Local politics have shaped library funding - and not for the best

For years we have known that the population served by the library is far greater than the population of the city of Boulder. Since 2000, Boulder’s population has grown 15%, while the library has seen a 34% increase in registered borrowers. But during those same years, our library staff has declined 12% since 2000. Meanwhile, comparison libraries have seen an average 85% increase in staff to meet the population growth and demand. 

The proposed library district addresses inequities built into the current funding model and secures long-term, stable funding for the library. But as we plan for the future, it’s important to understand exactly how we got here and why our current system is the way it is.

With 133,000 active cardholders in a city of a little over 100,000, Boulder’s library is a regional resource. But responsibility for funding lies exclusively with the city. Today’s library budget draws on the City of Boulder’s general fund, and a 0.33 mill property tax within city limits. 

The City of Boulder’s General Fund relies heavily on sales taxes. Both city and county residents pay these taxes, but at different levels and with different outcomes. For example:

  • The City of Boulder represents 30% of the county population, but contributes 50% of the sales and property tax portion of the County’s budget. However, City residents do not receive 50% of Boulder County services.
  • All residents of Boulder County pay sales taxes to the county at a relatively equal rate. However, residents of the unincorporated county do not pay city sales taxes at the same rate as city residents, because city sales tax is not applied on:

    • Purchases made within the city but delivered to an unincorporated address. This includes high-dollar items such as furniture, appliances, large electronics, and construction materials which make a substantial contribution to city sales tax revenue, as well as online purchases.
    • Residents of unincorporated areas do not pay sales tax on vehicles purchased within the city, another substantial contribution to city sales tax revenues.
    • Residents of unincorporated areas are also more likely to shop — and pay sales tax — in nearby municipalities (Longmont, Louisville, Superior, Erie, Broomfield) than residents of Boulder.
  • The City of Boulder has arguably paid more than its fair share for social infrastructure programs that serve residents throughout the county (including support to small businesses, affordable housing, homeless services, and recreation services) for many years. The City continues to fund these social infrastructure programs using both general fund revenues and ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to fill gaps created by COVID.  

Some people have questioned whether it’s fair to tax the whole region when the current libraries are all in the city. But the fact that libraries in Boulder county are only located in the city is a direct outcome of decisions made by successive boards of Boulder County Commissioners to not participate in funding library systems. 

Boulder County is an outlier in this regard: all but six of Colorado’s sixty-six counties (all on the eastern plains) rely on library districts or county-wide systems to provide library services to their residents. In the metro area, Boulder is the only county that does not fund or operate a county-wide library system, either directly or through a library district. 

Squabbling between the City and County over who pays for Boulder’s library services dates back to 1945, when the County began approving suburban-density subdivisions in  unincorporated areas without identifying where these residents would get their “urban services.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that those planning decisions were not well thought out. Until 1975, the County grudgingly chipped in small amounts of money for libraries, but never the full amount requested. At that time, all five Boulder-area municipal libraries banded together to ask the County to “pay their share” for library services, with little result.

In 1976, more than a quarter of new applicants for Boulder Public Library cards lived in unincorporated areas not served by any municipal library. Library directors from Boulder, Longmont, Louisville, Lafayette, Ward, and Broomfield told the County Commissioners that the County had failed to live up to its agreement to provide funding for library use by County residents. Boulder argued that it should have received $112,000 from the County, but only $56,000 was provided.

In 1979, the City of Boulder agreed to provide library services for county residents in exchange for health services through the Boulder County Health Department. The arrangement lasted ten years, after which the city increased spending on health services to cover emerging gaps. The County took no action on libraries.

One of the main objectives of today’s library district proposal is to provide libraries for residents in Niwot and Gunbarrel, who represent about 70% of the 18,000 unincorporated county residents living within the proposed district boundaries. Due to conflicting feedback from the Niwot community, the library district now only includes Gunbarrel within the proposed boundary. 

County residents will gain library services in the proposed district, but some people still ask whether the tax is reasonable. The Boulder library district levy of 3.5 mills is significantly lower than that used by other Front Range library systems. For example, Jefferson County has a dedicated property tax of 4.5 mills, Arapahoe 4.9 mills, Douglas County 4 mills.

Funds collected by the district would go directly to addressing the large backlog in infrastructure/building maintenance, restoring hours of the existing branches, re-opening the Carnegie Library for Local History, re-opening the Canyon Theater for public use, re-starting the outreach programs to our Latinx and other underserved communities, expanding the BoulderReads program and Reading Buddies programs, expanding the hours of the BLDG 61 makerspace and adding makerspaces to the branches, stocking and staffing the new NoBo library, and finally establishing local library services in Gunbarrel by creating a corner branch library there, something that Gunbarrel residents have been asking for for decades. 

The proposed library district’s goal is to secure stable funding for the library system and to meet the community’s expectations. To create a system that the library can depend upon, to supply services and programs that benefit the whole service area. It’s time to make that happen.