By John Tayer and Steve Pomerance
As president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber, John works to advance economic vitality. Steve is a former council member who is strongly supportive of limited growth. So you’d think we might not even be on speaking terms, let alone writing a joint op-ed.
In fact, we’ve never let our policy differences come between us. We have maintained an open dialogue that is 30 years strong, centered on our mutual interest in doing what’s best for this community. And, not infrequently, we find common ground.
Such is the case with our opposition to the proposed library district, as we explain here.
We begin by noting that the library district and library tax proponents believe our libraries are underfunded. Yes, like other city services, our library system suffered significant cuts during the past two years under COVID financial constraints. Fortunately, with the return of Boulder’s sales tax revenues, all city services are seeing rejuvenated and restored budgets.
The current library system operating budget sits at $9.2million and the city manager is proposing that it rise to $11.1 million in 2023, a 21% increase over this year and a 44% increase over the last seven years. By comparison, the 2023 budgets for our police and fire departments are only proposed to increase by 4% and 6%, respectively.
Contrast the current city budget forecast for our libraries with the exorbitant 3.5 mill property tax that is proposed for the new library district. This new library tax is expected to generate $18.78 million annually, which is more than double the current library system operating budget. To cover this cost, Boulder residents and businesses will pay $23 per $100,000 in value for homes and $92 per $100,000 for commercial properties.
With respect to our library facilities, we understand there is a need for significant catch-up maintenance and proposals for two new library structures. There’s a solution for that. Boulder voters are accustomed to covering such infrastructure costs through the passage of separate tax initiatives. The recently passed Community Culture Resilience and Safety Sales and Use Tax, for example, will generate $185 million in yet-to-be fully allocated funds.
In short, Boulder’s libraries are already enjoying a resurgent operating budget, which compares favorably to the funding allocation for other municipal services, and there are other straightforward means of addressing library infrastructure needs.
The library district ballot initiative isn’t merely instigating a debate over budget levels and taxes. With the formation of a separate, independent taxation and governing entity, the new library district represents a fundamental challenge to our effective model of civic governance.
Library district proponents often talk about the many existing library districts across Colorado. A careful analysis finds that none of the current library districts across Colorado have as high a concentration of facilities in a single urban area as the proposed Boulder-area district. In fact, the vast majority of library districts have only a single library serving a wide rural area. Those with more facilities typically encompass multiple towns or cities.
In contrast, the proposed library district for Boulder and nearby county areas encompasses only a single municipality with multiple existing and planned facilities, including the new North Boulder branch which is scheduled to break ground this year and open in 2023. Yet Boulder homeowners and businesses would cover the lion’s share of the library district’s costs while abdicating governance control.
We already have an award-winning library system, including services and facilities, that operates within the framework of our municipal government. That means the governance of our libraries is subject to the policy guidance of our elected city council. And voters can take political action if they disagree with the funding level for library services or its allocation.
The proposed library district’s budget will be totally separate from the municipal budget, so we will no longer have the opportunity to weigh the library budget allocations against other priority community funding needs. Further, the governing body will be an appointed board that, for their five-year terms, will be politically unaccountable for their decisions, with no review by elected officials.
Disputes between our elected city council and the future unelected library district commissioners are inevitable, just as there are with city-appointed boards. The difference is, in this case, there is no direct recourse for challenging the decisions of the proposed independent library district board. And what if there is a future community crisis? We may wish we still had the budget oversight flexibility to allocate those library funding resources to address emergency needs.
Yes, the two of us may continue to argue about other civic issues. For this election, though, we hope you recognize the significance of our alignment and join us in voting against the proposed library district.
John Tayer is the president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber. Steve Pomerance is a former Boulder city council member.