Denver Public Library officials want to go to city voters this year and ask them to approve a property tax increase that would infuse an extra $31.6 million a year into the library department.
Those officials know it’s a big ask at a delicate time with inflation putting pressure on household budgets. Still, after years of being under-funded compared to other library networks in the state and across the nation, they feel the time to act is now. First, the library needs the Denver City Council to agree to refer the would-be tax increase to the November ballot.
“COVID highlighted the devastating impact of the digital divide and the challenges faced by students and job seekers. Denver recovering from COVID depends on the city being a place where all can succeed,” city librarian Michelle Jeske told the city council’s budget and policy committee on Monday. “Adding $30 million to the library would help us maintain a world-class library for a world-class city.”
Specific ballot language has not yet been revealed but the library’s ask is simple. It would be asking voters to approve a 1.5 mill increase to the city’s mill levy property tax rate. That shakes out to $10.73 per year for every $100,000 in home value, or a little more than $50 per year for a home valued at the Denver median of $469,000, according to a library presentation. Commercial properties would pay $43.50 per year for every $100,000 in value.
Library officials have already done polling on the potential tax increase and an alternative measure that would have sought to raise the money through a 0.2% sales tax. With more than 700 likely 2022 voters replying, both measures received 69% support, according to the library presentation.
The added money would support overdue maintenance to library facilities, projects to make libraries more accessible for people with disabilities, pay raises for the district’s more than 500 employees, new technology, books and other materials.
Another critical upgrade in Leske’s view would be expanding library hours on nights and weekends so students and job seekers have access to the internet, technology and other resources more frequently. The library network is still working to build back to the schedule it had before the pandemic and has some of the most limited hours in the broader library landscape, Leske said.
“We would invest in our communities by providing access to technology, programs and services,” she said.
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DPL is an independent city agency and not a separate taxing entity like found in other places around metro Denver. Several council members took time on Monday to celebrate what the Denver Public Library provides to their constituents. Still, they had questions about the timing and specifics of the tax increase proposal.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech is concerned that the library’s work is overlapping with that of city-funded workforce centers. She requested more specific information about how the tax money would be spent if voters approve it.
“If you are making commitments to the voters during the campaign, even if they’re not in the ordinance, I think they’re moral commitments,” she said.
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer asked library officials if they had considered what might happen if voters gave them the dedicated funding source they are asking for and that led future mayoral administrations to treat them differently at budget time and decrease what the library gets from the city’s general fund.
In 2022, the library received $54.6 million from the general fund, officials reported. On a per-capita basis, that’s lower than what Jefferson County, Douglas County and peer cities like Washington D.C. and Seattle spent on libraries in 2020. Denver Public Library did receive $5 million in capital improvement money this year to support its Central Library renovation project.
Jeske estimated that last year’s voter-approved bonds will send about $30 million to the library to fund the construction of new branches in the Westwood and Globeville neighborhoods and fund the renovation of the Hampden Branch Library. Even with that money, those projects are underfunded due to rising costs, Jeske said.
The tax request will next go before a city council committee for further consideration. A public hearing on the ballot question is planned for a council meeting in August.
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