Officials say tax-slashing measures would devastate libraries

BOULDER — Colorado’s librarians are worried. Depending on what voters decide in the November election, libraries around the state could be forced to reduce their hours, slash services, and shut the doors to library branches entirely.

The Boulder Library and others across the state would be hit hard by Proposition 101. (Photo by Rachel Cernansky)
Of concern are three controversial tax-cutting ballot measures: Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61, collectively known as the “Big Three.” Opponents of the measures, who have dubbed them the “Bad Three,” project a devastating impact on public services like libraries, schools, and fire and police departments, if any or all of them pass.

Proposition 101 would reduce state income taxes and vehicle fees, as well as eliminate telecommunication taxes and fees. Of the measures, it stands the strongest chance of passing in November, according to a recent survey of voters by Ciruli Associates that found Prop 101 to have 51 percent support, compared with 32 percent for Amendment 60 and 36 percent for Amendment 61. Prop 101 also has the largest potential to jeopardize some of Colorado’s libraries.

Among those is Jefferson County Public Library (JCPL), the second largest library in the state. If Prop 101 passes, JCPL will lose an estimated $1.4 million in revenues, or $350,000 per year over the next four years. That could lead to changes ranging from additional reductions in hours of service or full closure on certain days, to layoffs of up to 16 full-time employees, to closure of some branches entirely, according to Rebecca Winning, communications manager for the library.

Because Prop 101 would eliminate telecommunication fees, libraries could also be forced to slash the internet services they provide, said Rochelle Logan, president of the Colorado Association of Libraries. That would be particularly harmful in rural areas, where libraries are often the sole source of internet for many residents.

For other libraries, Prop 101 is not the greatest source of concern. In Colorado, libraries fall into one of two major categories: district and non-district libraries. Library districts are autonomous from local municipalities, and are usually funded largely by revenue from voter-approved property taxes.

Amendment 60 would cut local school property taxes. Libraries that operate as districts, therefore, are at particularly high risk if it passes because property tax revenue comprises a large percentage of their funding. Losses for all library districts in the state are projected to total $57 million, or just over 35 percent of the budget, in 2011 alone.

Chris Brogan, Chief Financial Officer for Pueblo County Library, said that’s not only devastating to a library’s operations, but because the tax was approved by voters in the first place, it’s also “taking something away that our populace voted in.”

Amendment 60, she said, “would have us recalculate the mill levy every year as though we were still under TABOR restrictions,” referring to the restrictive limits on taxation and government spending adopted in Colorado in 1992. If Amendment 60 goes through, she estimates the library’s revenue would drop about 20 percent in 2011, and would continue falling from there.

The Pueblo library is considering all options for how it would cope with budget cuts, but Brogan added that because Pueblo is a low-income area, they have “a lot of programs that target those more needy populations. That’s a very focused service, and I don’t know if we can continue to do that.” She also knows they will not be the hardest-hit by budget cuts if the amendments pass: “We’re struggling, and we’re only at 20 percent down. Douglas County is down over 50 percent — that would absolutely be closing libraries.”

Amendment 61, meanwhile, would limit the ability of local governments to borrow money and prohibit the state from all borrowing. In effect, that would mean libraries have limited or no opportunity for construction.

It is too soon for individual libraries to predict the exact cuts they would make if any or all of the amendments pass, but several interviews across the state made it clear that no library would be unaffected.

“It would be devastating to all the libraries in Colorado,” said Pam Sandlian-Smith, director of Rangeview Library District, which recently completed a series of renovations and construction. The district now has a total area of about 100,000 square feet, up from 34,000 square feet prior to construction, which Sandlian-Smith equated to the size of one decent-sized library — to serve a population of 315,000 people. Under conditions created by Amendment 61, this construction would likely not have been possible, and if the initiatives pass in November, she said, “We would have to close some of our branches that have just been newly renovated.”

It is unclear how aware library patrons are of these concerns, because as public employees, library staff members are restricted by law from promoting or advocating a stance on these issues, and cannot discuss the potential impact of the amendments with the public, including the library’s patrons. No one from CO Tax Reforms, proponents of the Big Three, returned call for comment on this story.

If any or all of the ballot measures pass, library officials have no doubt that reductions in services will be seen across the state — despite increased use of libraries generally since the economy went into decline several years ago. Library circulation statewide increased nine percent between 2008 and 2009 alone, according to Logan.

“Our funding has been slashed and our usage has gone up. What business can say they can handle that — yeah we’re losing money and we’re serving more people,” she said.

Library officials are confident the ballot measures would compromise their ability to continue to meet that challenge. Logan said, “We’re already in a crisis and a voter-added recession would stomp on us pretty hard.”

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