Denver Government

Denver Voters Will Decide on a Property Tax Increase for Libraries

The Denver Public Library will ask voters for more money.
The Denver Public Library will ask voters for more money. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
In November, Denver voters will decide whether to increase property taxes and send that new revenue to the Denver Public Library system.

"The City and County of Denver deserves a strong library system," Amy Brimah, chair of the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation board of trustees, said during the August 22 meeting of Denver City Council before its members voted 11-1 to forward a property-tax increase measure to the November ballot. "This will allow the City of Denver’s library system to continue to thrive."

The measure would increase annual property taxes by about $50 for an average Denver homeowner and raise over $31 million a year to maintain the Denver Public Library's existing services and meet increased demand for additional services. According to the ballot-proposal language, the money generated from the tax increase cannot supplant what the City of Denver is already earmarking for the DPL from the city's general fund. Under Mayor Michael Hancock, in 2022 that fund allotted $54.6 million to the library, and added another $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act money. The library's capital improvement projects are funded through bond money.

Councilman Chris Herndon was the lone 'no' vote on August 22. While noting that he's a "huge advocate" of the library and has fond memories of picking up Hardy Boys books as a kid, Herndon said that he believed the city could earmark $30 million more in its budget instead of sending the measure to voters.

"In my eleven years on council, when it’s been a priority, we find the money," Herndon said. "Libraries are a priority, and I believe we should find the money in this upcoming budget process."

But other councilmembers pointed out that an earmark one year doesn't translate to consistent funding.

"I actually think this is a good way to provide a more solid guaranteed level of funding, in addition to what we’ve got now," Councilman Paul Kashmann said.

Although the DPL would have some discretion in how it spends the money, the ballot language suggests that it could go toward increasing pay for librarians and staff, increasing technology to support patrons who lack internet access, returning library branches from reduced hours to a normal schedule and allowing libraries to be open on nights and weekends, among other things.

The decision to take a tax-increase proposal to voters came after the DPL Friends Foundation formed a community task force in 2021, which  unanimously recommended placing the question on the ballot.

The DPL is the "most visited cultural institution in Denver, with four million in-person visits in 2019," according to city librarian Michelle Jeske. But it's underfunded compared to other libraries locally and nationally, and when library leadership asked for $19 million from the Hancock administration in the city's 2021 bond package, it was rebuffed.

The pandemic has been a challenge for the library and its 27 branches. The DPL initially banned in-person visits at all locations before eventually reopening with truncated hours; in the meantime, some staffers unionized. The Central Library took advantage of the downtime to push ahead with a major renovation project. In the meantime, only a portion of the first floor is open, and the rest of the building is closed off.

The property tax increase proposal is one of two referred to the November ballot by Denver City Council. The other, approved last week, would update certain aspects of the election, including moving up when petitioners have to submit signatures in order to land a measure on the spring municipal election ballot.

In November, Denver voters will also weigh in on four proposals placed on the ballot through citizens' initiatives. One would require businesses to offer recycling and compost pickup, another would create a universal right to eviction defense by charging landlords a $75 fee per unit, a third would charge property owners a fee to help pay for the rehabilitation and buildout of Denver's sidewalk system, and a fourth would increase marijuana taxes for out-of-school learning initiatives. 
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.