Boulder takes definitive step toward library district

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

Thursday, May 20, 2021

After years of study, a petition effort and fights over funding, Boulder is moving toward a library district. But, despite the unanimous vote, city council’s support for the concept remains lukewarm and punctuated with many questions.

Tuesday’s public hearing avoided substantive discussion about the whys of pursuing a district and instead focused on the how and when. Elected officials haggled over details about the intergovernmental agreement, community engagement and council resolution that will officially form a district.

However, few of the current members may be involved in that future vote. Five seats are up for grabs in the fall; three council members — Sam Weaver, Mary Young and Mirabai Nagle — are not running for re-election, and Mark Wallach and Adam Swetlik are thus far undecided.

A subcommittee will be set up later this year, tasked with writing the IGA. The goal is to have an agreement in place before voters are asked to support a property tax increase to fund the new district.

“It’s important to get the show on the road,” Wallach said Tuesday. “That’s what we’re doing tonight.”

‘Let me pay taxes’

Library and the arts (combined under one department) were among the hardest-hit by COVID spending reductions, losing 72% of staff and 15.6% of its budget between 2020 and 2021. That makes sense on some level, with libraries closed for months due to public health orders.

But even as those mandates lift, two branches will not reopen at all this year, due to costs — proof, district advocates say, that the library is a low priority when it comes to city spending. They point to $2.3 million in deferred maintenance and the fact that private philanthropy foots the bill for the vast majority of library programming, even taking over the salaries of furloughed or laid off library workers during the pandemic.

“The Library cannot continue to rely upon the charitable giving of individuals to sustain itself and make a measurable impact on our community,” the Boulder Library Foundation wrote in a March 11 letter to city council. “Our recent endowments fall outside of the Library Foundation’s mission, and, due to the fluctuation in donor contributions, are not something we are able to steadily guarantee moving forward.

“As the library is one of the most visited places under the city’s budget,” the Foundation wrote, “a sustainable funding source is essential.”

The Foundation and other supporters believe that a library district with dedicated property tax will provide a more stable source of revenue. Currently, the library’s budget comes primarily from sales tax, which fluctuates along with the economy and is forecasted to decline as Boulder’s population shrinks and ages.  

Still TBD is exactly how much a district property tax would be, but it will likely fall between 3.53 and 3.85 mills, or roughly $200 annually per $850,000 of home value. Commercial properties would pay roughly four times that.

Moving the financial burden of a library to a district would free up at least $7.7 million in general fund dollars for Boulder; possibly more, given future expenses. There probably won’t be any savings to taxpayers: With more than $300 million in unfunded projects, programs and services, the city will likely redirect money currently being spend on the library to other things.

Read a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s discussion and public hearing

A district would loop in library users who live outside city limits. Multiple such residents spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing, saying they would be happy to be taxed in exchange for continued and/or more robust library services.

“The Boulder Public Library is more than a city service,” said Gina McAfee, who lives near Eldorado Springs. “I would like to be a part of the community of voters who gets to decide on long-term, sustainable funding for the library I and my neighbors love so much.”

“The thing I missed the most during the pandemic was the library,” said Alicia Gibb, a Library Foundation Board member. “I love paying taxes. Taxes make our society run. Please, let me pay taxes for my library.” 

Seeking approval

There was near-unanimous support among Tuesday’s 40-plus speakers (one person expressed concern about the burden of additional property taxes on working class homeowners). Email to elected officials skewed heavily toward support as well; opponents — which included two current members of the Open Space Board of Trustees; two former city council members and the chair of a local political group — focused on rising property taxes.

A poll conducted in 2019 concluded that voters in and out of Boulder were likely to pass a tax at the ballot, despite the slim majority of respondents indicating support. Its conclusions were heavily questioned by council members and a competing survey professional. 

On Tuesday, council members continued to question community appetite for a district.

“Two of the emails I did see come through were emails that were asking people to email council in favor of the library district,” councilwoman Mary Young said.  “I did not see any emails that were going out to people to speak not in favor of a library district, so that gives me a little bit of pause that there has been encouragement for one path forward but doesn’t seem to be encouragement for the other one.

“I think that is cause enough to want to do our due diligence with respect to outreach.”

Council members Rachel Friend and Aaron Brockett echoed numerous public speakers begged council to listen to the advice of the Library Commission, Library Foundation and Boulder Library Champions — which counts former commissioners among organizers — all of whom are advocating for a district. Nor is this the first time the Library Commission has made such a recommendation.

“Our current library commission, the last library commission, the commission before that have all endorsed this unanimously as the best way forward,” Brockett said. “It’s written into our Library Master Plan.”

“I think it’s really compelling that the experts in this area are all telling us that a district is the right way to go.”

He and Friend pushed for quicker council action.

“I just deeply trust library folks,” Friend said. “They’re telling us forming a district by resolution is the best thing we can do for libraries. Let’s get moving and let voters decide.”

It’s also been done before, as Brockett noted. There are 57 library districts in Colorado. “It is a well-worn pathway,” Brockett said.

Along with outreach, staff and the to-be-created subcommittee will, in the meantime, work on the agreement to be signed with future trustees of a future district, who will be appointed by city council. It will spell out, among other things, how assets are shared, administrative services provided and employees handled.

Formation of a district is typically done before an IGA is negotiated, experts have testified. But Boulder has continued to push for all the details to be worked out before the community votes on a district-funding tax, so that residents know exactly what they’d be getting.

“I would want the IGA to be effectively pre-approved by council and the community,” said councilman Bob Yates, “and then the trustees can look at this and say, ‘Yes, we can live with it or no we can’t.'”

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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