too many of us. I guess I’m going to go out of this Council speaking for the middle class, which I don’t think anybody has addressed. We’ve heard from people that there are young rich families who would like to settle here and they can pay these taxes and this is what they want. We all know that the library is the most democratic place, and I think it is incredibly important, and we know that it serves people who are at poverty level. I come from a district where there is a lot of working class people, and people who have told me that they cannot hang out for much longer – with the increasing sewer, and increasing water – that’s going to create another $136 for people who are working, people who are on a fixed income, not everyone’s fixed income is real high. So for me, we are looking at these projects and I have to say it seems like we are taking a very expensive one first, people mention the school because we ‘ve been in a position where we are told we have to do the school the way the school needs to be, and then we’re telling DPW and fire, well, you haven’t gotten anything for 100 years, not sure we can do it now. I am concerned about people being able to stay in town, and I do not believe that middle class people in five years will be able to, and I’m going to vote against the project, much as I love the library. And hopefully those of us who will have to leave town will be able to visit the new library.

George Ryan, D3, Yes

Many of my colleagues hit the major points. I was thinking more historically. It’s been almost 100 years – it was in the second decade of the 20th century – that Samuel Minot Jones presented Amherst with his extraordinary gift, a gift that has become one of the jewels of our town. This evening we have the opportunity to enhance that gift and to pass it on to the generations that will come after us. This proposal will restore and expand, as Steve and Sarah have noted, our most democratic space, and ensure its ability to fulfill its multifaceted and vital mission well into the 21st century.  A library today is so much more than a place to house books. It is a key community resource that serves us in so many ways. Much like the Amherst of Samuel Minot Jones’s day, we too are emerging from a global pandemic.  Like them, we need now more than ever, as Dorothy suggested, to believe in the future and the possibilities of our town. We cannot be afraid. We need to provide those who come after us the tools they will need to ensure that this town continues to prosper and to flourish. Like Samuel Minot Jones, now is the time for vision and for courage. And Sarah, we do have a financial plan that allows us to undertake three of the four major capital projects without recourse to a debt exclusion, a financial plan that will allow us to fund them through the capital budget without increasing our taxes. This proposal is fiscally responsible and represents all that is the best about our town. What we need tonight is courage and vision to do the right thing.

Shalini Bahl-Milne, D5, Yes

Two things I want to add to the conversation. One is something that Todd Holland, an engineer, stated earlier – that most of the arguing can lead to inaction and inaction is the only wrong move today. The other thing that’s really important is something that Sarah talked about and we are hearing from a lot of residents, is the high property taxes and the burden this would put. As George has mentioned, we have a plan, and yes it could go off, but we do have one plan. And the other part is the library is part of that vision, it is part of the solution, it is not going to increase our property taxes. We need to solve that problem of high property taxes but not by saying no to the library. On the contrary we need to be thinking about how can we revitalize our economy and draw more people and the right kind of development – not moratorium but the right kind of development. We could be losing $800,000 by stopping any kind of development. My point is, saying no to the library because of property taxes – they are not related. I believe the library will add to the economic vitality. And there is the concept of social infrastructure and the importance of investing in social infrastructure which is the glue that binds a community together especially in a time of divisiveness, especially when there is so little hope and people are so broken down, we need this hope, we need this new building to bring all of us together from different walks of life. I am fully in support of this. I am confident – I believe in the residents of Amherst – that we will raise the money together and invest in our town.

Lynn Griesemer, D2, Yes

While this may come as a surprise to many of you, I began the process of reviewing the Jones Library proposal to the Mass Board of Library Commissioners as a skeptic. However, after two years of helping to manage the process of bringing this vote to the Town Council, I have become supportive of accepting the MBLC grant, allowing the Jones Library to do a much-needed renovation and expansion. I want to thank the Library Trustees, the director, the staff, and the various consultants for working through the many questions that have been asked and the hours they have spent providing the answers to those questions. In addition to that, the Trustees have modified their plan to include significant sustainability measures although they are not even subject to the net-zero energy bylaw. But I must say, and I want you to make sure you hear this message loud and clear, let me state it without equivocation, that as long as I have anything to say about it, there will be no more money than what we are voting tonight – this is all you get. And, we will not favor you in future operating budgets. The Town will not allow cost overruns.

Others have spoken eloquently to the benefits of a public library and specifically our public library, so I’m not going to mimic their words, but I will state that it does address five of our six policy goals. And one could even argue that for the homeless and those who live in very small home quarters, it actually provides somewhat of a home. So, finally I am going to add, because this has constantly come up – as many of you are aware, I have had significant involvement at looking at the future fire station and the DPW, and during the winter of 2018, before the Town Council even existed, I worked with seven other individuals to propose a revised net-zero energy bylaw which passed Town Meeting with only two negative votes. So for me, one of the key issues is feeling, strongly, that we have a sound financial plan – not risky – sound – that will allow us to build a new elementary school, and even with present limitations on spending, build a new fire and EMS station south of Amherst and place DPW in a seriously upgraded building, and implement the zero-energy bylaw. These investments are long overdue, and the time to do them is now. So for me, this is part of investing not just in our downtown but in our town’s entire future.

Alisa Brewer, At-large, Yes

As I was hoping, pretty much everybody covered everything I could possibly think of, so thank you all for all your great thoughts associated with this. I just wanted to say two things. One is actually a direct quote from one of the many emails we have received which I thought summarized things extremely well from my point of view. Which was that “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.” And I just want to add one other thing about the financial risk which I do not believe exists here either. We are not expecting Friends of the elementary school,  Friends of the DPW, or Friends of the fire station to raise a single penny towards any of those facilities. Yet the Friends of the Jones Library has made a large commitment, has already seen quite a bit of results with that commitment even without our vote, and I truly do believe in our community supporting that for all the reasons that everyone else has expressed.