A project to renovate and expand the Jones Library narrowly won approval from Amherst Town Meeting last night (May 10), after two hours of vigorous debate.
Town Meeting voted 105 to 94, with 2 abstentions, to approve a preliminary design for the historic library, and authorize library trustees to apply for a Massachusetts Public Library Construction grant. Last night’s vote does not commit Amherst to spending money for the project.
The total cost of renovating the Jones is pegged at about $36 million. The trustees hope to win a $14 million state construction grant, and expect notification in July. If the grant is won, and a fundraising campaign now underway is successful, Town Meeting will be asked in the fall to approve local borrowing of about $16 million. Such a measure would raise property taxes and require a two-thirds majority for passage.
Meanwhile, a resolution calling for an investigation of President Donald J. Trump by the U.S. House of Representatives passed quickly last night, and by a much wider margin, with 116 Yes votes, 13 No votes, and 14 abstentions. Amherst joined Pelham, Leverett, Cambridge, and cities in California and Vermont in calling for investigation into grounds for impeachment, based on whether the President has accepted gifts from foreign nations without the consent of Congress. (More about the resolution is reported further down in this article.)
The debate over the Jones Library included people who are eager for an expanded, more modern library with better spaces for children and teenagers, and those who said the town needs to prioritize its spending. Some argued for putting Amherst’s tax dollars into renovating or building new elementary schools, while others said public safety should be the first priority, including the building of a long-awaited fire station and public works facility, and repairing a backlog of damaged roads and sidewalks.
“We could build a school with what we’re (going to be) spending on the library, we could do it now,” said Kenton Tharp of Precinct 1.
In the wake of a major, failed school building and consolidation project, in which Amherst was working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, there has been dialogue about Amherst building a school independently to better control the timeline and costs. “Sometimes we have to do things ourselves,” Tharp said, adding that otherwise, there can be “too many strings attached.”
The existing Jones Library facility is 48,000 square feet, including the original 1928 structure, and a 1993 addition. The proposal would expand it 65,000 square feet, taking down the 1993 addition and building out towards the back. It would lead to interior modernization, an automated checkout system, new and bigger areas for children and teens, expanded services for English language learners, and adult bathrooms on each floor. Renovation plan details are available here: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38437 The proposed floor plan is at this link: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38438
Separate from the renovation plan, a firm called Western Builders Inc., was hired to evaluate the cost of pressing repairs at the Jones, and came up with an estimate of $8 to $9.6 million, to replace the atrium and an elevator, and make other improvements. Library trustees warned against going that route, and said such spending could trigger a requirement of full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, without financial support from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
Margaret Gage of Precinct 1 expressed “cautious support” for the library plan, saying that libraries are a precious community resource, and renovating the Jones will be an important part of keeping Amherst vibrant.
Gage and others said that Amherst could renovate the Jones and build schools, too. “We’re a community, not a priority list,” Gage said, adding that “We can’t build a school this year, we don’t know what to build.”
Town Manager Paul Bockelman said town officials have reviewed Amherst’s finances and came to the conclusion that the town is “in a fortunate position where we could afford new projects.”
However, in response to questions from the Town Meeting floor, it was clear that funds for capital projects, including the Jones renovation, would come from increased long-term borrowing, and raising local property taxes. Amherst’s property taxes are already the highest in Hampshire County and are among the top 10 statewide.
Ginny Hamilton of Precinct 8 said that when she moved to Amherst about five years ago, she was “a little shocked about the shape our facilities are in.” She urged the town not to view the Jones project “from a position of scarcity and fear.”
Alan Root of Precinct 5 said the small North Amherst Library, and the Munson Library in South Amherst, have pressing needs. “We have somehow forgotten that we have two other libraries in town,” he said, adding that the North Amherst Library has no public restroom.
Although proponents of the project have often cited problems with access for the disabled as a motivating factor for the library renovation, Gerry Weiss of Precinct 8, who is chairman of the Disability Access Advisory Committee, said it decided not to take a position on the project.
Weiss said the committee believes the Jones currently “is not welcoming to those with disabilities,” but that many of the problems, including making aisles wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, “could be fixed right now.”
Stacks should be 36 inches apart for wheelchair access, and currently, range from 23 to 58 inches apart, Weiss said, indicating there is “probably room for everything,” if books were moved.
The library’s front elevator, Weiss said, is “awkward” for those in wheelchairs, and opens upstairs into a small space near a stairwell. “It is not an ideal, safe situation,” he said.
Weiss said his committee doesn’t believe the project should hinge on questions of accessibility, although he said the renovated library would be “fully compliant,” with “easy flow.”
Carol Gray of Precinct 7, who is a former library trustee, said the Jones has several spaces that are underutilized, including rooms on the third floor now serving only as storage. “There’s a lot of space that could be used better,” Gray said, adding that in the past, she proposed hiring a space consultant for $20,000. “Wouldn’t we want to try that first?” she asked.
Library Trustee Alex Lefebvre said the Jones Library’s existing design has limitations, while maintenance issues that were deferred must be handled. “We also received feedback from teenagers who wanted their own place to study,” she said.
Amherst and its library-related needs have changed with the population, Lefebvre said, adding that about 40 percent of residents fall below the poverty line. It was unclear whether college students were included in that figure.
Lefebvre emphasized that the measure approved last night only sets out the square footage of the renovated building, and the services it will provide. The actual design work, she said, is not complete, and will require “active community participation.”
Janice Ratner of the Finance Committee said that it voted 5-0 earlier yesterday, with two members absent, in favor of the Jones article. One absent member was Steve Braun, who previously voted against the project. A “minority report” written by Braun was read aloud by Chairwoman Marylou Theilman, following a Town Meeting member’s request. Braun called the scale and timing of the library project inappropriate, and said the town should focus on preserving core functions, including public safety, infrastructure and schools. Braun also argued that the library’s existing interior spaces could be re-purposed, and some materials could be stored off-site.
Investigation Sought of President Donald J. Trump
Amherst lawyer John C. Bonifaz, who is part of a non-profit leading a national effort to get cities and towns across the nation adopt resolutions to investigate Trump, said last night that the President has not severed ties to 111 business interests in 18 foreign countries.
The resolution states that “from the moment he took office” Trump was in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s clause which prohibits officeholders from accepting gifts, profits, salaries or fees, known as “emoluments” from royalty or leaders of foreign nations.
“We are facing a constitutional crisis,” Bonifaz said, adding that on Tuesday, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating possible Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Bonifaz said that Trump’s action “at minimum” impeded the federal investigation, and could even rise to obstruction of justice.
Bonifaz is the co -founder of Free Speech for People, https://freespeechforpeople.org, and is co-leading the national campaign to investigate Trump with RootsAction, an online initiative for economic fairness, equal rights and civil liberties. Further information on the joint effort is available here: www.impeachdonaldtrumpnow.org.
The Amherst Select Board and Finance Committee took no stand on the article. Peter Vickery of Precinct 2, who is also a lawyer, argued that there are differing opinions about whether the emoluments clause applies to presidents, mentioning a portrait of French King Louis XVI that was given to George Washington.
John Hornik of Precinct 7 warned Town Meeting members “to be careful what you wish for,” saying that if Trump is impeached, Vice President Michael Pence would become the nation’s leader. “Under Pence, there would be no clean sweep of Trump appointees,” Hornik said.
Laura Quilter of Precinct 9 urged Town Meeting members not to abstain from voting on the article, which was not discussed until late in the evening when some had already left. Civic bodies like the Town of Amherst have sometimes “weighed in on issues of great moral importance,” Quilter said, adding that simply calling for an investigation is a “completely proper” request.
With passage of the resolution, Town Meeting is officially asking U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-Worcester) to sponsor and vote for a resolution authorizing the House Committee on the Judiciary to investigate whether sufficient grounds exist for Trump’s impeachment.
Free Speech For People is a national non-profit, focused on renewing democracy.