On library buildings

As we get into gear on our 2022 campaign to secure a sustainable funding future for our Boulder libraries, we’ll use this space to cover some of the details on the library district proposal that might be of interest to the public as this campaign moves ahead. 

In the course of transitioning the library system from a municipally-run one to a district model, one frequent question has been “what happens to the buildings”? Specifically, should the city of Boulder lease the existing library buildings to the new district, or give them outright to the district? 

If a library district is approved by voters in November, the library buildings and grounds continue to be assets owned by the community, just as they are now. The Boulder Library Champions will follow the guidance provided by Boulder City Council in April of this year, in which it was agreed that the city would retain ownership of all library buildings, and establish a long-term lease of the buildings to the district for a nominal annual fee. 

A lease arrangement gives residents the peace of mind that the buildings – particularly the Main branch – will remain in the custody of the City. We’re grateful to the city for thoroughly reviewing this issue, and are happy to provide the community with this reassurance in terms of how the buildings and grounds will be stewarded in a library district. [ADD MORE TAG?] Here’s a deeper dive into the issue for those who want all the background.

An overview of Main Library, George Reynolds, Meadows, Carnegie, and NoBo branches

All of our library facilities have been built, expanded, and renovated using revenues dedicated to library purposes by our community. Sources of funding have included voter-approved bonds, community donations and bequests, and grants obtained for library purposes. Our library system was built by our community, and library facilities will remain in service to our community as part of a library district.

  • The Main Library downtown on Arapahoe: Bond measures in 1959, 1971, and 1987 helped construct and expand the Main Library, initiated via Library Commission initiatives and direct citizen action. Additional funding for renovations came from a capital tax approved by voters in 2011.
  • The George Reynolds branch at Table Mesa: Built with funding from a personal bequest, community contributions, and federal grants designated for library construction. The 1987 bond issue funded renovations in the (then) 25-year-old building.
  • The Meadows branch off Baseline: Operates in leased space, on a lease limited by its terms to library purposes, built as part of a land use “exaction” when the Meadows Shopping Center was built. Interior build out was funded from the 1987 bond measure.
  • The Carnegie Library for Local History: Community members obtained private funding for our first library, now the Carnegie Library for Local History. Carnegie’s major renovation (1984) was funded entirely through community contributions and grants. 
  • The North Boulder (NoBo) corner branch: Operates in a leased space which will close when the new NoBo branch is completed. Residents voted on the funding for this branch via a dedicated capital tax in 2017. 

The history of library building governance in Boulder

Boulder’s first City Charter (1918) established the Library Commission, and gave the Commission responsibility to control the public library and administer gifts made to the library. Title to property obtained on the library’s behalf (by any means) was vested in the City, with the commission to “take charge of and have the management and custody of the property.” In the words of a 1956 City attorney opinion, library properties are “held in trust by the City for the use of the People for library purposes.”

These charter provisions remained in effect until 2015, when voters approved charter amendments initiated by the Library Commission reflecting the Commission’s current role as an advisory body. All of our existing library facilities were constructed/expanded before the 2015 change. 

The background on leasing vs owning

In a November 27, 2018 memo to Council, City staff summarized the ways in which library facilities can be conveyed to the district:

  • Deed library buildings, properties, and other assets to the library district at no cost, minimal annual cost, or one-time cost.
  • Lease library buildings and properties to the library district at a determined rate such as fair market value, original cost, or a different rate set by Council.

There are good arguments for both models, and the library district can function well under either one. The primary considerations are how to best pay for capital maintenance (including a large current maintenance backlog), and how to best equip the library to respond to future community needs.

City staff have recommended transferring ownership of buildings and land for the George Reynolds, Carnegie, and planned North Boulder branch, and transferring ownership of the Main Library building while ownership of the underlying property would remain with the City in order to address issues of ongoing maintenance and future development on the ground surrounding the Main Library within the Civic Area. Ownership of the buildings would allow the library district to pledge assets for bonds or certificates of participation funding - a common method that governments use to pay for capital improvements. 

In our extensive review of Colorado library districts, deed transfer or a very long lease (typically 99 years), for a token price ($1/year) was the approach taken by almost all communities. In communities with multiple branches, transfer agreements were sometimes negotiated site-by-site, reflecting broader community interests in specific parcels or assignment of responsibility for different aspects of maintenance (exterior and interior). 

Maintenance of the grounds and buildings 

Library facilities represent a large percentage of the City’s maintenance backlog. Cost estimates are likely to increase with further analysis of building deficiencies and rising construction costs. 

Assuming that the library district has long-term control over library facilities (via a long-term lease arrangement with the city), it makes sense for the library district to assume financial responsibility for ongoing maintenance, addressing the capital maintenance backlog and future capital needs. Our library buildings are aging, and heavy usage has created a lot of wear and tear. All library patrons have benefited from use of these facilities over the years, and have contributed to the wear and tear.

It is equitable for all library patrons to contribute towards the costs of repair - city taxpayers should not bear this cost burden alone. The library district would spread costs among ~90 percent of patrons, providing the most equitable means to fund the maintenance backlog, ongoing maintenance and future capital, and operating costs.  

Responsibility for maintenance of exterior grounds is best addressed on a case-by-case basis.  The Reynolds and Carnegie buildings are free-standing with no other municipal uses nearby. Placing responsibility for maintenance of landscaping and parking lots on the library district makes sense for those sites. The North Boulder branch library is adjacent to a neighborhood park, and the Main Library is surrounded by the Civic Area park and municipal parking lots. Both the City and the library district will have important shared interests in exterior maintenance.

So, what’s the conclusion on the library buildings? 

As stated at the beginning of this post, the Boulder Library Champions are unequivocally committed to following the guidance of Boulder City Council on the issue of library buildings and grounds. In 2022, Boulder City Council concluded that leasing the Main Library in its entirety (building and land) was simpler than creating a mixed ownership relationship. A majority of Council ultimately determined that long-term leases at nominal cost made most sense for the branch libraries as well. 

As such, the Champions take the same position as Council and support leasing of all library buildings. Should the library district pass in November, the details of this arrangement will be finalized by Council and the Library District Board of Trustees in an IGA (InterGovernmental Agreement).