Monday, October 21, 2019

Library district looks at mill levy

Funding a new Gunnison library; increased services and digital content up and down valley

By Cayla Vidmar and Katherine Nettles

There may be a question on the ballot this November asking Gunnison County voters to approve a residential property tax increase to benefit Gunnison County Libraries. The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) gave library district executive director Drew Brookhart a nod of approval recently to move forward with the endeavor. The library board of directors will make a final decision about putting a measure on the ballot in July, said Brookhart.

A 1.9 mill increase in property taxes would cost $13.21 per year per $100,000 of actual property value, according to the library district. Brookhart described the reasoning behind the potential ballot question during an April 23 meeting with the BOCC, which is twofold: to secure more sustained funding and to tackle needed improvements.

“We still have needs, we are way undersized, really in both places, but definitely in Gunnison, and we’re working toward addressing needs in a way people can support,” said Brookhart.

The tax increase would allow for the construction of a new facility on the Van Tuyl Ranch property in Gunnison along with a “27 percent increase in library services, including physical and digital content, programs for all ages and audiences and increased access to technology in Crested Butte and Gunnison,” according to a press release from the library district.

As Brookhart explains, this increase could benefit both Crested Butte and Gunnison by doubling the electronic and downloadable content available, and enabling more, higher quality programs for all ages and new programs for adults and teens.

The Gunnison County Public Libraries system, previously a department of the county, formed a district in 2008 in order to both maintain what Brookhart describes as an “independence of purpose,” meaning it cannot potentially have its materials censored, and to attain financial security. The district is still funded largely by the county, at nearly $1 million per year, but Brookhart is hoping for a separate funding stream.

Passing this proposed tax would give it financial viability into the future, and allow the county more versatility in the funding it does give to the district. While the county has expressed its continued support of the library district, other obligations may put it in a tough position since its budget is only an annual commitment and it can only fund library district operations from one fund—its discretionary fund.

County manager Matthew Birnie explained that, “Currently, it is the largest expenditure of property tax [collections] that are from discretionary funds.” That puts it at risk if other, mandatory items continue to increase in cost as the property tax rates are stagnant.

“There have been no decisions made about future funding. It’s one of the few services that is discretionary and not mandatory, so they are at a risk of being dependent on us and having no major other funding sources,” said Birnie. “Taxes are constrained by the Gallagher amendment. We are currently at the maximum of our mill rate and the county is constrained on its revenue. If they had another funding source, they would have some resilience.”

If approved by voters, the mill levy increase would be permanent, and cover more of the district’s operation costs. Of the mill levy proceeds, $483,708 would be allocated for annual payments on an estimated $7 million in debt for a construction loan on a new 11,000 square foot library in Gunnison. The county could then help the district by holding the construction loan. Birnie said the county could shift it from the discretionary fund to its capital project fund. “For capital, the county can use its sales tax, which gives us more flexibility. The county would issue the debt, so then we would have the continued commitment and obligation to the library district for years to come,” he said. “So this approach [the new funding stream]…does a couple things for the county while continuing to support the library district.”

In March, the library district conducted a telephone poll to investigate voter willingness to support the mill levy increase.

According to Brookhart, 61 percent of those who were “well informed” about the possible ballot measure, costs and projected benefits were supportive of the idea. The survey results showed that support was not as strong when voters were not well informed of the details about why the library is seeking funding and what it will provide in terms of increased collections, services and the new facility in Gunnison.

“It’s an elegant solution,” said Birnie. “Without some changes to Colorado tax law, we may not be able to continue funding the library.”

With the BOCC’s agreement to move forward, the district will be working toward a new Intergovernmental Agreement between the county and the library district that reflects the plan, and finalize it this fall.

The commissioners agreed that getting information out to voters and running an informative campaign will be important for the success of the measure.

“This is the direction that we support,” said commissioner Jonathan Houck.

The district is still accepting input online with a survey regarding the levy increase for all Gunnison County residents at www.gunnisoncountylibraries.org

The library board will make a decision about the ballot in July.

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