Community preservation panel questions request for $1M to build out Jones Library space

Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2020 4:16:05 PM

AMHERST — A request to use $1 million in Community Preservation Act money to support construction of a special collections room in an expanded and renovated Jones Library has raised a red flag for the committee charged with recommending spending requests to the Town Council.

Library Director Sharon Sharry asked for the money in January to enhance the $35.6 million Jones construction project that depends on a grant from the state’s Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, but CPA Committee Chairman Nate Budington and members Diana Stein and Michael Birtwistle are questioning whether CPA funds can be used for such a purpose.

The CPA Committee will take a final vote on the matter Thursday.

In a May 27 memo, Budington, Stein and Birtwistle wrote that the money for the special collections room was included in the CPA project list, but that a final vote for or against items on that list was never taken as the vetting process was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At some point in our process, a few of us became nervous about whether the Jones proposal fit the definition of a ‘historical preservation’ project and reached out to the Community Preservation Act Coalition for guidance,” they wrote.

“In our view, meeting the spirit and intent of the act rather than finding a legal loophole should guide our decision making.”

Their concern, which is a minority view of the CPA Committee, was bolstered by a conversation Stein had with two representatives in the state’s Department of Revenue, and an opinion from Stuart Saginor, executive director of the state’s Community Preservation Coalition, who wrote that language in the CPA law was designed to prevent such use of CPA money.

“Building new municipal buildings is a classic example of something that towns have paid for with general funds for since time began, and shifting the cost of these buildings onto CPA is exactly what the non-supplanting language is designed to stop,” Saginor wrote.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman obtained an opinion from Shirin Everett, an attorney with town attorneys KP Law, that the CPA money for the special collections room is permissible because it is supplementing a project supported by other town money, a state grant, historic tax credits and private donations.

“In my opinion, the CPAC may reasonably conclude that the special collections room will preserve the town records from injury, harm or destruction, and that the use of CPA funds to construct the special collections room is consistent with the CPA,” Everett wrote.

Sharry wrote the initial appeal, which was for $1.5 million, or $300,000 a year for five years, for a “project (that) seeks to safeguard permanently the records of Amherst’s history; provide space large enough to protect the entire archive; allow for the continuing acquisition of items in order to represent better the citizenry of Amherst; and to make this one-of-a-kind collection available to the entire community.”

The project seeks to expand special collections from 4,200 square feet to 6,500 square feet, provide better climate control, and be more visible and accessible to patrons.

In a follow-up correspondence to address the concerns of the CPA members, Jones Library officials write that the town attorney opinion should be viewed more favorably than Saginor’s and those from the Department of Revenue.

The letter from Jones Library, Inc. states, in part, “If the committee’s primary concern is the risk of a legal challenge to this grant, it should take much more comfort from relying on KP Law’s professional qualifications, obligation to defend its position, and the liability insurance behind it, than on the other, informal sources, which have no such obligation or insurance.”

That latter also observes that the town would be harmed by the removal of the project from the CPA Committee’s list of recommendations:

“The economic efficiencies of this grant’s support for part of a larger project should commend it rather than detract from its advantages. Furthermore, declining this grant because it is part of a larger project frustrates the kind of coordinated town government that Amherst deserves.”

While preservation is a component of the CPA, Saginor wrote that it means direct work on documents, rather than indirect, such as paying for electricity and dehumidifiers, or security:

“Once you step away from the actual work on the documents and artifacts, you are spending money on something else, like building a library, not the documents.”

Everett, though, wrote that the definition of preservation is met by the project.

“To state that ‘preservation’ includes only those activities that are done to historic resources themselves would unduly and impermissibly limit the purpose and scope of the CPA, in my opinion,” Everett wrote.

There is significant community interest in the recommendation from the CPA Committee, with it receiving 20 letters, mostly in opposition, to the spending.

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


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