Amherst council backs $551K savings study for Jones expansion project

The Jones Library in Amherst.

The Jones Library in Amherst. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-25-2024 2:51 PM

AMHERST — A Boston architect will develop various cost savings for the $46.1 million planned expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, in advance of the project going back out to bid for a general contractor later this year.

At its June 17 meeting, the Town Council, in an 8-4 vote, with one abstention, rejected an advisory for Town Manager Paul Bockelman to hold off on signing a revised contract to pay Finegold Alexander Architects $550,700 for an additional 12 weeks of architectural work. During that time, the architects will do the design work necessary to save about $3 million in construction costs.

District 1 Councilor Ndifreke Ette said the volume of correspondence councilors received, with over 200 emails, indicated that residents saw a vote in support of the advisory as ending the expansion and renovation project, to which the town has committed $15.8 million. Ette said this would send the wrong message, while leaving town and library officials with little flexibility should a repair-only option be necessary.

“We have not scrutinized how much the repairs will cost, therefore even if we believe what we have right now is too expensive, there’s no guarantee that the repairs won’t be just as expensive as what we have right now,” Ette said.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen placed the motion on the floor in early June, before the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners granted the town an extension to hire a general contractor to Dec. 31. That extension came after the lone bid for the expansion project, from Fontaine Brothers Inc. of Springfield, was $6.5 million over the budgeted amount for construction, and was rejected by Bockelman.

Trustees earlier this month also voted to revise a memorandum of understanding with Bockelman to pay the full costs of the $550,700 in architect fees, adding to the library’s share for the project.

Schoen said her motion was not about stopping the project, even though she is concerned the “value engineering” cuts will reduce the longevity of the building, increase repair and operating costs, undermine municipal sustainability goals, strip historic wood features, and shift more costs to the town. She pointed to the asphalt roofing rather than slate and the single-pane glass windows rather than double- and triple-pane windows. “We need to build well, not just build with these cuts,” Schoen said.

New bids, Schoen said, could have been sought without making cuts. “Without these changes, we could go out to bid soon,” Schoen said.

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Those voting against her motion included Ette, At Large Councilors Andy Steinberg and Mandi Jo Hanneke, District 5 Councilors Ana Devlin Gauthier and Robert Hegner, District 3 Councilor George Ryan and District 2 Councilors Lynn Griesemer and Pat De Angelis.

Those joining in support were At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker and District 4 Councilors Jennifer Taub and Pamela Rooney.

District 3 Councilor Heather Hala Lord abstained.

Hanneke said residents elect the library trustees to steward both the endowment and the buildings used by the library. “We as councilors were not elected to overstep and step into their authority,” Hanneke said. In addition, Hanneke said the town charter gives the exclusive authority for signing contracts to the town manager.

A “Plan B” repair option should only happen after more information is available, Steinberb said, and only if the general contracting bids come in too high for a second time.

Ryan said if the rebidding process fails, the town won’t get a dedicated teen room, space for the Civil War tablets and improved English as a Second Language and special collection areas in the library, and will spend more than $15.8 million on repairs. “Any claims to the contrary are fantasy, based on hand-waving and magical thinking,” Ryan said.

While Devlin Gauthier said she can’t stand the value engineering proposals, she didn’t run for trustees, and finds it absurd to spend more on repairs when the existing building isn’t serving the needs of the community. “There is no remaining ‘as is,’” Devlin Gauthier. “‘As is’ is broken.”

But Taub said it’s appropriate to make a recommendation and express an opinion on a revised contract with the architects.

“We were elected to be responsible fiduciary managers of taxpayer funds,” Taub said, adding that it’s likely the town will spend more than $15.8 million on the expansion and renovation.

Walker said councilors are allowed to advise the town manager. “For me personally, this is a project that I have felt has been fiscally irresponsible from the beginning,” Walker said.

Meanwhile, the library’s buildings and facility committee is continuing to work through a backup plan for possible funding for a repair-only option through the Joint Capital Planning Committee process.

Should the expansion and renovation project not move forward, trustees have already committed to spending $1.8 million for a feasibility study for HVAC replacement, getting three quotes for a fire alarm system and replacing sprinklers and abating the asbestos in the children’s room. When that money is exhausted, Library Director Sharon Sharry said needs will be put on the capital planning five-year spending plan.

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