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“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of a Library.” Jorge Borges

I’d add to that sentiment that I’d imagine in paradise libraries are as well-funded as their most-ardent fans desire.

Sam Weaver
Sam Weaver

A measure is likely to come to voters this fall to separate the Boulder Public Library system from city governance and to increase its budget. By raising taxes, this measure would move our libraries closer to the fully funded ideal.

That’s a good outcome for library patrons, but how about for the larger community? I have some questions about this proposal.

What about the other pressing needs of the community that compete for limited tax support? If we had an additional $5 million-plus in annual tax revenue, would we spend it all on the library system? Should all city departments whose supporters desire more funding seek separate public governance and increased funding?

Let’s start here: Which services should be provided by the city or county, and which ones should be private or their own tax entities?

The city provides water, sewer and stormwater service, but not trash pickup or schools. Boulder provides affordable housing and local roads, and the county largely covers public health services. And so on.

How are all these services funded? In the case of the city, funding comes largely through sales taxes with a bit of property tax added. The county and the schools are largely the converse, mostly property taxes with some sales tax. The status quo has most local public services provided by cities, the county and the school district.

In the case of libraries, Boulder has a long, proud history of an excellent library system provided through the city government. This has been the case throughout the last century even as the library has been prioritized and funded within a city budget that also supports fire protection, police service, utilities, roads, recreation centers, open space and more.

By having these services under the unifying city umbrella, the Boulder City Council and the public participate in prioritizing how their taxes are spent. Every department every year must justify its funding level and delivered benefits.

Is this onerous? No more so than any family or organization that must allocate limited dollars to their many needs. Is prioritizing critical public services difficult? Yes, but it’s necessary.

If we were to follow the logic of full funding via splitting off services to their own government districts, would that increase public tax appetite? Doubtful.

The job of voters and their representatives is to evaluate tradeoffs and to budget holistically across many essential services. Creating silos of separate public services and governance bodies will still have them contend for limited public funding, but without a unified system of governance to balance competing priorities.

The stated goals of library district supporters are ones I agree with in principle, but the proposed implementation does not scale well. If each city department’s needs that aren’t fully funded (all of them) were to become a separate tax district, we would have government a la carte.

This would be a disjointed and inefficient way to deliver public services. Having led a small special district fire department, I can attest that coordination with other fire departments and  governments was difficult and time-consuming.

Libraries are treasures, but so are affordable housing, public safety and clean water.

Because the county commissioners declined to endorse a library district, a group calling itself the Boulder Library Champions circulated a petition to place its proposal on this fall’s ballot. The amount of annual revenue generated by that new tax proposal, if it passes, would be about $17 million.

But, the savings to the city from not operating the libraries is estimated to be about $10 million yearly. So where will the extra $7 million go? Some to librarians, books and facilities — but some more to overhead expenses. A 2018 study estimated $3 million for library district overhead expenses.

Some sizeable portion of the extra funds will thus duplicate current city functions. If there were an extra $7 million in the annual city budget, we’d have to think about the best uses for the money, but I doubt our collective choice would direct 100% of those funds to the library system.

I’d encourage voters to start pondering this issue, and to explore the details of the proposal by the Library Champions.

Do we want separate government bodies for every public service? If not, why should the library be different? How would you like any increase in your property taxes spent?

Sam Weaver is a former Boulder mayor.

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