Checked Out

Members of the Friends Foundation donated their lives to the library. Those days are over.

As a result, the amount spent on new material has declined from $6 million in 2002 to $3.5 million, and the original staff of 520 is dwindling; fourteen staff members lost their jobs, and the library has stopped filling openings in order to eliminate seventy positions by December.

"We have an almost total hiring freeze," Asthon says. "The net effect is our staff size, by next year, will be down 17 percent from where it was. We've also opened two large new branch libraries. That makes it harder to get the doors open.

"The impact on the public is not obvious on the first day, but over time it becomes obvious. We're buying many fewer copies of Hillary Clinton's book and Harry Potter, and have much longer waits. The shelf life of a typical preschool book is eighteen months; they get used up. You have things in worse condition and less available to children. You have a student coming to the shelf and saying, 'I have a bibliography of ten books and can only find five.' You never make that up."

To handle the staff reductions, Ashton decided to shutter the libraries one day a week -- putting the DPL in the same precarious position as when he took over in 1985. Having the Central Library closed on Wednesdays frees 25 to 30 people to work at other locations, but it isn't an immediate cost saving for the DPL. Because the building must be left open for administrative staff, the utilities, security and a host of other fixed costs must still be paid, whether or not the public is admitted. However, Ashton sees the closings as a way to ensure each library is staffed fully when it is open. "People are differently deployed," he says. "Almost everyone who works at the front desk will work at two different locations."

Julie Benson, a former Friend, questions the motivation for the closing. "They told us 'We hope this dramatizes the trouble the library is in,'" she says. "I thought 'Aha!' I think it's a question that needs to be asked: Are they really saving that much money, or is it a political statement?"

The DPL isn't the only system grappling with cuts, however. Nationwide from Los Angeles (considering closing fifteen of its 84 branches) to Salt Lake City (cutting purchases of new materials by 18 percent), libraries are facing the effects of a down economy. But Ashton, in the tradition of Denver's city librarians, has found a controversial -- and some say unwarranted -- solution to the problem: a library district, which would take the DPL out of city government altogether.

While most of city government, including the DPL, depends on sales taxes -- which rise and fall dramatically with every twist in the economy -- a district would be funded through the far-more-stable property tax, much like Denver Public Schools and most other school districts in the state.

"We're looking to the long term, and some effort to stabilize our situation makes sense," Ashton says. "There are forty library districts in Colorado; the largest is in Colorado Springs. What they've experienced is financial stability that's inherent in the property-tax situation."Douglas County voters approved such a district in 1990, and since then the library has grown to include seven branches with another -- a former Safeway store in downtown Castle Rock -- almost ready to come online.

"Municipal libraries spend much of their time fighting for money," says Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas Public Library District. "You have to argue books are more important than streets and bridges. When you're a library district, your future depends on satisfied customers."

"It's like each customer is a city council member," says Eloise May, director of the Arapahoe Library District. "The people we serve are the ones who will say yes or no to a tax increase."

Unlike Douglas County, the Arapahoe district will experience a decline in revenue next year because assessments on office buildings in the Denver Tech Center have fallen. However, May says she is still in a better position than a library director like Ashton, who depends on sales taxes.

"Property tax is slower in responding to economic trends; it gives you a chance to look ahead and prepare," she says. "We'll experience a drop in revenue next year, but we know about it and can take measures to prepare." Despite the advantages, setting up such a district would be complicated for the DPL. If passed by voters, it would cost property owners approximately $100 more a year, because Ashton believes the library would need to raise about $40 million a year to maintain current services. As a district, the library would have to pay for things such as legal services and insurance, which the city now provides -- at a cost of approximately $2 million. It would also have to negotiate issues like what to do with the millions of dollars in bond debt Denver has taken on to fund many of the DPL's new buildings. Ashton compares creating a library district to Denver Health's spinoff from the city into a semi-independent agency with its own personnel system, legal staff and other internal arrangements. The proposed library district would have a governing board whose members would be approved by the Denver City Council -- as members of the Library Comission are now, after being nominated by the mayor -- which provides at least some system of checks and balances. Ashton had hoped to get a district proposal on the ballot as soon as this November, but then Mayor Hickenlooper told him that his priority is a vote to change the city's personnel system. Hickenlooper also doesn't want to see the library compete with Denver Public Schools, which is planning to ask voters for a tax increase.

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