Update: On August 16, 2022, Boulder County commissioners approved a ballot measure to form a library district. The measure includes a 3.5 mill property tax increase to pay for it. This is a slight reduction from earlier mill levy proposals. The final version of the library district boundaries does not include Niwot, as contemplated in earlier proposals.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, David Farnan, director of the Boulder Library and Arts Department, agreed to slash his budget by 15%. It was among the deepest cuts to any city department in response to Covid-19. Farnan said he didn’t have much of a choice.
“I had to lay off 66 people. But to be honest with you, if I were the city manager, I don’t know if I could have done anything else,” Farnan said. “Do we cut public safety? Would that have been a better choice?”
Nearly two years later, many of those cuts remain in place. The Canyon Theater is still closed. The adult literacy program, BoulderReads, is without a manager. And the Carnegie Library, the city’s primary archive for local history, is still understaffed, partially closed and running out space for historical documents.
The city’s library funding has long been dicey, advocates for the library lament, and the pandemic only exacerbated the problem.
“The biggest problem is every time there is a downturn, the library is the first one to get cut,” said Joni Teter, a member of the Boulder Library Champions and the city’s Library District Advisory Committee (LDAC).
For years, Teter and others have been calling for the creation of an independent library district that would remove the library from municipal control. The district would become its own government entity — paid for with its own pot of money generated from property taxes — and would oversee a region with several libraries and a wider range of services.
The most recent proposal for a library district was developed by the 12-member LDAC, which the Boulder City Council appointed in 2021 to explore the creation of a district. In February 2022, the committee came back with a detailed recommendation for how to do so.
This week, the Boulder City Council and the Board of County Commissioners will vote on a resolution to decide whether this proposal moves ahead. The resolution would set the stage for a months-long process to begin hashing out the details, such as who runs the district and what to do with the city-owned library buildings.
The votes mark a major milestone in the long-running effort to shore up what proponents say would be a more sustainable funding source for the city’s libraries, and what opponents say would be an added financial burden — particularly on small businesses and residents already struggling to afford housing.
As the debate heats up, here’s what you should know about library districts and the plan to create one in Boulder.
What is a library district?
A library district is a government entity made up of a board of trustees to oversee a library system.
Such districts are common in Colorado. There are 54 library districts statewide, according to Library Research Service, a research arm of the Colorado State Library. That compares to 60 municipal- and county-run libraries. Boulder is practically adjacent to library districts in Weld County, Lyons, Nederland and Adams County. Denver and Longmont are considering library districts, too.
Colorado law makes it easy to create one. Petitioners need to gather just 100 signatures to put a measure on the ballot to create a library district. Even if the city council and the county commissioners vote no this week, it could end up on the ballot in November. (In 2019, Boulder Library Champions, the local campaign committee advocating for the library district, qualified to put a measure on the ballot, but chose to drop it.)
The proposed library district in Boulder would encompass the City of Boulder, Niwot and areas of unincorporated Boulder County.
Who would pay for the district?
All library districts are funded through property taxes, a relatively stable source of revenue. All residents in the to-be-decided district boundaries would chip in.
Under the LDAC’s proposal, voters would be asked to approve up to a 3.8 mill levy, a percentage of the assessed value of a property that is added onto property tax bills.
The idea behind the property tax is to make funding for the library district more equitable, according to advocates. State data indicates there are more Boulder library cardholders than there are City of Boulder residents. Many people who use the library do not live in Boulder. The district would require those residents to pay into it.
“One of the things library districts are designed to do is to let you draw your funding boundary to better match your patron base. We could get more equitable funding with everybody paying the same thing within the boundary,” said Teter of the Boulder Library Champions.
What does that mill levy mean, in practice?
In Boulder County, the median value of an owner-occupied home is $539,100. Residential properties are assessed at a rate of 6.8%. So the 3.8 mill levy would be applied to the assessed value of the home, approximately $36,659 in this case, to create an additional property tax cost of about $140 per year (or about $12 per month). The higher the home value, the more this would increase, and vice versa.
For renters, some of these costs will be passed down from their landlords. The LDAC estimated renters will pay about $100 per year, according to a Dec. 2021 presentation.
Older adults in Boulder County may already qualify for a property tax exemption.
Business property owners of any size would pay about four times more. Because of the Gallagher Amendment, commercial properties are assessed at 29%.
This mill levy is the most contentious part of the plan. Home values in Boulder County have continued to rise in recent years, driving up how much people pay in property taxes. Meanwhile, businesses are still recovering from an economic downturn.
“There is no question that libraries are an important asset to the community,” said John Tayer, the president of the Boulder Chamber. But, he added, “a property tax increase, particularly at this time, is completely inappropriate given the challenges that our businesses are still facing associated with the pandemic.”
How much money is needed?
City staff in February 2022 estimated the cost of the city’s libraries at roughly $16.8 million. That includes operating costs, expenses among other city departments, deferred building maintenance, budget cuts from the pandemic and the cost to finish building the future North Boulder library. (The Boulder Library Foundation, an independent nonprofit, has contributed more than a million dollars to the library in recent years, too.)
Proponents of the library district want to cover these costs and also raise additional money to expand services outlined in the 2018 Library Master Plan, which includes a vision for the city’s libraries based on a survey of Boulder residents.
Those services include: building the North Boulder Library, which is scheduled for construction completion in 2023, to a net-zero energy standard; adding a new library in Gunbarrel; expanding literacy programs to Spanish speakers and young adults; staffing up the BLDG 61 makerspace; digitizing the city’s paper archives; and expanding storage space for historical records, among many other services.
The 3.8 mill levy would raise about $20 million. Based on recent city staff estimates, that would be a 16% increase in overall funding. (Some opponents have said funding would double. They have used only 2022 operating costs, about $10 million, as their benchmark.)
Boulder Library Champions, the committee leading the public campaign to pass the property tax measure, released a poll of 500 likely voters indicating the $19.5 million property tax had majority support.
Who would run the district?
The City Council and the Board of County Commissioners would appoint seven members to one- to four-year terms on the Board of Trustees. The plan proposes the trustees would recommend replacement trustees, who would have to be appointed by a majority of the city council members and county commissioners.
This proposed process has generated friction. Proponents of the library district want the trustees to recommend their replacements as a buffer against political influence. In perhaps an extreme example, the Colorado Springs City Council recently appointed a trustee to the Pikes Peak Library District who said certain books should be removed from the library shelf because “conservative and religious viewpoints were not being respected.”
Some elected officials, on the other hand, want more control over who they nominate, citing accountability. How this provision in the plan shakes out will be decided in the months ahead, assuming the resolution is approved.
What happens next?
The Boulder City Council and the Board of County Commissioners will host a joint public hearing on the proposed library district on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.
The Boulder City Council will then vote whether to approve the resolution to form a library district and to pay for it with a mill levy of up to 3.8 mills. The Board of County Commissioners will decide whether to pass a similar resolution on Thursday, April 7, 2022.
In May 2022, the city and county will likely appoint the first library district Board of Trustees, according to city staff.
The city, county and trustees will then have 90 days to enter into an intergovernmental agreement. This agreement will hash out controversial questions, such as how future members will be appointed and whether the city will lease or transfer its libraries to the new government entity.
Voters will then decide whether they want to pay for the district in November. Advocates have three shots to get the mill levy passed. If it is not approved by December 31, 2024, the district will be dissolved, according to the proposed resolution.
What’s expected to happen at the vote?
The majority of the Boulder City Council is likely to approve the library district. But all of the Boulder County commissioners told the Boulder Reporting Lab they were undecided. Several county commissioners said emails have been pouring into their inboxes from residents concerned about property taxes going up.
Even if the county commissions vote against the district, it will still likely go forward. As noted, the proponents only need to collect 100 signatures to put the question to voters on the November ballot.
“Everybody loves libraries. It’s just the nuts and bolts of how one of these are formed. And the emails are coming in about two-to-one against. But that’s just one piece of information,” said Matt Jones, a county commissioner from Louisville.
Jones added, “Something is likely to be on the ballot either way. Do you want to put something on the ballot that is more appealing or just let it go to the proponents? That’s another piece you have to weigh.”
Teter said the resolution is about letting the community finally vote on funding. And, if necessary, she said her group could put the measure on the ballot themselves.
“It’s a very low bar,” Teter said of getting the 100 signatures. “That reflects both the legislature’s understanding of how important libraries are to community health and how difficult it is for municipalities to let go of things.”
Update: This story was updated on Monday, April 4 at 11:55 a.m. to indicated advocates have three shots to pass the mill levy by Dec. 2024.