Separate library district put on hold — for now

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By The Staff

A nearly two-year effort by the Jefferson County Public Library to split from the county and form its own district came to an end June 17 when the county commissioners voted 2-1 against the proposal.

"We're very, very disappointed," said Keith Grebe, chair of the Jefferson County Public Library's board of trustees. "We felt the case we presented was overwhelming in our favor." He said the commissioners had some misunderstandings, and the trustees and library staff will "get together and decide plan B."

The library trustees see three options, according to Grebe: they could do nothing, go directly to voters or wait until there are new commissioners after this fall's election and resubmit the request. He said a decision would be made by July 18 on a course of action.

Library trustees and staff have been exploring the idea of forming a library district distinct from county government since mid-2005. A steering committee made up of county and library staff was formed by the commissioners Dec. 19, 2006, to further analyze forming a district. That committee completed its work in January 2008.

The library system contends it can provide better service for less money if it is released from the confines of the county budgeting process by contracting out for some administrative services that county government provides. County officials contend that a library district will cost more money to Jeffco taxpayers and is unnecessary.

County staff also lament the fact that Westminster — as part of an agreement to stay in the proposed district — would have to be paid $500,000 per year. Westminster is in Jefferson and Adams counties, and serves about 22,000 Jeffco residents between two libraries. County Administrator Jim Moore said in a statement days before the June 17 hearing that there's no guarantee that money would be used to increase library services, or that the money would go to serving Jefferson County residents. Moore also said that roughly $510,000 that the library currently pays the county in administrative fees would still have to be paid, and it would have to be spread between the other cash-strapped county government divisions.

"If the library is a separate district, then we appoint the board that appoints the board," District 3 Commissioner Kathy Hartman said when she voted with Commissioner Kevin McCasky to deny the library's request. "That would put (district leadership) one step more removed from voters."

McCasky also made a statement against district formation.

"At this point, nothing I've heard compels me to sever this outstanding relationship we currently enjoy," McCasky said.

District 1 Commissioner Jim Congrove voted against McCasky's motion to deny district formation and did not make a statement regarding his vote.

Hartman said she may have been more inclined to support district formation if voters elected the district directors and if the district also didn't have to pay the city of Westminster $500,000 per year.

"In representing the citizens of south county (sic), I have to say that is not a good deal," Hartman said.

Out of a dozen people who spoke during the hearing's public comment section, two were against district formation. J.B. Espinoza of Littleton told the commissioners that if they approved the district, they would be responsible for raising his taxes and "adding another bureaucratic system to my life."

Jeffco DA Scott Storey spoke, he said, on behalf of the other elected officials of Jefferson County against district formation.

"If the library becomes independent, other departments and divisions will have to absorb costs," Storey said. He said that as the county tries to dig out of a budget hole that saw more than $10 million cut from the general fund budget in 2008, "it's somewhat premature to make this move at this time."

Bill Knott, the former county librarian who retired this summer, told the commissioners before their vote that district formation is the way to go, and that all of the issues raised were conquerable.

"They are issues entirely within the county administration's and library administration's ability to deal with," Knott said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.