Downtown Denver

A view of downtown Denver Thursday morning from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment headquarters building.

The City of Denver is eyeing a property tax hike to generate millions of dollars for the public library system and is soliciting residents' feedback on the proposal.   

The city council gave initial approval to placing the tax increase question on the November 2022 ballot through its consent agenda on Monday, although District 7 council member Jolon Clark asked for a public hearing on the topic next week. The council will hold its final vote on Aug. 22.

Michelle Jeske, the system’s head librarian, asked at a July meeting of the Business, Arts, Workforce & Aviation Services Committee for the council to put a question on the ballot that, if approved, would generate a new property tax for library funding.

Under the proposal, the new tax would generate $31.6 million annually, based on 2021 property assessments. The average Denver homeowner would pay $4.19 a month, or roughly $50 a year, for a home with an actual value of $469,000.

Library leaders say the Denver Public Library is underfunded compared to other local libraries and peers across the nation, and the system direly needs more sustainable revenue sources.

“We feel confident that we will earn Denver’s support if you will help us get onto the ballot,” Jeske said in the July 27 committee meeting.

The Denver Public Library has 26 locations and saw more than 4 million people come through its doors in 2019. The system is almost entirely dependent on the city’s general fund and is an independent city agency, not its own library district.

If the library’s governance model shifted to a library district one day, which requires a property tax as part of its funding, the new funds would go toward that district.

The property tax is expected to support about $30 million worth of library needs in both capital and operating expenses.

About $9.7 million would go toward adding more library hours and the library would open on nights and weekends to accommodate students and people who work during the day, which, Jeske said, is aimed at making the system more equitable.

Those funds would also go toward more programming, language services, and community outreach. The library would expand its collection to cut down wait times and increase programs for vulnerable populations, such as immigrants and refugees.

Another $4.5 million would help bring staff’s wages up to market rate, provide more training and professional development, and expand support services, according to a presentation from library staff.

Among the proposed capital spending, $13 million would go toward deferred maintenance and building improvements, such as fixing noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, replacing floors and updating community rooms.

The library has $55.6 million in available operating funds this year, according to committee presentations. That figure rebounded from 2020 and 2021, when the library had $49.3 million and $49.7 million, respectively. Before the pandemic, the library’s 2019 operating funds sat at $52 million.

Library leaders said generating funding through a tax will protect it from volatility that comes with its allocation being tied to the city budget. The move will also diversify its revenue streams, leaders said.

District 11 Council member Stacie Gilmore asked during the July committee meeting why the library pursued a property tax and not a sales tax, although she also expressed support for putting the question on the ballot.

A task force created in 2021 that explored new library funding considered an alternative plan to pursue a sales tax but leaned toward property taxes because the latter are more stable, according to task force memos. Supporters of the idea also said Denver has relatively low property tax. The task force acknowledged property taxes would affect commercial properties more heavily than residential properties.

The task force also polled about 700 likely November voters and found 69% support for securing library funding, Jeske said.

District 8 Council member Chris Herndon, who voted against bringing the issue to the full council during the July committee meeting, said he does not dispute the library is critical to the community or seriously underfunded. But Herndon is skeptical a new tax is the solution. 

“I’m of the belief that we could fund this through our annual budget process,” Herndon said.

Jeske said in July that creating strong libraries also strengthens communities and democracy.

“This investment will create many more opportunities for current and future generations to learn about anything, any topic,” Jeske said. “To grow and expand their horizons. To gain knowledge, thoughts and ideas, and in turn generate new knowledge, thoughts and ideas.”

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