By Chris Barge
A friend of mine noted the T-shirt I was wearing recently, stamped with the slogan, “Defend Public Libraries.”
She’d also seen the “Library District YES” yard sign in front of my house.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“Our libraries have been underfunded for decades,” I replied. “Voters will finally have a chance to fix that this November.”
“You wouldn’t know the libraries needed money,” she said. “They seem pretty nice to me.”
My friend is a Kindergarten teacher. She has young children herself. Her family frequents our libraries. They see staff doing a great job, in facilities that appear to be well taken care of.
“Yeah, you might not see the need at first,” I told her. “Isn’t that what the parents of your students might say when they walked into your school, if they didn’t know better?”
“Yes, they would,” she said. “From the outside looking in, you wouldn’t know how underfunded our schools are, how I spend my own money buying their kids’ supplies, how understaffed we are.”
“It’s like that with our libraries,” I said.
“OK, I get that. So we should vote yes?”
My friend was an easy sell. I expect some voters will need more persuading.
Here are the facts:
Taxpayer dollars support only 10% of today’s library programs. The Boulder Library Foundation and its donors fund the rest. Despite this support, the library is underfunded by several million dollars annually.
Voters in and around Boulder this November will be asked whether to create a new library district that would provide our libraries with increased, sustainable funding for years to come.
The funding would amount to a roughly 20% increase in tax dollars dedicated to the library, bringing the annual budget to just under $19 million per year. This modest bump would increase library hours, materials and staffing, and would improve outreach to underserved communities. It would fund a new branch in Gunbarrel, staff and stock the new North Boulder branch with books, and allow for overdue building repairs. It would re-open the Canyon Theater, extend the hours of the BLDG 61 maker space, and activate new and improved programming at all the branches.
Better yet, it would give library staff the bandwidth to partner with schools to address the literacy needs of kids who’ve fallen behind during the pandemic. And it would allow the library to serve as a better convener of people struggling to reconnect with one another after years of isolation.
Those are the benefits we’d see at the library. The benefits to city services would be even greater because the $15.5 million in tax dollars required to fund the library next year at only a bare-bones level would no longer be taken from the city’s general fund.
Look around, and imagine what our city could do with the freed-up revenue. Could Parks & Recreation hire more lifeguards and re-open Spruce Pool next summer? Could the city thin more of the forest on our western border to help prevent the next Marshall Fire? Could we take ambulance services in-house and improve response times, saving lives? Could we spend more on our arts and cultural amenities?
These are questions all of us will have a chance to ask and discuss publicly ahead of the November election. Fortunately, our mayor and city council have committed to collecting community input on how these dollars would be spent.
So what would a “Library District YES” vote cost us? About $9.62 per month on a home with a taxable value of $500,000. Put another way, it’s a 4% property tax increase.
Half of all public libraries are governed and funded by districts in Colorado, with no issues. It’s the consensus best practice.
And yet, because this is a tax proposal, we can expect to hear from opponents, who will begin every argument with some version of “Don’t get me wrong, I love libraries…”
It’s up to us this November to decide whether to express this love by defending — or defunding — our public library.
Chris Barge is the executive director of the Boulder Library Foundation.