Guest opinion: Elise Jones and Ashley Stolzmann

This opinion was published in the Daily Camera on September 23, 2022.

By Ashley Stolzmann and Elise Jones

As current and former elected officials, we have seen firsthand how libraries provide essential services — from supporting early childhood literacy, to providing technology solutions at no cost to users, to serving as gathering places for people from all walks of life. They serve us quietly in good times, and serve as anchors when disaster strikes. We know our communities are stronger when they have strong libraries, and that is why we support the Boulder Library District.

One thing we’ve learned as elected leaders is that we need to provide dedicated funding for the services people rely on in times of crisis.

Libraries serve as “second responders” in our communities. During the pandemic, the Boulder Public Library distributed hundreds of wifi hotspots to low-income households. After the Marshall Fire, area libraries provided information and refuge for displaced residents and workers.

But just when we need libraries most, we often throw them into competition for a shrinking pool of resources. On top of that, sales tax revenues, the primary funding source for most city libraries, are particularly unpredictable.

Library districts operate with dedicated property tax funding, which provides a buffer against rapid changes. In economic downturns districts still have to make difficult decisions, but what funding they do collect goes straight to needed services. Having a library — and keeping it open can help a community rebound more quickly when disaster strikes.

Our work in city and county leadership has also shown us the importance of regional thinking. Our Boulder County communities may have started as self-contained towns and cities, but their growth has created service gaps and strained the municipal libraries many of us know and love.

In the case of Boulder’s library, the 2018 Master Plan found that households in unincorporated areas of the county use the library at similar rates as city residents and that three in ten active cardholders live outside of city limits. These residents travel long distances for library services and are not part of the library’s tax base. They have little say in how libraries operate and have no clear path to improve their access.

A library district is an equitable solution. Everyone living within its boundaries contributes funding equally, and everyone has a claim on library services. As a district, the Boulder library, which has struggled to serve its true service area with municipal funding, could scale up programming to meet demand. And the community of Gunbarrel would finally get a branch library, something the City of Boulder could never provide.

Cities like Boulder are rightly proud of the library systems they’ve built, and creating a district does nothing to threaten that investment. Library districts can lease major assets like library buildings, and Colorado Library Law restricts their use to library services. And as an “establishing entity,” Boulder’s City Council and the County Commissioners will appoint and remove trustees who will oversee the district. In this way, library districts can respect local history while extending access to new and growing communities.

We believe it’s time to invest in resilience and ‘social infrastructure’ in our community, and a library district is a good value. A Boulder-area library district would cost homeowners roughly $23 per $100,000 in taxable value (which lags market value) each year, or less than $10 per month for a home with a taxable value of $500,000.
For residents and small business owners struggling with rising property values, the state legislature has provided $700 million in tax relief for 2023 and 2024. Meanwhile, Colorado’s existing Senior Property Tax Deferral and Senior Homestead Exemption programs can help seniors living on fixed incomes. That’s important, because libraries promote equity in our communities, and the way we fund them should align with that goal.

We are proud to stand with organizations like the NAACP Boulder County, ELPASO (Engaged Latino Parents Advancing Student Outcomes) and El Centro AMISTAD, and the Boulder Area Labor Council — as well as current and former state representatives, city councilors, and school board members in supporting the formation and funding of a library district for Boulder’s libraries this fall.

Strong libraries promote literacy, equity and community, and we need to ensure they’re accessible to all of us in a changing world.

Ashley Stolzmann is Louisville’s Mayor and the Democratic candidate for Boulder County Commissioner District 3. Elise Jones is a former Boulder County Commissioner.