After years of back and forth, research and debate, the Boulder City Council and the Boulder County Commissioners this week will decide whether to form a district that encompasses all of Boulder and parts of unincorporated Boulder County.
If the two entities approve a district, it would end more than 100 years of municipal control and set the library up with property tax funding, which some argue is a more stable source of funding.
When Rylan Bowers thinks about what the Boulder Public Library offers the community, his support for a library district feels like a no-brainer.
“I’m a lifelong library user and love the system,” he said. “I love what it provides the community for free. It’s pretty mind-blowing, actually.”
The city and county will hold a joint public hearing Tuesday. The City Council will vote after the hearing. The County Commission will vote Thursday.
If the library district is approved, the City Council and County Commission will need to seat a board of trustees for the district and begin negotiating the intergovernmental agreement. A property tax increase is likely to be on the ballot in the November municipal election.
As a Niwot resident, nestled in unincorporated Boulder County between Boulder and Longmont, Bowers does not have a neighborhood library to use. He is a library card holder with both Boulder and Longmont public libraries and typically checks out books from both systems.
In terms of whether he’d prefer a district in Boulder or Longmont, Bowers said he thinks both should have one. However, he’s currently advocating for the district in Boulder, given the impending vote and the fact that a Niwot branch is among the things that could be funded through district formation.
The formation of a library district has been part of the conversation in Boulder since Library Director David Farnan took the job eight years ago. It was recommended in the 2018 Boulder Public Library master plan.
If a district is approved and voters approve a tax increase to fund it, the library has said it plans to address the facility maintenance backlog, restore library hours to pre-pandemic levels, fully fund the new North Boulder Library, open branches in Gunbarrel and Niwot, and improve outreach to the Latinx community, among other things.
A survey commissioned by the Boulder Library Champions, a group advocating for the district, and conducted by Keating Research in March showed 88% of respondents have a favorable view of the Boulder Public Library and more than 7 in 10 voters supported the measure.
The survey was conducted via telephone interview and included a poll of 500 likely voters.
While many people who support a district are regular patrons, that’s not always the case.
As an Eldorado Springs resident with children who are now grown, Gina McAfee does not often visit the library to check out books.
However, after the 2016 election, she became involved in social justice and immigrants’ rights issues and started using the library facilities to assist with that kind of work.
“I realized how much of a resource it was to all members of our community — people that don’t have any money, people that really need support in one way or another,” McAfee said.
How it works elsewhere
Library districts are the most common form of library governance in Colorado, with 56 districts across the state.
The Colorado Department of Education conducted a comparison of the three forms of governance: municipal, county and district.
In a municipally controlled system such as Boulder, funding comes most often from sales tax and can fluctuate year to year based on other needs of the government.
In a county system, the degree of autonomy is up to the county commissioners, and property tax is the principal source of funding.
A library district, according to the Department of Education, has the highest degree of autonomy. Property tax is the principal source of funding with a set mill levy passed by voters.
When looking at how neighboring communities govern libraries, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Longmont and Broomfield have a municipally controlled system, while Lyons, Nederland, Estes Park and Fort Collins all have formed districts. Jefferson County has a system run by the county.
Days before the 2013 flood, Lyons agreed to form a library district, which encompasses parts of Boulder and Larimer counties. Because of the timing, the property tax increase failed on the first try. It was successful in 2014, passing by a narrow margin.
Districts are often permitted to coordinate multiple elections if the first is unsuccessful.
For Bill Palmer, president of the Lyons Regional Library District Board of Trustees, it’s been beneficial to form a district.
“The great thing is that we’re not subject to the whims of the town board,” Palmer said. “We have a steady source of income that has actually continuously gone up as property values have gone up since it’s totally funded through property tax.”
This has been an advantage for Lyons, which built a large, new library soon after forming a district.
However, now that the library is very obviously funded by taxpayers in the community, Palmer said there is a near=constant pressure to ensure the money is being spent well and that people understand how their tax money is being used.
“It makes it contingent on us as a board and staff to do everything we can to make sure that our patrons are getting their money’s worth and to let them know, to keep continuously doing (public relations) basically,” he said.
The tax question
The Library District Advisory Committee, a group formed by Boulder City Council that met to discuss details of the intergovernmental agreement that will guide the district, recommended a property tax of up to 3.8 mills.
If approved by voters, that would equate to about $27 per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value.
According to the library and the committee, that’s the amount necessary in order to bring in the $20 million required to expand services.
But that amount is one of the biggest drawbacks for those who oppose it.
“Raising the taxes makes it even less affordable to live in Boulder,” resident Pat Hood said.
“I love many things about (Boulder) but I just hate that it’s not open to people,” she added.
Hood also worried about the impact on small business in Boulder. The state’s Gallagher Amendment saddles commercial properties with a larger percentage of the property tax burden.
The Boulder Chamber has not yet taken an official position on the district. However, it did share some thoughts in a Boulder Business Roundup email.
“The Boulder Chamber has heard significant outcry from businesses that a mill levy increase of this magnitude comes at the worst possible time when they are recovering from the impacts of COVID — with reduced patronage, higher costs for labor, equipment and materials and reduced customer traffic.”
Some of those who support it expressed concern about the tax increase, too.
“I do think about folks on fixed incomes. I worry a little bit about what that will look like for them,” Bowers said.
But for McAfee, it’s well worth it.
“Knowing that part of my property tax is paying to make sure that people that really need the library, that have a reason to go can go there is huge to me,” she said.
Supporter Julia Hanke agreed. The library provides a great value, even when factoring in the additional tax. With elementary-age children, Hanke saves a lot of money on books because of the library.
“I feel like we really use all the services, and I think it would be a great asset,” Hanke said.
Since Boulder’s library is currently funded through the city’s general fund, it estimates that district formation would provide anywhere from $9 to $10 million in direct cost savings with an additional $2 to $3 million that it expects to save in other costs such as administrative and maintenance work.
Staff has identified a variety of areas the money could be reallocated including implementation of the facilities master plan, transportation system maintenance and improvements, homeless services associated with council priorities and funding initiatives to meet the city’s more aggressive climate targets.
Details left to sort out
The appointment of new board members has been a continued point of contention. The initial board of trustees will be appointed by the City Council and the County Commission. However, after that, the board of trustees could be tasked with that responsibility.
Many members of the City Council argue it makes sense for the district board to appoint its own replacements, considering the Council and County Commission will be responsible for ratifying the new members no matter what.
Others would like the city and county to have full control over appointing the members.
Hood, who opposes the formation of a district — at least as it’s currently being proposed — argues that if taxpayers are financially supporting the district then they should be electing members of the Board of Trustees.
“Although we’d be paying taxes to support this district, we wouldn’t have any say in what they do,” Hood said.
In Lyons, the Board of Trustees appoints new members, though Palmer acknowledged that the circumstances are different in a smaller community where it can be tough to find people to serve on boards.
There’s also been debate about whether the city should transfer ownership of or lease the three library branches it owns — the main library, the George Reynolds branch and the Carnegie Library for Local History.
The last time the Boulder City Council discussed it, members were split on whether to transfer or lease the buildings.
Additionally, though it was not a unanimous preference, members of the City Council opted to allow the district as many elections as it wants with a 2024 cutoff. This means if voters reject a property tax increase in November, the measure could be placed on the ballot again the following year or the year after that.
If the property tax increase is never successful, the library will remain under municipal control. The library district fronts the cost of the election if it’s successful, whereas the city and county will have to work together to cover the cost if it’s unsuccessful.
There are details left to work through and discussions still to be had. While the Boulder City Council has sorted through many of the remaining questions and seems likely to support the district, it remains to be seen how a joint hearing with the county commissioners will go.
But either way, with the library district public hearing approaching Tuesday, it appears as though the multiyear conversation is winding down.
If you watch
What: Boulder City Council and Boulder County Commissioners joint meeting
When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The City Council, County Commission and staff will meet virtually. Residents can watch on Boulder’s YouTube channel or Channel 8.