Council, commissioners disagree on library district

The Main branch of the Boulder Public Library on Arapahoe.

Thursday, April 7, 2022 (Updated Saturday, April 9)

A version of this article ran in the April 7 edition of Boulder Weekly. This piece has been updated to reflect additional action from the Boulder County commissioners.

After four years of campaigning and haggling over little details, it seemed as if the library district was headed for formation. Tuesday night, Boulder City Council voted 6-3 to form a district on paper, setting conditions that they felt would be amenable to Boulder County’s three commissioners, who also need to sign off on a district.

Thursday brought a surprise: Commissioners did not pass the resolution, leaving less than a month to try and reach agreement with city council.

The sticking point was how much money a newly formed district — its own government entity, similar to RTD or Boulder Valley School District — would be allowed to ask of voters, via a property tax. Council agreed to a cap of 3.8 mills, roughly $20 million, recommended by an advisory panel.

Commissioners wanted less — much less. Claire Levy, expressing concern about the impacts to residents “already living on the edge,” suggested 1 mill, or roughly $5.5 million, with the city kicking in the rest.

The library’s current budget is just over $9 million, with another estimated $3.6 million in administrative costs. Nearly all of that comes from Boulder’s general fund, fueled by sales tax. Library leaders believe it will cost the city more than $16 million to run the library in 2023, a figure that assumes full restoration of services and staff cut during the pandemic, plus an operating budget for the to-be-completed North Boulder branch, and money to catch up on a maintenance backlog.

Proponents of the district noted how it could free up city spending for other purposes. Around $10 million would be available for reallocation.

Critics noted that a library district represents a significant tax increase. A 3.8-mill tax would add roughly $200 to the property tax bill for a home worth $850,000, and around $1,000 for the equivalent value of commercial property. (City property owners would pay slightly less than their county counterparts — a 0.333 mill property tax for the library would lapse, saving them a tiny bit of money.)

“I will be paying double,” said Jean Aschenbrenner during three hours of public testimony Tuesday night — “once to the district, and once to the city.”

Council’s approved cap allowed the district to ask for up to 3.8 mills. It did not require that they do so. But advocates have repeatedly touted that budget as necessary to restore myriad service cuts under city leadership — the Canyon Theater has been closed for two years; BLDG 61, the library’s makerspace, is open only a few days a week; and the Carnegie Library for Local History is accessible only by appointment — and deliver long-promised branches in Gunbarrel and Niwot.

If the council and county commissioners can’t agree, there is another way to form a district. Advocates may submit a petition of just 100 signatures, forcing the question onto the ballot this fall. Following Thursday’s commissioner meeting, they vowed to do just that if an agreement can’t be reached by elected officials.

“Given the uncertainty around whether county commissioners will approve an equitable resolution to create a library district in time for that to happen, we will resume efforts to move the issue to the ballot via petition,” Boulder Library Champions wrote on Twitter.

They may set their own conditions, rather than the ones chosen by council. Those were:

  • the aforementioned cap on how much property tax the district can ask voters for;
  • a requirement that the district dissolve by 2024 if a tax has not been passed, allowing the district to ask voters twice for funding — that only applies to a district formed by resolution, so will not stand in the case of a district formed by petition/vote of the people;
  • the establishment of district boundaries to exclude Jamestown and possibly Niwot. A voting precinct that include recent Marshall Fire victims was left in, despite objections, but Mayor Aaron Brockett floated the possibility of rebates for the first few years of the district. These homes will eventually rebuild and recoup their value, he and member Matt Benjamin argued, and the district will be around for decades. “I’m thinking about the tax base 20-30 years from now,” Benjamin said.

Commissioners were not keen to include Niwot, and council ultimately deferred to them. At Tuesday’s joint meeting, David Limbach, head of a Niwot community association, shared results of an informal survey of 111 residents showing that most use Longmont’s library and would prefer to join a district there, which is also being considered by that city.

A map of the proposed library district boundaries.

Still to be determined is whether the district will lease library buildings and/or land from the city, or take ownership. There will be more opportunities for public input as those terms are hashed out, city staff said.

Nearly 100 people spoke at Tuesday’s city council hearing, with a roughly 65/35 split of those in favor vs. those opposed. Another 25% of folks who had signed up to speak dropped off the call, possibly because of the late hour. The public hearing closed at 11:24 p.m. Council’s vote came around 12:30 a.m.

Bob Yates, Tara Winer and Mark Wallach dissented to the formation of the library district, with Yates issuing a dire prediction and harsh rebuke for his fellow elected officials.

“I think tonight’s decision is going to reflect badly on this council,” he said. “I think the tax is going to fail, and we’re putting our library in limbo for some time.”

Read more: Commissioners punt vote on library district. Boulder Reporting Lab

Prairie dog plans

Tuesday’s meeting was long, but prairie dogs still hold the record for longest council discussion in recent years. The May 2019 meeting in which city council OK’d lethal control lasted until nearly 2 a.m.

Tucked into city council’s meeting packet for the week was a quick update on the removal of prairie dogs from irrigated agriculture open space. In 2021, prairie dogs were relocated from 41 acres, and lethal control was used to clear 94 acres. As a result, the total ag acreage impacted by prairie dogs dropped by 7%, from 967 to 806 acres.

This year, OSMP plans to employ lethal control on 124 acres, including the Axelson NW, Johnson North, Johnson Reservoir and Campbell properties, and the southeast corner of Brewbaker. Prairie dogs will be removed from 40 acres at the Oasis property to receiving sites in the southern grasslands.

That latter goal may not be reached, staff cautioned.

“When the Marshall Fire burned south of Boulder on Dec. 30, 2021, it burned nearly 2,000 acres of Open Space property, much of it located in the Southern Grasslands,” they wrote to council. “As a result, many areas of prairie dog occupancy and potential relocation receiving sites were burned.”

Prairie dogs living in the burn area will likely be OK, according to staff — the evolved “to live in an ecosystem that experiences periodic fire — but one of two planned 2022 relocation sites burned.

“Plant communities may not be recovered sufficiently in 2022 to provide adequate habitat for prairie dogs or withstand relocation traffic and prairie dog grazing early in their re-growth,” they wrote. “Staff do not expect that burned sites will be deemed appropriate for 2022 relocation by staff or Colorado Parks and Wildlife (which regulates and permits relocations).”

2022 prairie dog management spending estimates
$583,000 total
Prairie dog working group recommendations: ~$100,000
Relocation: ~$100,000
Lethal control: ~$75,000
Barrier installation: ~$197,000
Ag land restoration, soil heath treatments: ~$111,000

See you next Tuesday

There are no public hearings (or consequential council votes) scheduled for the next two weeks, but there are some important discussions happening.

Next week, city council will get an update on racial equity work over the past year, and goals for 2022. That includes a first look at the city’s much-touted Racial Equity Instrument: the 13-page list of questions that is supposed to (eventually) guide all city policies, programs, spending and decision making.

Also next week, the community will get a look at the almost-done plan for building out East Boulder over the next 15-20 years. On April 19, we’ll get an update on flood mitigation work at CU South/South Boulder Creek, and a lengthy discussion on continued outdoor dining and road closures along Pearl Street.

The program has been popular with council members and the public, but some restaurant owners along West Pearl have complained about reduced traffic and revenue.

Testifying before city council on March 1, Edwin Zoe, of Zoe Ma Ma and Chimera, said that business dropped 50% the first day COVID closures went into effect in 2020 and never recovered. Pasta Jay’s owner Jay Elowski also argued that West Pearl business owners established themselves there with the understanding that there would be parking; changing those conditions now, they said, was unfair.

Said Elowski, “If we wanted to be on the bricks (of the pedestrian Pearl Street Mall), we would be, with all the vacancies.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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