Boulder voters this November approved the creation of a library district across much of the county, according to the latest 2022 election results, setting a course for an expanded library system that advocates have long been clamoring for.
After trailing behind on election night, the ballot measure to form a library district — and pay for it through a property tax increase — inched ahead as ballots were counted in the subsequent days. The latest results show Ballot Measure 6C passing 53% to 47%.
“A nail-biting ending is par for the course,” Joni Teter, co-chair of the Boulder Library Champions, the campaign that backed the measure, said in an interview.
Teter is also a member of the city’s Library District Advisory Committee. The committee was seated in 2021 by the Boulder City Council to study whether to create a library district that would be removed from municipal control and become its own government entity.
Advocates seeking to pass Ballot Measure 6C have long argued property taxes are a more equitable and sustainable way to pay for the library system. Currently, the city’s library system is funded primarily through city sales taxes that can be vulnerable to downturns.
State data shows there are more Boulder library cardholders than there are City of Boulder residents, an indication residents across the county use the library, but do not necessarily pay into it. Meanwhile, pandemic-related budget cuts to library services — including literacy programs and the Carnegie Library for Local History — provided a recent example of how the city’s libraries are often among the first to be trimmed in times of economic distress.
Opponents of the measure included the Boulder County commissioners, who decided against forming a library district through a resolution, in part because they didn’t want to raise property taxes and also because the county is still busy with the Marshall Fire recovery.
Some county residents have raised concerns about paying for a library system that primarily serves the city’s residents. The Boulder Chamber, which represents the city’s businesses, also came out against it, citing its “heavy burden on local businesses.”
Boulder Library Champions, the group seeking to create a library district, raised nearly $100,000 for campaigning this election. Its largest donor, Boulder Library Foundation, contributed $50,000 (and more if you count contributions from previous election cycles).
The group opposing the measure, Keep Our Libraries, raised more than $21,000. The issue committee was led by former City Councilmembers Crystal Gray and Lisa Morzel.
The vote marks an official end to the yearslong campaign. Now, city and county officials, library advocates and lawyers will begin hashing out the complicated — and potentially politically dicey — details of what the district will look like and how it will operate.
“The campaign around this issue, on all sides, underscored the love our community has for its libraries,” Boulder City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said. “There are many steps involved in making this transition. Our staff will work diligently with appropriate partners to ensure the process of creating a library district happens carefully and swiftly.”
Property taxes to rise in 2023
Starting on Jan. 1, 2023, residents will start paying additional property taxes to support the new library district.
Residents who live in the district boundaries — which include the City of Boulder, Gold Hill, Eldorado Springs, and areas of unincorporated Boulder County — will see their property tax bills bump up by 3.5 mills.
In Boulder County, the median value of an owner-occupied home is $539,100. Residential properties are assessed at a rate of 6.95% (less for multifamily homes). The 3.5 mill levy would be applied to the assessed value of the home, approximately $37,467 in this case, to create an additional property tax cost of about $131 per year (or about $11 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.
Business property owners of any size would pay about four times more. Because of the Gallagher Amendment, commercial properties are assessed at 29%, with some exceptions. For a business property with an assessed value of $1 million, the additional tax would be about $1,000 per year.
City to divvy up existing funding for library
The bulk of the funding for the city’s library’s comes from city sales tax revenue, totaling about $10 million, according to city staff.
The Boulder City Council plans to keep that money and spend it on to-be-decided policy priorities. Ideas discussed during a city council meeting in September 2022 included paying for the city’s parks and recreation facilities, a behavioral health emergency response program, property tax rebates, or an electric bike subsidy program.
City staff have said if the library district ballot measure passes, it will recommend an emergency ordinance to repeal the city’s .333 mill property tax currently used to pay for the city’s libraries.
Appointment of the library district trustees
The new library district will operate like a new government. Heading it will be a board of trustees. As outlined in Colorado library law, the Boulder City Council and Boulder County commissioners will each appoint two of their colleagues to then appoint the first members of the district’s board of trustees.
State law allows up to seven members to serve on the board. The Boulder City Council and the Board of County Commissioners can also vote to remove members from the board.
Term limits for the initial trustees are capped at five years. How future trustees will be appointed remains to be decided.
Elected city and county officials could continue to appoint new trustees, giving them more control over who serves on the board. State law also requires all appointments to be approved by a majority on the city council and the county commission.
Intergovernmental agreement to be hashed out
Those trustees will have the tall task of helping set up the new library system.
Their first task will be working out an intergovernmental agreement with the Boulder City Council and Board of County Commissioners. This deal must be completed within 90 days of the creation of the board of trustees, unless otherwise agreed to, according to state law.
The agreement will set the terms for who will own the city’s existing library buildings and infrastructure, and whether those assets would be transferred or leased to the district.
The intergovernmental agreement will also decide how future trustees will be appointed and approved and the length of their terms.
Libraries will get more money
The operating budget for the city’s libraries in 2022 was about $9.2 million. City staff in February 2022 estimated the actual cost of the city’s libraries at roughly $16.8 million. That includes operating costs plus expenses shared among employees from other departments, deferred building maintenance, budget cuts from the pandemic and the cost to build the North Boulder library branch.
The 3.5 mill levy approved by voters is expected to generate about $18.8 million.
The ballot measure states the additional funding will be used to expand literacy programs, improve buildings and expand hours for makerspaces, such as the woodworking program.
Teter said, ideally, all the city’s library employees would stay employed, but as district workers rather than city workers. She said this should include similar pay and benefits.
She said she is particularly excited to see the city’s local history library expand its hours of operation. The Carnegie Library, located in the city’s first library built in 1906, manages the city’s archives. It was named after its benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, a philanthropist who made his fortune in the steel industry.
Due to budget cuts, it is currently booking two-hour visitations two weeks in advance.
“Because of the way the city does the budgeting, it has always been at the very bottom of the priority list,” Teter said. “And it’s such a wonderful asset for this community.”