Tackling myths about the library district, part II

In Part I, we explored six myths we’ve heard from skeptics about Boulder library ballot measure 6C:

  • Myth #1: The city will be giving away assets/control
  • Myth #2: "The library will close and move out east"
  • Myth #3: The library will have enough money to "build a branch every two years"
  • Myth #4: It doubles the library budget
  • Myth #5: The 2023 budget restores library funding
  • Myth #6: It's a "10%" tax increase
  • Myth #7: A “district” is a risky experiment

In this second installment, we tackle the six remaining myths that have floated about, and they are: 

Let’s dive in!

 

Myth #8: The district is a “money grab” by the City to free up funds 

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If a library district is approved and funded, roughly $10M would become available in the City of Boulder’s annual budget. This figure - provided by City staff - takes into account the actual operating dollars that the City is spending on the library today.

There are many worthy and popular projects that the City of Boulder could fund with freed-up dollars from the General Fund. The Library Champions do not have an official position on how such money should be spent. But we know - and appreciate - that City Council has committed to a robust public discussion about how to use any freed-up funds. We encourage city residents to contact Councilmembers directly to share their opinions.

Ultimately, the issue of how these funds are applied is separate from the issue of giving the library the funding it needs, and we encourage our supporters to push back on attempts by opponents to politicize the library using this argument.

 

Myth #9: The district is a double tax on city residents

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The double-taxation myth refers to a small existing property tax: Boulder’s City Charter dedicates a 0.333 mill levy to the library, which currently provides ~$1.4M annually for library operations.

Because this 0.333 mills of dedicated library funding is in the City Charter, an additional ballot measure will be on this year's ballot to eliminate it, should the district pass. If the existing 0.333 mill levy is eliminated by voters, the effective property tax increase for the district would be lower for city residents - 3.167 mills rather than 3.5 mills (or $21.53 rather than $23.00 per $100K of residential property). The Boulder Daily Camera reported on September 25, 2022 Council's intent to return this levy amount to residents if the district passes

 

Myth #10: There are better ways to fund the library

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Meme from American Chopper

Library advocates have been fighting for adequate funding for years.  

Most recently, City Council considered and rejected a dedicated sales tax for library funding in 2019. Sales taxes are regressive and prone to boom and bust cycles, and Boulder already has one of the highest local rates in Colorado. On top of that, sales taxes aren’t keeping up.For more than 20 years, revenues have lagged substantially behind the cost to deliver services.

As to why the City just can’t just fund the library directly by giving it more money from the General Fund, the answer is simple. Boulder funds most services through dedicated sales taxes, leaving City Council little flexibility to adjust its priorities. And their room to maneuver is shrinking, with the General Fund declining as a portion of Boulder’s total budget.  

The discussion about the library’s funding needs began over 30 years ago. As a City department, it has endured the feast/famine cycles of a City budget that is reliant primarily on sales taxes to fund its services. In that time, demand for the library has only grown, while overall wealth across the city has also increased. However, the library’s budget has remained flat — in 2019, it was operating at 2002 funding levels.

The last time the City dedicated funds for operations to their library was 1918, in response to Andrew Carnegie's conditions that he would help the City build its first library only if the City developed a dedicated fund for it. Today, this mill (which will be repealed if issue 6C passes) yields about $1.4M, or about 8% of the library's needs. No other dedicated funding for the library exists. 

Opponents suggest that the City can't be trusted to steward these freed up funds (which represent about 3% of the City's overall budget), and that this is a reason to vote no on a district. But, if we don't trust the City to steward our assets, why do we trust the City to steward our library? We can't keep our libraries in this downward cycle of cuts to services. Voters can break the cycle this year by voting yes on issue 6C.

 

Myth #11: Seniors/renters/businesses don’t want this

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We’ve polled likely voters in the proposed library district, and found that 64% of people over 50 years old, and 73% of renters would vote yes. Both of these groups fall on the lower end of the economic spectrum, and in general sales taxes - the library’s current funding source - capture a higher percentage of their income than property taxes - which a district would levy.

Of course, property taxes can be a challenge for some seniors on fixed incomes. In those cases, the State of Colorado and Boulder County offer two programs aimed at helping seniors cope with property taxes:

  • Senior tax exemption: Homeowners 65 years old or older can apply for a tax deferral on their primary residence. The taxes are then paid when the property sells or changes ownership. 
  • Senior homestead exemption: People 65 years old or older who have owned and lived in their home for at least ten years, can exempt 50% of the first $200,000 in actual value (as calculated by the County Assessor) of their  primary residence from property tax. 

 The library is also an important resource for seniors and people with fixed incomes. For example, the library home delivery program serves seniors and those with mobility issues directly, so that they can get the resources they need without needing to come in-person.

Renters in Boulder have faced steep increases in housing costs in recent years, which makes some people wary of property tax hikes. But in years past, increased rents have not come with any return in the form of community infrastructure or services. Property taxes collected for a library district would likely be passed on to renters, but that portion of rent increases would have a tangible outcome: more and better library services.

Businesses are important constituents - so much so that we’ve dedicated an entire blog post to their relationship to the libraries and the proposed library district.

 

Myth #12: The library is doing fine as-is

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Boulder’s library was already operating at 2002 funding levels in 2019…and then the pandemic hit. It wasn’t ok then, and it’s not ok now. Our recent review of services and programs outlines what’s been deferred, canceled, and left unfunded. Goals identified by the community - like fully utilizing the Canyon Theater and Gallery, expanding the popular makerspace program, and activating outdoor public spaces - are out of reach.

The library’s budget has not been restored to pre-pandemic levels. The Main Library, Reynolds, Meadows, and NoBo branches are all operating with reduced hours, and the Carnegie Library for Local History is closed, all due to staffing cuts.

Critical social equity programs like Reading Buddies and BoulderReads are reduced because critical staff positions have been terminated. And the collection budget, which was already low relative to peer libraries, is below pre-pandemic spending, even though patron demand remains high (especially for expensive electronic materials). BLDG 61, the library's nationally recognized makerspace, is only open two days a week due to staff and budget cuts. 

In short, the library can’t expand its services, but it also can’t maintain the service levels needed to meet existing community demand.

 

Myth #13: No one uses the library anymore

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Untrue. If you don’t know anyone who uses our Boulder Public Library, consider this a call to get to know your neighbors better! 

Before the library's hours were cut during the pandemic, it received over 1 million visits a year, making it one of the busiest public spaces in all of Boulder. Thousands of people attend the library’s programs, and the library sees more than a million checkouts (books, digital materials, etc) each year. Each month, the library welcomes hundreds of new cardholders.  

The full results of the library’s most recent progress report to the library commission can be viewed here

In a recent letter to the Boulder Beat, Boulder Library Commission Chair Jane Sykes-Wilson said: “The predicted demise of the library is constant, yet people keep coming and the library keeps growing. Could it be that reading begets reading, and an informed citizenry makes for a good community? Children and families make up 40-45% of the library’s patrons. After them, according to national studies, millennials make up the highest user group of public libraries.”

New patron accounts (people getting new library cards) have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Door counts (people visiting the library) have doubled what they were last year in Q1. Overall, pandemic-era visit counts remain lower than pre-pandemic levels as a direct result of cuts to the number of hours the libraries are open, as well as of the Meadows branch fully closing for the first part of 2022 (Dec 28 thru Feb 11) due to an infrastructure emergency. 

Circulation (books and materials being checked out) continues climbing back up in the first quarter of 2022, growing by 40% over 2021, and achieving 67% of pre-pandemic level in the same timeframe. 

Programming attendance (people coming to events like storytimes, classes, and etc) grew by 57% over the first quarter of 2021, even as programs offered to children and teens have been severely reduced due to lack of staffing. 

Do you have questions about the district that you would like answers to? Please get in touch with us so we can talk!

 

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As we get into gear for Boulder library ballot measure 6C to secure a stable 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. Ballot issue 6C to fund our libraries will ensure that Boulder Public Library has long-term funding via a library district. We can't keep our libraries underfunded and closed. It's time to fund our libraries. Learn more at https://www.boulderlibrarychampions.org/. Read ballot issue 6C language here here: https://www.boulderlibrarychampions.org/ballot_language