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. In a study session on March 15, a majority of Council preferred 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. Mayor Brockett reiterated this direction in the September 22nd Council meeting.  The Boulder Library Champions fully agree with this approach. 

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.

In its extensive review of Colorado library districts, the Library Commission found that deed transfer or a very long lease (typically 99 years), for a token price ($1/year) was the approach taken by most 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). 

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

The building of our library system has truly been a community effort. All library facilities were developed, and their underlying sites purchased, with funds specifically designated for library purposes. These funds were obtained through direct citizen action: public votes, community donations and bequests; excise taxes/impact fees; and state/federal grants. 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 (including property) and to 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 approaches, with examples of library districts working successfully under both models. Our library district can function well under either approach. 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.

In its February 8th memo to Council, City staff recommended transferring ownership of buildings and land for the George Reynolds, Carnegie, and the new North Boulder branch. (Meadows operates under a lease permanently limited to library purposes.) These branches are stand-alone facilities, with no other City property nearby. Staff suggested that transfer of ownership was the most efficient way to address responsibility for future maintenance, making the library district responsible for future costs and relieving the city of all responsibility for this work.  This staff recommendation is consistent with the City's recently adopted Facilities Master Plan, which seeks to reduce City (and taxpayer) liability for facility maintenance costs by, in part, reducing the size of the City's building inventory.

For the Main library, staff proposed that ownership of the building be transferred  to the library district, using the same "reduce city maintenance costs" rationale applied to the branches.  However, the Main Library building is located in the Civic Area, in which multiple City departments have interests (including Parks, Greenways and Parking). The Civic Area Master Plan anticipates redevelopment of the north end of the Civic Area (the "North Bookend") at some future point.  Staff proposed (and LDAC agreed) that the City should retain ownership of property underlying Main, and enter into a form of commercial condominium agreement with the library district to address questions like who pays for ongoing and future maintenance.  

Council reviewed  all of the “basic” library district IGA issues at its February 8th meeting, and scheduled a follow-up meeting on March 15 to discuss facilities in more detail. Council had a thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons of leasing library facilities to the library district vs. transferring ownership of buildings and/or land. Following this discussion, a majority of Council stated a preference for the City to retain ownership of all library properties - branches and Main - using a low or no cost long term lease. Issues around who pays for capital maintenance will be addressed in the lease agreements.  Details will be worked out in the Intergovernmental Agreement which Council will return to after a successful election.   

Maintenance of the grounds and buildings 

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

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).