July 7, 2022

Tayer: If you love Boulder’s libraries, let’s keep them

I was speaking with Jonathan Singer, the Boulder Chamber’s new senior director of policy programs, about the proposed library district the other day, and he told me the beautiful story about meeting his future wife at the Boulder Public Library as high school student volunteers. As he explains it, they both enjoyed the same thing: free books. So, I was a bit surprised to learn that Jonathan is in complete alignment with the position of the Boulder Chamber in opposition to a new library district. 

Then again, as Jonathan said, the question isn’t about whether or not we all love our libraries, but his concern about creating an entirely separate government bureaucracy to fund and manage them. Put another way, if you love Boulder’s libraries . . . why shouldn’t we keep them?

Count me in with Jonathan as one of the many in our extended community who cherish our public library system. Indeed, the Boulder Public Library has been called a “crown jewel,” offering a multitude of services, from free books to valuable resources for local entrepreneurs, including information on business development strategies and tools for experimenting with new product designs. Just as important during these days of deep policy divisions, libraries serve as a safe environment for civic discourse. 

It’s with this deep appreciation for our libraries that many lament that our system has suffered due to low level funding for library services, a condition exacerbated by the COVID crisis. Staffing cuts, reduced operating hours, deferred maintenance and other signs of diminished investment are taking a toll on this highly valued civic resource. It’s clear that our city leadership hasn’t prioritized libraries among the top tier of services and programs under their jurisdiction. If we all love libraries, our community needs to take a hard look at mechanisms for increasing financial support for that service, too. 

Stepping-up to that challenge, a respected group of community leaders collected sufficient signatures to force a vote on its proposal for creating a new library district that would absorb Boulder’s current library system. This district would have an independent governing authority and tax base, supported by a 3.5 mil increase in residential and commercial property tax. The boundaries for the district would extend into areas of Boulder County that currently reside outside the city of Boulder’s taxing jurisdiction. That certainly would provide greater funding stability for our libraries, but the Boulder Chamber doesn’t support that approach.

As outlined, governance for the proposed library district would be an independent board of trustees, initially appointed by the Boulder City Council and the Boulder County Board of  Commissioners. Going forward, the trustees would recommend their replacement members, with concurrence by the City Council and the commissioners. Aside from that governance engagement by our elected leadership, the library district will operate independently. That means they will dictate all future investments our community makes in what previously were our libraries. 

Those who recall tensions in the 1990’s between the city of Boulder and the Boulder Valley School District might understand why we find the proposed library district governance model concerning. In those days, our school board supported the closure of beloved neighborhood schools in Boulder. Not surprisingly, there was an immense community uproar. Fortunately, as the school district board is an elected body, they were more favorably responsive to the political implications of their actions. That same lever of influence would not be available with respect to an appointed library district board. 

Further, I acknowledge that creating a separate district for a specific critical need sounds enticing. However, even the most cursory observation of Boulder’s extensive budget process indicates there are similarly critical needs across the full range of services our local government provides. Affordable housing, transportation infrastructure, environmental protection, homelessness services, open space preservation, small business support, recreation facilities, and law enforcement are among the areas vying for prioritized community investment. Making funding decisions that balance all of these needs, with due respect for citizen and business tax capacity, is the appropriate role of our elected policy leaders, without having pools of funding resources isolated from consideration.

There are other reasons the Boulder Chamber opposes the ballot initiative that will create a new library district. A new property tax of 3.5 mils that our struggling small businesses would be forced to absorb comes to mind. Fundamentally, though, I suggest we begin by asking ourselves why we would relinquish control of such a beloved asset . . . where even first loves have flourished. 

John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at 303-442-1044, ext 110 or john.tayer@boulderchamber.com.

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