Some spar over Jones Library project borrowing

The Jones Library in Amherst.

The Jones Library in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-26-2023 2:00 PM

AMHERST — Debate continued last week over a nearly $10 million increase in the borrowing authorization for the $46.14 million Jones Library renovation and expansion project, with those both for and against the idea using a public budget forum as a chance to state their cases.

Although the Finance Committee has yet to make a recommendation on increasing the borrowing authority, with two meetings set for the this week, the Town Council took feedback on the request at the forum that served as kickoff to the preparation of town, school and library budgets for fiscal 2025 over the next several months. The council could consider the authorization request at its Dec. 4 meeting. 

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that for the project to go out to bid, the full $46.14 million authorization is needed. Nine of the 13 councilors will have to approve that.

Among those supporting the increased borrowing authorization was Allegra Haupt of Precinct 7, who said the library’s value will only be improved with expansion and renovation.

“I don’t think the repairs would be sufficient to that end,” Haupt said. “I think we could create a town space that is more inviting and welcoming.”

Nancy Campbell of Middle Street, a member of the Friends of the Jones Library, said the project needs to go beyond patching up the current building, last expanded and renovated in the early 1990s. “I urge the Town Council to make this weighty but logical decision to vote yes, to authorize borrowing for the Jones Library expansion and renovation project,” Campbell said.

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Inanna Balkin, a ninth grader at the high school, said the library is important to the community, including teens who otherwise would hang out in the coffee and bubble tea shops.

“My friends and I look to the library to meet our social needs, and we could rely on it even more if the project went forward,” Balkin said.

Voters gave the project nearly two-thirds support two years ago. “I am asking you now to support the will of the voters,” Balkin said.

Laura Draucker of Rosemary Street said the opposition to the project hasn’t changed, and the sizable majority of residents who supported the project means it’s not controversial.

“I’m really not clear when people are saying this is a controversial project where this data is coming from,” Draucker said. “Sixty four percent is not controversial, that’s a strong mandate to the Town Council.”

Those concerned, though, note that projects like a new Department of Public Works headquarters and fire station may be delayed.

Peggy Matthews-Nilsen of Teaberry Lane said that town leaders need to balance wants with needs and what residents can afford.

“The Jones Library expansion was wasteful and extravagant when it was estimated to cost just $37 million,” Matthews-Nilsen said. “Now spiraling costs would require spending the obscene amount of $47 million, just to enlarge one of Amherst’s three public libraries.”

Amber Cano-Martin of Grantwood Drive. who ran unsuccessfully for Town Council, said better roads and sidewalks are demanded by voters, as well as by people on fixed incomes who want Amherst to be affordable to age in place.

“Saying no to this authorization is also a yes to a lot of other things people in this town want,” Cano-Martin said.

Ken Rosenthal of Sunset Avenue said the town has gone well beyond its $15.8 million commitment already, budgeting $1 million from the Community Preservation Act account and $8 million in interest. “I’d like the town to be a little more honest about how much town money is going into this project,” Rosenthal said.

“If you live in Amherst, you must know we need a working public works building, a fire station in the south, we need to make progress on our truly horrible roads,” said Ira Bryck of Strong Street. “How is it that this mega expansion that has grown in cost and shrunk in quality be taking up all the oxygen in the room?”

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