News Highlights

Peggy Matthews-Nilsen

December 8, 2020 - Daily Hampshire Gazette

An excellent Guest Column appeared this month in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, reprinted below in case you missed it.


Can Amherst Afford the Jones Project? A Look at the Numbers

December 8, 2020


For the 40 years I’ve lived in Amherst, the Jones Library ’s three-branch system has served as a community hub with an excellent staff who steadfastly provide books, electronic materials and diverse programs, as well as computers and hotspot availability for patrons of all ages, backgrounds and cultures. It’s already successfully providing 21st century library services.

However, as a resident who has followed the Jones’ proposal closely, I disagree with the unbridled support some have expressed for the Jones’ extravagant project in recent Gazette and Bulletin guest columns and letters.

None of the writers acknowledged the financial challenges this project presents in the context of Amherst’s extensive capital needs. Nor did they mention the Jones’ significant current budget shortfall, which casts doubt on the library’s ability to staff and maintain a larger downtown facility.

Amherst has four looming capital projects. In addition to the Jones, the town needs a new elementary school, new Department of Public Works and new fire station. Estimates for the town’s share for these projects is $124 million. Amherst also has a long backlog for road and sidewalk needs at about $10 million. Some residents are advocating for a new senior center and school athletic fields, and others want a new parking garage.

The town’s taxpayers simply cannot afford to take on so much debt. The Jones is first up for a council vote, possibly by April 2021. If the council uses a debt-exclusion override to pay for it and it passes, a second override for a new school building in just a year or two will be jeopardized. If the town’s share is paid through borrowing from the existing capital allocation, the annual debt service on the Jones’ project alone could begin at over $1.6 million a year, essentially wiping out all town capital reserves and rendering it nearly impossible to take on other large projects.

We can all agree that the Jones Library needs refurbishment and increased handicapped accessibility, but can the town afford such a large, destructive and expensive project? Let’s look at the facts.

  • The planned project is outsized, designed for a user population of 51,000 borrowers, although the library has approximately 19,000 cardholders. Further, most libraries have about 1.0 to 1.5 square feet per capita. The current Jones, at 48,000 square feet, already has 2.5 square feet per person. The branches provide additional capacity.

  • The Jones’ proposal is destructive. It will demolish the entire 1993 addition, which is 40% of the existing building. That square footage would be rebuilt with an expansion for a total of 35,800 square feet of new construction.

  • The trustees did not explore alternative designs to replace the leaky atrium and repurpose the 1993 wing. This would have saved money and avoided shipping 1,660 tons of demolition debris to a landfill. As a result, the proposal is unnecessarily expensive at $35.8 million. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners is granting only $13.8 million, just enough to pay for the debt service on the town’s $22 million commitment, not including unforeseen expenses.

  • Not only is the town challenged financially, the library has been unable to maintain its current facility and is struggling with its operating budget. In the last two years, Director Sharon Sharry has been unable to replace five full-time positions and has stated that she will not have sufficient personnel to staff the library system once it reopens post-pandemic. It is also alarming that the library will have spent all of its yearly endowment draw by January and will be short of operating income during the second half of this fiscal year unless significant private funds are raised.

How can a more affordable Jones’ proposal be developed?

1) The trustees could negotiate with the state for a smaller expansion or they could resubmit a scaled down grant application in the next grant round, keeping and renovating the 1993 addition before expanding. The state does not have a set number of required square feet for expansion. The trustees could rightsize some of their programs by coordinating with other organizations and utilizing other spaces in town. They could work in conjunction with other town free and reduced-fee services such as our excellent public school libraries, after-school clubs, two other English as a second language programs, the Amherst Boys & Girls Club, the Senior Center, and Leisure Services, to name a few. The library could also rent a school auditorium or the Amherst Cinema for the few times yearly when it expects a larger audience than its current biggest meeting room will hold.

2) The trustees could redesign the existing Jones’ layout for more efficient space usage. A $14 million cost estimate for refurbishment and handicapped accessibility included an analysis of the library as it is currently arranged. Further study of reorganization within the footprint would give us more options. The director recently announced that purchases of electronic materials are now equal to those of books, eventually requiring less stack space.

The library must be reimagined creatively with more collaboration and less expensive construction. Meanwhile, the Town Council needs to provide residents with complete financial scenarios and survey them directly to determine how residents would rank future capital expenditures. This would enable the council to prepare a plan that prioritizes all capital needs within an affordable framework.

Terry S. Johnson is the Chair of Save Our Library, a grassroots group advocating for a prudent Jones Library renovation.

July 3, 2020 - Amherst Bulletin 

As LeVar Burton from the PBS show, Reading Rainbow used to say, "Don't take my word for it."  The following is an excellent Opinion piece published in the Amherst Bulletin.

The Jones is a gem as it is

by Ted White

Amherst Bulletin, Friday, July 3, 2020

As the world changes before our very eyes, and our local needs also shift, the misguided proposal for demolition and expansion of our own Jones Library becomes a more and more unsavory idea. 

This plan has never gained the public support that such a massive and expensive public project must have and it would destroy a significant section of the gorgeous Kinsey Memorial garden behind the library. The Jones is a gem as it is — and deserves interior updating and improvements, but not a vast project like is being shoved at the public. Current uses of some of the smaller rooms within the Jones could be switched around to great effect to make the most of the existing space. 

In addition to the wonderful resource that the Jones Library already is, our small town of Amherst also has the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass, which is the third tallest library in the entire world! The Du Bois is available for public use, along with Amherst College’s Frost Library and Hampshire’s Johnson Library and many residents take advantage of this. There’s also our wonderful small branch libraries, North Amherst and Munson, which deserve more investment.

With all the preexisting library space in town, we don’t need more. What we do need is to keep what we have vibrant, well-maintained and staffed by well-paid employees for years to come. The Jones library expansion is a bad idea.

October 11, 2019 - Daily Hampshire Gazette

Gazette columnist, Mickey Rathbun, wrote an article that was a stunning reminder of how we can appreciate things in distant lands and yet fail to appreciate what gems we have right under our nose. Ms. Rathbun writes about a 40 year-old "intimate, shaded garden tucked in behind the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village" and describes the sanctuary this small garden with its canopy of mature trees provides in this part of New York City.  Amherst has its own version of a sanctuary with the Kinsey Garden tucked away behind the Jones Library.

March 15, 2019 - Finance Committee Meeting Report

The Town's Finance Committee met to discuss financing of the 4 major Capital Projects. It was revealed for the first time at this meeting that State law caps borrowing for Amherst at $105 Million, which will impact financing the 4 major Capital Projects being proposed, including the Jones Library. Below is a report on the Finance Committee meeting.

Report on Finance Committee Meeting, 3-1