Library district could bring new services to Gunbarrel and Niwot

A map shows the potential boundary of a of Boulder Public Library district.

Double-digit population growth and competing budget priorities have combined to put financial pressure on the Boulder Public Library, and now the Library Commission wants area voters to consider whether to fund a separate district that could potentially bring new services to Gunbarrel or Niwot.

On April 12, Joni Teter, former chair of the Library Commission, and City of Boulder’s Library and Arts Director David Farnan held an informational meeting with representatives from the Niwot Community Association and the Niwot Business Association to discuss the upcoming initiative and the possible expansion of services in more detail.

Farnan opened the discussion by talking about the current state of the BPL system, which is the busiest of its size in the state. Last year, there were more than 1 million visits to the library, many of those from non-Boulder residents. In fact, about 40 percent of cardholders live outside of the city limits, mostly in unincorporated parts of Boulder County or in Longmont.

The library has also seen “massive” growth over the past four to five years, both in terms of total and return users, which Farnan termed “an anomaly” when compared with other libraries across the U.S. There has also been a notable uptick in program attendance, which Farnan said is driven by the Boulder library’s unique offerings.

Library district could bring new services to Gunbarrel and Niwot

A map shows the range of Boulder Public Library cardholders extending quite a ways beyond the city limits.

“So, I know we’re doing some things right. Some of this is our cultural programming, which doesn’t really exist in a lot of libraries….Another big success is also our science and technology programming and the BLDG 61 Makerspace.”

Farnan estimates that the all-ages Makerspace—described on the library’s website as “a free community workshop”—has attracted more than 100,000 visitors since it opened in 2016.

“We built out a pretty heavy duty tech shop, and it’s been an amazing success story,” Farnan said. “Three years in and I think 73 businesses have started out of the space and we have 12 patents.”

Growth in the user base has brought a concomitant demand for more services, such as expanded hours, more programming, and additional facilities, but it has not brought concomitant growth in funding for the library, most of which comes from an appropriation in the City of Boulder’s annual budget. The system gets up to 85 percent of its yearly operating revenue from the city’s General Fund, a mix of sales and property taxes that also pays for other municipal services such as public safety and parks. The rest comes from a 0.333 mill dedicated property tax plus other revenues, such as grants, rental income, and fines and fees. Capital projects are funded through an allocation in the city’s Capital Development Fund, and the system also receives the support of the city’s administrative and facilities departments.

According to Farnan and Teter, convincing the city council to increase BPL’s share of a variable pool of taxes has proved challenging, even as use and popularity of the library has surged. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, the amount allocated for library operating revenues has remained relatively flat over the past dozen years, increasing just 3 percent overall while the city’s overall budget grew by several times that. Unfortunately, this has contributed to steep staffing cuts and other service reductions, Teter said.

“I think the city council would legitimately like to solve the library’s problems, but they’ve got so many things on their minds. People who sit on city council—and I know because I was married to one—are drawn to big issues, so the library just sort of fell back.”

The need for “secure, stable and adequate funding” is one of the three significant challenges identified by the Commissioners in the 2018 Boulder Public Library Master Plan, a strategic report detailing the system’s goals and outlook over the next ten years. In it, the Commissioners argue for creating a separate library district as a means of easing these financial constraints and providing “the most equitable, accountable and reliable option for BPL’s long term financial sustainability.”

“This is the third master plan that has identified funding deficiencies in the library for core services, so that’s where the Commission said, ‘This is not sustainable, and we really need to take this on and try to make this work in a different way.’” Teter said. “Unanimously, we all said a library district makes the most sense. It provides the best match between the patron base and the funding base, which makes it the most equitable and transparent.”

Under Colorado state law, a library district is a governmental entity formed for “the acquisition, construction, financing, operation, or maintenance of publicly-supported library services on a regional basis.” It is typically funded by a mill levy, but funding the district has to be approved by the residents within its boundaries.

Farnan noted that library districts have been a growing phenomenon across Colorado for the past 20 to 30 years, and now include about half of the systems across the state, including two of the largest—Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs and the High Plains District in Weld County. Denver, Boulder, and Longmont are among the remaining municipal systems, though the latter is also exploring district formation.

The Boulder Library Commission proposes a district that encompasses the city limits, plus the areas north and west of town in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan planning area, which generates most of the non-city use of the BPL. It would be governed by a board of Trustees, appointed jointly by the city council and Boulder County Commissioners, through a process laid out in an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA).

“Government structure is key here,” Teter said in response to a question about representation in Niwot and other outlying areas. “It’s not the city council that gets to decide where the money goes; the Board of Trustees makes that decision.”

To fund it, they are asking for a levy “not to exceed” 4 mills, which translates to $28.80 per $100,000 of assessed residential property value and about $1,000 for every $1 million in commercial property value. In other words, a home valued at $800,000 by Boulder County would be assessed an additional $230.40 on its annual property tax bill.

A financial analysis conducted by the Commissioners shows that, if approved, a districting scheme would raise enough money annually to cover current operating costs for the five existing branches (Main, Carnegie, Meadows, Reynolds and North Boulder), plus allow for expansions in programming, acquisitions, and staffing. It would also help clear deferred maintenance and repair backlogs associated with aging facilities. Eventually, there would also be adequate funding for new facilities in Gunbarrel and Niwot, depending on community interest. The money currently allocated to the library in the city’s budget would be then be freed up for other priorities,

“It would be 6 to 8 million dollars going back to the General Fund, depending on how you look at it,” Teter said. “For a lot of cities, that freeing up of revenues is one of the incentives for creating a library district. It’s like a school—they know it has to be there every year, but it’s not their problem anymore and it frees up some money in their budget.”

It would also free up some resources, since, as Teter mentioned, the library would no longer be the city’s “problem.” That highlights one of the drawbacks of leaving the municipal government—the loss of resources and services now routinely provided by municipal employees. The Master Plan estimates that administrative and overhead costs for a district library system could be up to 15 percent higher, since it would have to contract with the city or an outside vendor. Nor would a district be entirely free of revenue worries, even with a dedicated source of funding from property taxes. As the past two decades have shown, property values do not always trend upward, and property taxes can be volatile, especially with Colorado’s Gallagher Amendment, which capped the share of residential taxes at 45 percent. The district would also be assuming some retirement liabilities and other future obligations.

Supporters of the district are currently gathering signatures for a petition to add the issue to the citywide ballot in November. They have already gathered enough for the countywide ballot, so Teter feels confident that future district residents will get their chance to be heard on the matter later this year.

Still, some key questions remain to be answered, and the Commission is hoping to know more in May after they go to the city council with results of their polling and community engagement activities, but even that carries many unknowns.

“I don’t think they’ve wrapped their heads around the fact that there’s going to be a vote on the county ballot,” Teter said.

Ideally, she continued, city council and BOCC will consider forming the district through a resolution and leaving just the funding to voters.

“Then they can work out some of these big questions in advance and people have more certainty about that. In any case, once the district is formed, they have to do an intergovernmental agreement, where they work out all these details, including how the Board of Trustees is appointed, how the facilities are transferred...what happens with staff. All these things get worked out in an IGA.”

The Commission will continue collecting signatures for the petition through the end of the month. To learn more about this initiative and read a copy of the petition, visit boulderlibrarychampions.org. A downloadable copy of the 2018 Boulder Public Library Master Plan can be found at https://boulderlibrary.org/about/2018-library-master-plan/.