Library mulls tax hike
Aspen Times Staff Writer
The Pitkin County Library may turn to citizens for a property-tax increase in November for improvements to its facility despite warnings about the tough economic climate.
During a meeting Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners cautioned against a ballot initiative, citing an increasing financial burden on voters.
Library staffers and board members turned out for yesterday’s meeting as librarian Kathy Chandler outlined the district’s concerns. A budget crisis has forced the library to seek a property-tax increase of .23 mills – meaning the owner of a home worth $1 million would pay an additional $18.31 annually – to help fund future programs.
Staffers were forced to face their budget problems last year when the company that maintains the library’s outdated filing system refused to renew its service contract. Chandler, a Pitkin County librarian since 1979, said the library board hopes to switch to a radio-frequency system to keep track of its 114,000 books.
The system, which will cost an estimated $154,000, will allow for a convenient checkout counter, Chandler said. This pricey but improved system will even allow for a self-checkout station.
“We knew that, in order to make that technological change, it was going to cost a lot of money,” she admitted.
But additional funding is necessary for better service, Chandler said – especially when it comes to library staff.
The library staff includes 18 employees – some are part-time shelvers, Chandler explained – to manage its collection. However, circulation has tripled in recent years, putting an enormous burden on the staff.
Switching to the radio-frequency system will require an additional “lump of staff time,” Chandler said, as the library must re-index all books and reference materials.
“Lots of back-room activities are falling behind because we’ve taken so many people out and put them in the public area,” she said. “Push has come to shove at this point. We need more help.”
The library board looked at other fund-raising ideas, including a small service charge for use of its public computers, before deciding on a ballot question.
“In the end, you end up with a small amount of money and a lot of ticked-off people,” Chandler said about the service charge idea.
The library would raise $384,528 through its proposed property-tax increase, raising money for more staff, more computers and, best of all, a new opening time – 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday, as opposed to 10 a.m.
“Nobody likes the idea of having to go out and ask the taxpayers for more money,” Chandler said, but board members agreed it was their best option.
Taxpayers may not agree, Commissioner Patti Clapper countered. Times are hard, and Pitkin County is strapped for cash.
“It’s going to be tough to justify [a tax hike] to the public in a time of budget crisis,” Clapper said.
Commissioner Shellie Roy agreed, noting that county residents often complain about the “small apple pie tax increases” that accumulate over time.
“We then face a backlash,” Roy said. “We do see a cumulative effort [against tax increases], even if they love everything they vote for.”
Commissioner Dorothea Farris expressed frustration over the library’s finances.
“I think the free educational library system is essential to our society,” she said, citing her experience as an English teacher. “I think if there are those willing to fight a battle [for a tax hike], I don’t see a problem in letting that happen.”
Commissioner Mick Ireland hesitated to offer his opinion on the issue – his sister works at the library, he said, and will likely support the ballot initiative.
However, counsel from County Attorney John Ely allowed Ireland to state his case – not against the issue, he noted, but against the library board’s poor timing.
“I’m a little bit offended that this is being sprung on us with two or three weeks to decide,” Ireland said.
The county must approve November’s ballot by 4 p.m. on Sept. 10, he said, leaving commissioners little time to discuss the issue. It also limits the library’s chances to study and publicize the issue.
“I don’t want to see people get hurt by a ballot question that’s not fully cooked,” Ireland said. “You don’t have the kind of background that prepares you for the storm of a ballot question.”
He also worried that an “odd-year” election would limit voter turnout. With few items of public interest on November’s ballot, Pitkin County residents will likely sit this one out, Ireland warned.
A rejection by voters might prove “demoralizing” for library staff, commissioners agreed.
“I would feel just terrible to have the library suffer a defeat at the polls,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said.
Commissioners suggested the library board resume budget discussions before seeking a ballot initiative. If the group still feels a tax increase is warranted, they could come back to the county in two weeks for a second consultation.
“So, this isn’t a `no’?” a library board member asked the commissioners.
“Not at all,” Roy said. Instead, the delay will allow the library board “to play with the info we’ve given you.”
[Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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