This Election Day, the San Miguel Public Library District will ask voters, via Ballot Issue 6A, to approve a .75 mill levy increase — its first ballot question in 22 years.
“Yes, it’s been a while,” Wilkinson Public Library Director Sarah Landeryou acknowledged.
In fact, the last time the library district went to voters, Bill Clinton was president, “Friends” was in its third season on television and a then-unknown author J.K. Rowling released her first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”.
The year was 1997, Landeryou noted, adding, “We had two questions then, first we reduced the mill levy, and then we asked for a bond to build the current library.”
In the intervening years, the Pacific Avenue building went up and the library evolved into the award-winning institution it is today, for example, nabbing a five-star ranking from the Library Journal for the past 11 years. Today, it boasts the highest per capita visits and second-highest circulation and program attendance figures in the state.
In 2017, the construction bond was paid off, sunsetting the related .8 mill levy.
All the while, however, funding for Colorado special districts, including the library district, decreased steadily because of the quirky interaction between two amendments to the Colorado Constitution, 1982’s Gallagher Amendment and 1992’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). Over the years, that interaction forced down the residential assessment rate (RAR), which together with a property’s value and mill levy, are used to calculate the property taxes that largely fund special districts.
“Our property tax revenue is about what it was 10 years ago, in fact, just a bit lower,” Landeryou said. “In 2009, we budgeted for $2.18 million in revenue, and in 2019, we budgeted for $2.15 million.”
She also noted that the figure for 2019 marked a steady decline from a high point of $2.5 million in 2011.
With the Gallagher-TABOR conundrum looking set to decrease the RAR further in the coming years and the Colorado General Assembling seemingly no closer to finding a solution, Landeryou said the library district decided it had no other option but to ask voters for the additional .75.
The mill levy increase is expected to add $5.36 per $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.
“The reason we are going to voters is that the future is really uncertain,” Landeryou explained. “We want to be a good library. Knowing that the rates (the RAR) will never go back up, we know we are always going to be stuck with ever-lower rates. We know we can’t keep doing this.”
Library Board of Trustees President John Wontrobski agreed.
“We’ve been feeling Gallagher for years,” he said. “Now that we are looking out at projections, it is just getting worse and worse for us. We’ve been cutting into our reserves for the past four years and we cannot keep doing that.”
According to Landeryou, the library has worked to keep the belt-tightening largely behind the scenes, during recent years as revenues not only failed to increase, but actually decreased.
“We reduced staffing,” she said. “We are a service organization, so staffing tends to be about 65 or 66 percent of the budget. Over time, we reduced staff from a high of 27. Now we are at 20.9 (full-time equivalent staff members). We have been asking people here to take on more responsibility and that’s how we have been doing it, that’s how we have been keeping our budget to within our revenues.”
Added Wontrobski, “Sarah has made do with less staff, we found some efficiencies and we’ve kept the belt tight, we’ve been lean. Of course, costs have been going up all this time, all of our hard costs, health care is a big one that’s been going up, salaries go up.”
Landeryou added that some cuts to programming have taken place — generally by reducing the frequency of costlier programs — but said that she and staff have tried to minimize impact to patrons.
Telluride’s library isn’t alone in feeling the effects of the Gallagher-TABOR conundrum. It’s a problem that is particularly acute in rural Colorado. In 2018, area voters saw a flurry of requests for mill levy increases by various local special districts, including the Telluride Fire Protection District, the Telluride Hospital District, the Telluride School Districts and the Solid Waste District.
Said Wontrobski, “We saw everybody else go to the ballot last year and we thought about it, but there was this push at the legislative level in Denver to fix this. We were optimistic — other libraries in the state were, too — but the whole thing fizzled and it didn’t get fixed legislatively. So here we are.”
With Election Day, Nov. 5, less than two weeks away, Citizens for the Wilkinson Public Library has been holding weekly lunchtime informational sessions from noon to 1 p.m. in the library’s program room. The next, and final, lunchtime session is scheduled for Wednesday.
The group is also holding evening forums on Mondays from 5:30-7 p.m. at a rotating selection of local restaurants. The next events will be on Monday and Nov. 4, both at La Cocina.
In the meantime, Landeryou said that she and library staff remain hopeful that voters will understand why the library district is asking for a mill levy increase and take into account the library’s role in Telluride.
“A big part of our mission as a public library is to be a community asset,” she said. “We are here to improve the quality of life of everyone in the community. I hope whether you use the library every day or just occasionally you understand the value of what we bring to enhancing people’s experience of Telluride and the region. We try to be a welcoming, safe space for people of all walks of life. I guess that’s the beauty of the public library.”
Added Wontrobski, “It’s not a financial situation of our making. It is something that has come from the outside. We haven’t overspent. We have kept expenses in check. We don’t want to be in front of the voters — we feel very supported by the community and we have always operated within the situation, but we cannot operate within it anymore.”