Garfield County Libraries refunded $139,000 last year and they’re looking at an even bigger loss this year. That’s because Colorado’s TABOR amendment limits the amount that government districts like the libraries can grow. Garfield County ballot issue 6A would remove the state limit and allow the library district to keep all the revenue it collects.
You might think of libraries as pretty quiet places, but there was a lot of action at the Carbondale branch on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Kids flooded through the doors after their early release from the Roaring Fork School District.
Most of them headed to a community meeting room for lunch and art projects. In the library itself, patrons sat at every available computer. A toddler searched the children's stacks for anything truck related.
And, of course, people checked out books.
"Believe it or not, people still read paperback books," said branch manager Lacy Dunlavey.
She pointed to the new release rack at the front of the library with lots of empty spots. The books that were there are
labeled with their release dates; some came out nine months ago. None are more recent than June.
Dunlavey said she sees more than just partly-full shelves when she looks at the new releases.
"I think what you’re seeing is an interested community who sees the library as a valuable place to go and get new things," she said.
Young adult literature, for young teens like those here on early release days, is among the highest in demand. So are new books for storytimes with babies and toddlers.
But the libraries have had to trim their budget for new books because they had to refund money to the state last year. They’re funded partly by sales tax. Colorado’s TABOR amendment sets a baseline each year for how much sales tax government districts can keep. Anything above the baseline has to be redistributed to property owners. It was put into place to prevent government from overstepping its bounds.
Garfield County sales tax increased last year, partly due to tourism and money from the oil and gas industry. Sales tax is projected to go up this year as well. You might think that a strong local economy would be good news. But Todd Anderson, the president of Garfield County Libraries’ board, said he has mixed emotions.
"You feel great, the county’s generating more sales tax, but there's that secondary feeling. Are we growing too fast? Are we going to have to give some of that back? We receive it, and then, at the end of the year, they say, 'Well, you have to give it back.' That’s tough," said Anderson.
Last year, Garfield county property owners received an average of $1.50 back from the library district. Added all together, the impact is big on the libraries. There have been cuts to the collection budget, what they set aside to buy new books, e-books and audio books. That’s where Anderson says the money from 6A would go.
"If the measure passes our collection budget will double. To us, that’s huge," he said.
Why not spend the money on staff? Garfield County libraries have had to cut positions and hours recently. Anderson said they need predictable funds to hire more people. The money they retain from 6A would change from year to year, because the amount of sales tax they collect would change.
Dunlavey said another reason to spend the money on materials is to give directly back to the community.
"We exist to put resources, whether that’s a tangible thing you hold or a computer in our libraries, to the taxpayers, and we’re just hoping to put more of that money back into their hands," she said.
She said even if people don’t carry a library card, libraries fulfill a lot of different needs in communities.
"Whether you ever step foot in our building or not, I can assure you that you know someone that’s used one of our study rooms, that has had a class assignment and had to run over to the library to check out the book, who's used our fax machine, our copier or even our book sale room," said Dunlavey.
Both Anderson and Dunlavey say that services and hours won’t be affected if 6A doesn’t pass. But Dunlavey acknowledges that, at some point, budgets require setting priorities. And with an uncertain bottom line and potentially larger and larger refunds every year, she wonders how they will continue to serve lots of different people.
"You’re seeing a lot of different needs that have to be met, and that’s our job, but then how do we keep that going?" she asked.
That’s a question that could be a lot easier, or a lot harder, to answer after this election.