- What is a library district?
- Why is a library district right for Boulder?
- What geographic areas does the district include?
- What would a library district bring to my neighborhood, specifically?
- When will the library resume full operations?
- How would a library district be funded?
- What would I pay for a library district?
- Would a dedicated sales tax be a better solution?
- Why can’t the City of Boulder just commit to fully funding the library?
- Will this be a “double-tax” for city residents?
- What happens to the freed-up funds in the city budget?
- Does the library district proposal double the library's current budget?
- I’m a senior on a fixed income. Can I afford this?
- How does the library district impact business owners?
- When will the North Boulder branch library be built?
- What is a corner library?
- Where would a Gunbarrel branch be located?
- Why not just charge people to use the library?
A library district is a special governing district that exists specifically to provide library services to a community. Library districts often serve a regional population, rather than a single town or city.
The State of Colorado passed laws allowing and regulating these districts in recognition of libraries’ importance in our communities. Library district law governs set-up, accountability, and funding, and to date has been used to create 56 library districts across the state!
Because of this, we like to say that Boulder’s library district proposal isn't special. It builds on successful models and follows established state law.
Library advocates — as well as multiple city working groups — have proposed a library district because the cost to provide city services has been rising faster than revenues for more than 20 years. And the library, in particular, has often been the first city service to be cut when budgets are tight, and the last to be restored when fortunes improve. In 2019, the library was operating at 2002 funding levels, despite significant growth in use. And while it represents only three percent of the City of Boulder’s budget, the library took 17% of the city’s budget cuts during the 2020 COVID budget crisis.
Stable funding through a library district would allow for significant improvements that our community needs and expects, and in some cases has requested for years:
- Strengthened partnerships with schools to increase literacy, particularly with underserved and students who fell behind during pandemic;
- Restored and improved social-equity programs like BoulderReads and Reading Buddies;
- Providing additional, free and safe public spaces for community meetings, workshops and programs;
- Expanding services like literacy and STEAM programs, and access to free wi-fi for young people, underserved communities and seniors;
- Updated and improved collections of books and materials, including bilingual materials and downloading of e-books, movies and music;
- Expanding community workspaces - known as makerspaces - at Main and branch libraries;
- Expanded hours at the Main and branch libraries to meet increased demand;
- Re-opening of the Canyon Theater and Carnegie Library for Local History for public use;
- Repairs and renovations at Carnegie and Reynolds branches;
- Full funding of North Boulder branch;
- A new branch library in Gunbarrel;
- And improved cleanliness, safety, and security at all library facilities.
View a map of the proposed library district boundary, created by the City of Boulder.
There are many benefits to forming a library district, the most important of which is providing our highly popular library system with a reliable source of revenue long-term so that it can grow with the community it serves. In addition, several neighborhoods will see specific improvements:
- North Boulder: The long-awaited North Boulder branch library will break ground later this year, thanks to dedicated funding approved in 2017. But several spaces requested by the community have been scraped due to city budget cuts. A library district will provide funding to build the makerspace, community kitchen, and playground that were part of the original design. District funding will also help fully stock and staff the new branch library, which will give neighbors access to community meeting spaces, storytime and STEAM programs, and Spanish-language services - to say nothing of books and other media.
- South Boulder: A library district will fund overdue repairs at the George Reynolds branch and restore its hours to pre-pandemic levels. A library district would also allow for expanded programming and services, including makerspace and STEAM activities, at the Reynolds and Meadows branches.
- Gunbarrel and unincorporated Boulder County: More than 30 percent of Boulder library cardholders live in unincorporated areas of Boulder County. These users can expect expanded outreach services and programming, and a dedicated library board whose explicit mission includes serving their communities. Residents of Gunbarrel can look forward to a new corner library - the first step towards a full branch location. By bringing city and county neighborhoods together into a single district, a library district solves the decades-old problem of underfunding community amenities in this growing area.
- Downtown Destinations: For all Boulder residents, a library district will provide funding to re-open and fully staff three unique spaces in the heart of Boulder. The Carnegie Branch Library for Local History will receive repairs and additional archival space. The Main Library’s innovative BLDG 61 makerspace - currently only open 2 days per week - will be able to keep its tools in action and offer them to more users. And the 200-seat Canyon Theater will once again be available for free public use, expanding opportunities for community-driven arts and educational programming.
Without a library district, we don’t know.
Unlike other city departments, the library’s budget has not yet been restored to pre-pandemic levels. Because of staffing cuts, the Main Library, Reynolds, Meadows, and North Boulder branches are all operating with reduced hours, and the Carnegie Library for Local History is closed.
Social equity programs like Reading Buddies and Boulder Reads have reduced capacity because their staff positions have been terminated. The collection budget, which was already low relative to peer libraries, remains below its pre-pandemic level, even though patron demand remains high (especially for expensive electronic materials).
It didn’t have to be this way. Colorado libraries operated by library districts reopened quickly after the initial pandemic closures. They were offering access to physical collections, programming, meeting rooms, and maker spaces long before Boulder’s libraries were able to reopen.
Why the difference? With stable funding from property taxes, library districts were able to retain sufficient staff during the pandemic to meet patron demand, enforce social distancing, and perform extra cleaning to ensure everyone’s safety. However, municipal libraries, funded like ours, are struggling to support even basic services after sales tax revenue plummeted and budgets were cut or diverted to support pandemic responses.
A Boulder Public Library District would be funded by a property tax on what the county calls the “actual value” (not sales price) of a property. The proposed tax is 3.5 mills, which equals $23 per $100,000 of actual value. For a home assessed at $500,000, the tax would be $9.62/month, or about $115/year.
Right now, only City of Boulder taxes pay for the library, even though 30% of cardholders live in areas outside of the city limits. Gunbarrel and other unincorporated parts of Boulder County would be brought into the tax base, so that it more closely matches the user base of the library.
A library district is the most equitable way to provide a regional service - and it avoids the regressive sales taxes on which much of Boulder’s budget relies.
A library district would be funded by a property tax of $23/year for every $100,000 of taxable value of a residence, which the County Assessor calls “actual value” for assessment purposes (See Boulder County Assessor explanation for the difference between “actual value” and assessed value). Please note that this value is not what you - or Zillow - think your home is worth, and it is not the market value of your home. It’s the taxable value of your home as assessed by the county.
- A home with an “actual value” of $500,000 would pay $9.62/month or $115/year.
- A home with an “actual value” of $900,000 would pay $17.25/month or $207/year.
For commercial properties, the cost would be about $97.60 for every $100,000 of actual commercial value. We believe, for most office-type spaces, this equates to an additional $0.15 - $0.18 NNN cost per square foot per year. The City of Boulder has created an interactive map for the district which will tell you what your estimated cost would be per year, based on address.
At 3.5 mills, Boulder’s library district tax levy would be low compared to other Front Range communities:
- Nederland Library District - 6.415 mills (4.4 mills for operating, remainder for a capital bond)
- Pueblo City-County Library District - 5.889 mills
- Arapahoe Library District - 5.875 mills
- Lyons Public Library District - 5.85 mills
- Jefferson County Library - 4.5 mills
- Douglas County Library District - 4 mills
- Pikes Peak Library District (Colorado Springs) - 3.934 mills
- Rangeview/Anythink Library District (Adams County ) - 3.69 mills
- PROPOSED BOULDER LIBRARY DISTRICT - 3.5 mills
- High Plains Library District (Weld County plus Erie) - 3.249 mills
- Poudre River Library District - 3 mills
Boulder City Council considered and rejected a dedicated sales tax for library funding in 2019. Sales taxes are regressive and prone to boom and bust cycles, and Boulder already has one of the highest local rates in Colorado. On top of that, sales taxes aren’t keeping up. For more than 20 years, revenues have lagged substantially behind the cost to deliver local services.
Dedicated sales taxes sound good, but we’ve seen them fall short for other city departments. For example, Boulder’s Open Space and Transportation departments - both recipients of dedicated taxes - have significant maintenance backlogs because revenues have not kept pace with growth and community demand. Property tax revenues grow with communities and provide a more stable and predictable source of funding.
Boulder’s annual budget relies on a high proportion of dedicated sales taxes (e.g. Open Space), which leaves City Council with little flexibility to adjust spending priorities. Twelve departments - including the Library - compete for a portion of the city’s unrestricted General Fund, which itself is declining as a portion of Boulder’s total budget. While city leaders have been aware of funding issues for 30 years, the library’s budget remained at 2002 levels through 2019 - even as demand for services grew.
Boulder’s annual operating budget is about $300M, of which only about $134M goes to the General Fund. More than half of the annual operating budget is dedicated by law to specific departments or programs - like Open Space - and cannot be reallocated during the budgeting process. The library receives the proceeds of a 0.333 mill property tax (about $1.4M/year), but must otherwise compete with departments like Police ($40.5M), Fire ($23.4M), and Parks and Recreation ($28.2M) for the bulk of its budget.
So while polls consistently show that 70% or more of Boulder residents support increased library funding, in many ways city leaders’ hands are tied. It’s difficult to increase funding for popular services without taking from others. And in the absence of another dedicated tax, decisions to increase library funding could be reversed at any time.
A library district would provide a stable revenue stream in addition to boosting funding. And that stability is critical to investing in buildings, staff, and materials, as well as developing quality programs for our community.
No. The library does currently have a dedicated property tax levy in the City of Boulder of 0.333 mills (providing ~$1.4M in the current Boulder Public Library budget) which can only be used for library purposes. But a majority of City Council members have expressed support for eliminating this levy so that Boulder residents are not “double taxed” in a library district.
Because this 0.333 mills of dedicated library funding is in the City Charter, an additional ballot measure will be required to eliminate it. If such a measure is passed, and the library district passes, City of Boulder residents will have an effective property tax increase of only 3.167 mills (3.5 mills for the new library district, minus 0.333 mills for the existing property tax).
There are so many worthy and popular programs and projects that the city could invest in to improve quality of life in Boulder. As Library Champions, we do not have an official position on how the freed up General Fund dollars – which would amount to roughly $10M annually – should be applied. City Council has committed to having a robust, public discussion about reallocating funds if a library district is formed, and we support this approach. We strongly encourage residents to participate in city budget deliberations, and to contact City Council to share their thoughts.
No. In reality, it adds approximately 19.3% to the library’s budget. City staff have consistently reported this number in presentations to the City Council and public.
The myth of double-funding comes from a misrepresentation of current spending. When shared costs (like human resources and IT) are included, the library’s current annual budget is $13.5 million. If COVID-era budget cuts are restored and funding is granted to staff the North Boulder branch library (scheduled to open in 2023), that number would rise to $15.5 million next year.
The library district proposal will raise roughly $18.5 million in its first year. This is a $3 million or 19.3% increase over the likely 2023 budget. And it includes $1.3 million to cover deferred maintenance, which the city has been reluctant to approve.
We believe libraries provide outstanding value to seniors in our community, but we understand property taxes can be challenging for residents with fixed incomes. The State of Colorado and Boulder County offer relief through two programs:
- Senior tax exemption: If you are 65 or older, you can apply for a tax deferral on your primary residence. The taxes are then paid when the property sells or changes ownership. Interest is charged on the loan, but at a low rate (currently 1.375%). Some seniors have realized they can invest their property tax dollars and make more than the interest charged on the exemption. Deferrals are renewed annually, so you can decide whether or not to take them each year, based on your needs.
- Senior homestead exemption: If you are 65 or older and have owned and lived in your home for at least ten years, 50% of the first $200,000 in actual value (as calculated by the County Assessor) of your primary residence is exempted from property tax. The State of Colorado reimburses the county treasurer for any lost revenue.
When we talk about taxes, it’s important to talk about what we get in return. Boulder’s library has always been an important resource for seniors. The home delivery program serves residents with mobility challenges, to reduce the need for in-person visits. Libraries fight isolation. In the first wave of the pandemic, Boulder library staff attempted to call every cardholder over 65 to check in and ask how the library could be of service. And many retirees have found purpose and community through the library’s volunteer opportunities. A library district will ensure these services and opportunities exist when we need them.
As former Governor John Hickenlooper said, “Two of the most important assets any town has are its library and its Main Street.”
Businesses and their employees are heavy users of library services. Boulder’s library provides free meeting and co-working spaces, help with creating business plans, and access to financial and marketing research databases. It also teaches basic literacy and computing skills for those in need. Meanwhile, the library’s BLDG 61 makerspace acts as a business incubator. It provides free access to high-tech tools like 3D printers, looms, and laser cutters, and has helped launch over 75 small businesses and 12 patent applications.
Boulder’s library supports workforce development through job-coaching, including real-time interview practice, full-service resume review, and a writing lab. It also offers free access to dozens of self-paced classes to learn new skills, upgrade qualifications, and earn certificates and high school degrees. Through the Boulder Reads program, adult learners can prepare to take the GED.
An educated workforce helps a business's bottom line. And thriving cultural assets - such as arts, libraries, and parks - are also part of what draws businesses and employees to the region. Public libraries are a good investment to make for the community.
The North Boulder branch library is scheduled to break ground in late summer or fall of 2022. Rising construction costs have delayed the project, and have forced the library to cut several popular elements - net-zero features, a makerspace, community kitchen, and playground - from the original design.
A library district would provide the funding needed to complete the North Boulder branch as designed.
Corner libraries are small facilities that test the waters to see if there is demand for a full branch in a neighborhood. Boulder’s first corner library opened in a North Boulder storefront in 2014, and paved the way for the new branch set to open in 2023.
Corner libraries are important community gathering spaces. They offer a place to pick up and drop off materials close to home, saving a trip downtown. They can offer literacy classes, Spanish classes, storytimes, and other popular programs. When libraries are near where people live, people visit often, creating a sense of community and belonging.
When the North Boulder corner library opened in 2014, it quickly became one of the busiest places in the neighborhood. With funding from a library district, Gunbarrel will get one next, putting it on a path to its own full-service branch.
The planning process for constructing a new branch library is lengthy, so Gunbarrel would first get a corner library in a rented space. Typically, the library negotiates free or very low cost leases because commercial property owners perceive value in the activity they generate. Libraries draw regular visitors who then patronize nearby businesses.
Gunbarrel Center would be an ideal location for a new branch library, given its proximity to groceries, cafes, bus lines, and other services. After a library district is formed, the new Board of Trustees would be responsible for selecting and securing a location. The new board could include residents of unincorporated Gunbarrel - the neighborhood will have a voice in a library district!
Public libraries are public institutions. They are not reserved for those who can afford to pay to use services. While pay-to-play works for private entities, the public library is part of the social infrastructure of a community, much like parks. Think of the parks as Boulder's backyard, and the library as Boulder's living room. Anyone in the community is welcome to use the library, regardless of their economic status and ability. That's what makes libraries such an important part of weaving a community of all backgrounds, abilities, ages, and income levels together.
Our proposal honors this commitment to free public access, while asking the entire community to support it. A library district is an equitable and sustainable approach to funding a shared asset.