Funding the library: A look at the city’s 2023 budget

Most folks understand that an annual budget document is not a long-term plan: it is a 12-month plan. To be even more precise: it’s a 12-month plan that’s valid only until a crisis hits. 

Other folks believe that the city can simply restore funding that was lost in the 2020 budget cuts, but that funding is long gone. Prior to the pandemic, the library was operating at 2002 levels, adjusted for inflation. So “restoring” the library to that prior 2020 level of funding does not give the library what it needs to fully serve the community. A library district does that. 

Currently, the Boulder Public Library’s sales tax/general fund model is not tied to the growth of the city or the region, which is what a library district would do. This current condition means that as wealth, population, and values increase, the library is stuck with a budget that is far behind what would be required in order for it to meet the needs of its community. And it’s shrinking.

A look at the 2023 City budget

So, how much does the library’s budget increase in the proposed 2023 budget? Opponents claim that the budget for our library is being increased by 11% (according to one source) or 21% (according to another). Neither statement is accurate and both are misleading because they omit important facts.

The proposed 2023 budget restores the library’s base budget to its pre-pandemic level (the base budget includes costs for staffing, collections and ongoing operations. The base budget is the starting point for each year’s internal budget negotiations). The 2023 budget includes a one-time allocation to complete the interior build-out of the new NoBo branch (scheduled to open in 2023). It also includes an ongoing allocation to begin hiring staff for NoBo, a commitment previous Councils made when the community voted on funding to construct a NoBo branch library back in 2016.  

Staffing for NoBo is an “ongoing” addition, representing the only real increase in this year’s budget. However, funding for NoBo staffing is not guaranteed for future years. As we have seen with staffing cuts to the Carnegie Library for Local History, Main, and the other branches.  Whenever there’s a downturn in city sales tax revenues, or an internal reallocation to support other priorities, library funding gets cut. The library district model mitigates this roller coaster ride of depending on sales taxes. Even our most vocal opponent, Bob Yates, agrees. In the September 8, 2022, budget session, Bob said of sales tax volatility: "It's live by the sword, die by the sword." — every time the economy dips, so does our budget. Sales taxes "turn off like that," and when they do, so does the library. 

Except for NoBo staffing, all of the “new” dollars in the 2023 budget fall into one of the following categories: 

  • Restoration of some of the 17% in cuts made to the library’s budget in 2020 (which were not restored in 2021 and 2022).
  • Adjustments to the base budget to account for rising costs (like increased costs for contracts and staffing).
  • One-time funding to complete a capital project. (One-time funding will not be included in the following year’s budget.)

The 2023 budget also contains funding provided from community philanthropy that is being used to fill in gaps left by city budget cuts, in addition to funding 90% of library programs: 

  • City accounting protocols show grants from the Boulder Library Foundation as if they were taxpayer dollars. 
  • Since 2020, when the city cut the library’s budget by 17%, the Boulder Library Foundation has contributed more than $1.7 million to keep essential programs and services available to our community when they were needed most. BLF is a small foundation which cannot maintain this level of financial support - and the community should not have to rely on philanthropy to provide core library services.

‘Keep Our Libraries (Closed)’, the opposition group that opposes the library district, is deliberately deceiving voters by saying library funding is increasing 20% in 2023. To arrive at that figure, they include one-time capital expenditure for the new NoBo branch, add in what it will cost to staff the new NoBo branch, and account for philanthropic donations as if they were taxpayer dollars/paid by the city. Their campaign of disinformation is designed to keep Boulder County from funding libraries at levels residents need and expect -- don’t fall for it.  

Myth-busting tips 

When someone claims that the budget has “increased by X%,” we should ask questions like these:

  1. Increased compared to what? What year, what budget, or what portion of the budget? Opponents' claims are based on using apples-to-oranges comparisons in all three categories often comparing the operating budget to the total budget needed to run the library today.
  2. What effect does this increase have on the department’s ability to deliver programs and services? Restoring funds means rebuilding programs and services that were cut in prior years. The benefit of the district model is that fluctuations are minimized, and when they happen, are more foreseeable. Funding adjustments that simply account for rising costs don’t allow for growth to meet rising demand - and if the increase in revenues is less than the increase in costs, the ability to deliver programs and services may actually go down.

For example, the 2023 proposed budget shows an 11% increase in the City’s total budget. However, as the following table from the City of Boulder illustrates, this increase in funding is not enough to keep up with rising costs. The purple columns show increases in the total city budget each year since 2019. The blue columns illustrate how much costs have risen in those same years, exceeding the increases in budget growth.

Put simply: Adjusted for inflation, the library will be operating with an effective budget that is 20 years out of date in 2023. No one expects the current levels of inflation to continue, but over the course of the next 20 years, if the library's budget continues to not be tied to the growth of the region, what do we think will happen to a library with the buying power of a 2002 pool of cash?

Source: https://boulderlibrary.org/library-district/

Let’s imagine what happens if the library district doesn’t pass, and another big crisis hits in 2024. Like the period of 2002-2012, the library will undergo another long midnight of decreasing budget and service cuts. What will we lose next time? 

This is the entire point of our campaign: library funding should not be left to the ups and downs of City budgets, or to the political whims of those who sit on council. We ask opponents of the library district: what happens when the next crisis hits? And what is the actual plan to provide long-term funding to the library via Council? 

2020: When crisis hit the budget

We don’t have to imagine what it looks like when a crisis hits the budget: We can look to 2020 and see that exact scenario. Library services took massive cuts in 2020, and that can and will happen again, as long as no dedicated funding via a library district is in place.

During the 2020 budget crisis, the City never saw below a 5% reduction in sales tax revenues. Nonetheless, the library took a body blow of 17% of all the cuts across the entire budget. Why did the library take such a drastically high proportion of the cuts? Because City Council made decisions about which services needed to be cut, which needed to maintain or even increase funding, and by how much. The library, as it always does, lost this competition. 

This is no way to run a library. 

At the end of the day, budget decisions are value judgments, and those values change depending on who gets elected to council, what their priorities are, and how much pressure they receive from the public. We come back to this simple concept: people pay for what they value. We believe that voters will agree that the library is a valuable service that is worth investing in for the long-term. If you agree with that simple idea, then you’re with us.