The Board of County Commissioners tabled a vote on a resolution to create a library district. Credit: Harry Fuller/Boulder Reporting Lab

The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday tabled a vote on a resolution to move ahead with a plan to boost funding for the City of Boulder’s libraries, citing concerns over the potential financial impact on property owners. 

The resolution would have created an independent “library district,” which is a new government entity set up to oversee a library system. If approved, it would have marked a major step toward hashing out the thorny details involved in removing the library from municipal control. 

Ultimately, even with the resolution, it would be up to voters in the to-be-decided district boundary to approve a property tax in November to pay for the library district. But creating the district first – through the resolution – would provide a clearer and faster path forward. 

Proponents want voters to approve up to a 3.8-mill property tax that would raise about $20 million for the city’s libraries. That would be an approximate 19% increase from $16.8 million, which is what the City of Boulder estimates the library will cost the city in 2023. It would be a 45% increase from $13.8 million, the current cost to run the library, according to city staff estimates.

This additional funding would pay for more literacy programs at existing facilities and open a new corner library in Gunbarrel, among many other projects outlined in the 2018 Library Master Plan

But county commissioners said they worried this tax would be too much for property owners, whose home values continue to rise in the region’s tight housing market. Commercial properties are assessed at four times the residential rate.

Commissioner Claire Levy proposed a 1-mill property tax, which she said would raise about $5.5 million per year. Levy suggested the City of Boulder continue to chip in what it is already spending on its libraries with money from its General Fund, which is primarily generated from the city’s sales tax. 

“I cannot move forward with a 3.8 mill. I just can’t,” Levy said. “I need to be able to defend this to people who are really living on the edge.” 

Related: Debate over Boulder’s proposed library district is about to come to a head. Here’s what you need to know.

Advocates for the library district see it as a way to create a more equitable and stable base of funding for the libraries in the City of Boulder, which provides free library cards to residents across the county. 

After a marathon hearing on Tuesday stretching into the morning hours, the Boulder City Council approved a similar resolution to create a library district by a 6-3 vote. That resolution included a property tax of up to 3.8 mills.   

There are more than 50 library districts in Colorado, with an average mill levy of 2.9, according to Library Research Service, a research arm of the Colorado State Library

Now that the county commissioners have stated their preference for a 1-mill property tax, advocates of the district are worried the two elected bodies will reach a gridlock. The county must approve the resolution in order to expand the library district’s boundary beyond city limits. The commissioners did not schedule a future vote on the resolution. 

“I had hoped that we would be closer together,” Mayor Aaron Brockett told the Boulder Reporting Lab on Friday. “We have a pretty tight timeline to keep the district formation on track for 2022. So the delay is worrying,” he added.

“We’ll have some discussion back and for between city and county staff, and between the elected representatives as well, and see if we can come up with something that is mutually acceptable. But 3.8 and 1 are pretty far apart.”

Given the uncertainty over how the commission will act — and the tight timeline to get a measure on the ballot in time for the November election — Boulder Library Champions said on Thursday it will begin moving ahead with a petition for a ballot measure to form and pay for the library district. The group is the main campaign committee backing the library district. 

In Fort Collins, voters in 2006 approved a ballot measure that both formed the library district and approved the tax funding at the same time. 

“We need to be in a position to have a petition filed if those discussions stay stalemated,” Joni Teter, a member of Boulder Library Champions, told the Boulder Reporting Lab.

She added, “We would still like them to resolve it. That’s the best approach. It gives the community the most information. But we have to be ready to step in with a petition if that doesn’t happen.” 

Not the first library district petition 

Boulder Library Champions qualified to put a measure on the ballot to create a library district in 2019. The committee dropped it at the request of city officials. 

The group then decided to work with the Boulder City Council and the Board of County Commissioners on a resolution to form a library district. 

If the county commissioners had approved the resolution like the City Council did, a property tax question would have ended up as a ballot measure in November.

Without it, Boulder Library Champions would need to collect just 100 signatures to qualify to put the measure on the ballot. That relatively low bar is set by Colorado law. 

The group has said it would prefer to work with elected officials so that controversial details around what the library district looks like — where the boundaries are drawn, how trustees are elected, and whether to sell or lease the city-owned library buildings — can be worked out before voters are asked to weigh in. 

These details would be decided through an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) among the City Council, Board of County Commissioners, and the Board of Trustees overseeing the new district. 

Advocates worry that without these details fleshed out, speculation and misinformation could flourish. 

“That kind of uncertainty makes it hard for the community to understand what’s happening. And the IGA pins all that down so that people know exactly what they are voting on,” Teter said. “Having a well-informed community voting is important.”

Update: This story was updated on April 8 at 2:45 p.m. with a comment from Mayor Aaron Brockett.

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.