Midvalley voters to write final chapter in library debate | AspenTimes.com

Midvalley voters to write final chapter in library debate

Voters will finally decide in November whether four years of debate over construction of a midvalley library were worth it or whether planners must go back to the drawing board.

The intense and sometimes contentious deliberations led to the overhaul of the Basalt Regional Library District board of directors, the resignation of a library director, and strained relations between the library directors and Basalt Town Council.

Despite that checkered past, library officials believe they have come up with a fiscally responsible plan that stands the best chance of earning the approval of residents in Basalt and El Jebel.

In November, the district will ask voters two questions – ballot question 4B seeks approval of a property tax increase that would raise $875,000 annually for library operations. Question 4C seeks issuance of debt of up to $5.1 million, which would be paid back through a property tax increase that would raise $482,700 annually.

The $5.1 million in bonds would be used to build a new 16,000-square-foot library in El Jebel, as well as to expand and remodel the existing facility in Basalt.

“We didn’t want to wait two or three more years. We need to do something now,” said Peter Frey, a member of the library’s board of directors.

Some political risk

Frey acknowledged there is some political risk in selecting El Jebel as the site for the main facility. About 54 percent of the district’s voters live in Basalt and other areas east of Emma. If they feel shortchanged by the proposal because the main library is in El Jebel, the proposal could sink.

Frey said the decision is justified on financial and land-use-planning grounds. Most of the district’s growth is anticipated to come in the El Jebel portion of the district. And though the main facility will not be built there, Basalt still gets a 4,000-square-foot building with modern technology and updated facilities.

Frey claimed the proposal is fiscally sound because the district avoids a costly purchase and secures a long-term lease instead. Up until June, the library district intended to buy 20,000 square feet of land from the Basalt town government for $360,000.

That original plan would have placed the library on the Levinson property, just west of downtown. But library district officials ultimately balked at a deal with the town because of too many nagging concerns. Building on the Levinson property would have required the district to construct a two-story facility, which would have cost an estimated $50,000 extra per year to operate, according to Frey.

Instead of going with the Levinson site, the district decided to keep the existing facility and lease 1.3 acres from the Crawford family in El Jebel for $800 per month. The lease covers 35 years with an option for a long-term extension. The district wants to build a 16,000-square-foot, one-story library.

`Community revitalization’

Linda Levy, library director, said if all went as planned, the new facility could open by the end of 2005. The combined libraries would boast a book collection 66 percent larger than the Basalt Library has now. Both facilities would also offer quiet, comfortable places to read and study – something that is impossible in the cramped quarters of Basalt’s existing 3,400-square-foot space.

Tentative plans for the El Jebel location even call for the library to sublease space for a coffee shop, which would provide another modern twist.

The addition and remodeling in Basalt would allow a massive expansion of children’s offerings. The adult collection would also grow. Plus, regular courier service would ensure that patrons who didn’t want to drive to El Jebel could receive materials in Basalt, said Levy.

The two libraries would provide access to 35 computers, some for quick checks of e-mail and others for more intense research or Web browsing.

The staff will increase from five full-time equivalents to 15. Levy said overseeing employees at two sites will present no particular challenge; in Oklahoma City she oversaw a district with 325 staffers in 19 locations.

Levy suspects that customer use of the library would soar due to the new facility. Plus the community would gain something it could be proud of.

“We hope to thrill people with what we can provide,” she said. “When you open a new library, it’s a revitalization of the community.”

The orphan tax?

While the library proposal has received ample debate, Basalt’s other tax-related ballot issue appears to be an orphan, as no one has yet championed the lodging tax.

The Town Council is asking voters to approve a 2 percent tax on lodging during the summer. (The town can seek such a tax because it switched to a home-rule charter, which expands its powers, including taxing possibilities.)

The council initially decided to seek approval of the tax with proceeds to be used to build and maintain parks and trails, and to “promote tourism,” according to early ballot wording.

Then the lodging tax fell from favor when it appeared the board would seek approval for a sales tax for a town shuttle system. Council members believed it would be politically unwise to float two tax measures at the same time.

When members later decided the transit tax would have to wait, the lodging tax was resurrected. This time, however, the board felt it must drop phrasing that made it sound like the tax revenues would promote tourism. Instead, half of the proceeds will go to the Basalt Chamber of Commerce to develop business and sponsor special events.

The idea isn’t to bring a bunch of new tourists to town, said Councilwoman Anne Freedman, who proposed the lodging tax. “I think we all don’t want to be like Aspen.”

The tax would raise an estimated $12,000 annually, with $6,000 earmarked for the chamber and $6,000 for the parks and trails program. “It doesn’t harm the taxpayers and it helps the community,” Freedman said.

While there will be no slick campaign seeking voter approval, Freedman said she will write letters to the newspaper explaining why she believes the tax should be supported.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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