John Colson: Garfield County library district’s fate is up to voters
Hit & Run
Let me begin this by declaring that I fully support a “yes” vote on Garfield County Public Library District’s ballot question 6A, which asks voters to approve a 1.5 mill levy that is estimated to generate about $4 million in annual revenue and pull the district out of the deep deficit hole it has been stuck in for years.
I should note that my father was a librarian and a library sciences professor, and that I have spent considerable time in libraries throughout my life. I have come to view libraries as a cornerstone of our democracy, and that they are essential to our educational and social well-being.
With all that said, I have to ask: Which means more to you, a “refund” of roughly $1.58 off your 2019 property tax bill (for the average Garfield County property owner) or a modest property tax increase that would mean a restoration of operating hours to all six of the county’s branch libraries (in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute) and much, much more?
That’s one way of looking at ballot question 6A on the Nov. 5 Garfield County ballot, by which the library district is asking for a $1.5 mill levy increase to shore up its annual revenue and overcome years of financial losses due to declines in the county’s natural gas production numbers, and a court-ordered repayment of tax proceeds to one company — Noble Energy.
Among the benefits of passage for 6A, for example, is the district’s pledge that perhaps 7,000 more books and other materials would soon restock shelves severely depleted by recent drops in funding for the district.
In addition, passage is promised to bring the return to work of many Garfield County Public Library District employees laid off in recent years due to a drop in the district’s revenue, which began after the aforementioned energy company complained it had been overpaying its taxes.
Back in 2010 the Noble Energy company convinced a state appeals court that it had overpaid taxes on materials — mostly sand — used in the hydraulic fracturing process (or “fracking”) that has galvanized gas exploration and exploitation in Colorado and around the country, according to a 2013 Glenwood Springs Post Independent story about the situation.
Overall, according to library district officials (see the district’s web site, gcpld.org, for more on this), that ruling has cost the district more than $2 million across several budget years, crippling a budget that typically amounted to around $4 million to $5 million per year in the recent past.
And that was not the only negative financial hit the district (as well as Garfield County and other gas-fueled taxing districts) have endured over the past several years.
In that time, the natural-gas industry in Garfield County has seen a sharp drop-off in activity, which in turn has severely cut into the finances of every tax-supported entity in the region. This, of course, has included the library district, which was created in 2006 and later greatly strengthened when voters approved a one-mill property tax to build a new library facility in each of the county’s six municipalities (the library district also depends on sales-tax revenue).
At this point, the district reports in its documentation regarding this year’s ballot question 6A, the district’s budget for 2018 was roughly 40% smaller than it was in 2012, when the multi-faceted decline in annual revenue began in earnest. And the budget predictions for this year and 2020 are not much better.
I feel I must point out that the ballot question has the support of the Board of Trustees in Carbondale (where I live and vote), and that last year the district won voter approval to “de-Bruce” its sales tax revenue. That meant the district gets to keep all the money it collects from sales taxes, rather than refund small amounts to individual taxpayers in compliance with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
But last year’s tax relief vote, while it generated a small amount of additional revenue, failed to provide enough to solve all of the district’s funding problems.
Hence, this year’s question was put on the ballot despite reservations by some officials about asking voters for tax relief two years in a row.
As a tax paying property owner, I can say without hesitation that I am quite ready to see my yearly property tax bill rise just a little higher (estimates are that the levy will add about $10.80 for every $100,000 in assessed residential property value, and $43.50 for every $100,000 in commercial property value), if it means the libraries will once again be open on Sundays, as well as earlier in the mornings and later in the evenings on other days, and that libraries can get back to their main business — acquiring books and other educational and instructional materials that can be used by patrons.
I think it’s safe to say that the Garfield Board of County Commissioners, though they have given some fiscal help to the district, will not be stepping up anytime soon to bail the libraries out, for reasons that might seem obscure.
As a good friend and frequent writer of letters to the editor, Fred Malo, put it recently, it is not in the commissioners’ interests to help save the libraries, precisely because libraries help people learn, think and be informed citizens about many topics, including the harmful environmental effects of the gas boom that has kept the county fat and happy for years.
“I can see why Garfield County’s elected officials wouldn’t want a well-read electorate,” Malo wrote recently. “Anyone who’s opened a book recently knows of the catastrophic effects of climate change that is caused by the consumption and extraction of fossil fuels. The climate change deniers and fossil fuel promoters in our county government wouldn’t likely be re-elected by such enlightened voters.”
With that in mind, it looks like it’s up to us, the voters, to help our libraries prosper and fulfill their function in our form of democracy.
Let’s do it.
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