Even With Dramatic Budget Cuts, It’s Not So Easy To Close An Entire Public Library System In Colorado

August 31, 2019
Hours posted outside of the Craig library branch on Aug. 13, 2019. Moffat County Libraries interim director Keisha Bickford said they had to cut hours by more than half after funding cuts.Hours posted outside of the Craig library branch on Aug. 13, 2019. Moffat County Libraries interim director Keisha Bickford said they had to cut hours by more than half after funding cuts.Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Hours posted outside of the Craig library branch on Aug. 13, 2019. Moffat County Libraries interim director Keisha Bickford said they had to cut hours by more than half after funding cuts.

After drastic cuts to its public funding, Moffat County Libraries has had to scale back.

Interim director Keisha Bickford said they cut hours by more than half at their Craig branch and reduced staff. 

“As far as full access to the library, our patrons do not have that anymore,” Bickford told CPR News recently

Bickford said Moffat County Libraries could face a full closure by the end of 2020 if the financial situation doesn’t change. 

But it turns out it's not so easy to shut down an entire library system. 

Colorado actually has a law on the books that protects public library service. Under Colorado Revised Statutes 24-90-114, a public library system may be “abolished only by vote of the registered electors in that library's legal service area.” 

Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Moffat County Libraries interim director Keisha Bickford at the Craig library branch on Aug. 13, 2019.

The legislation also stipulates certain requirements when it comes to responsibilities, management, and access and services. Those include being open to the public no less than 20 hours a week and having paid staff working during those hours. 

Nicolle Davies, assistant commissioner with the Colorado State Library, said these standards are “really a nod to the fact that you can enjoy books and love books, but it’s a profession.” 

“And so to be a librarian, you have studied library sciences and you’re there with knowledge that you can transfer to the community,” Davies said.

Kim Seter, an attorney who specializes in the state’s library law, said there are no exceptions to the required vote to eliminate a library system, even when institutions like Moffat County Libraries might not be able to financially sustain the minimum access and services required by law. 

“What we’re seeing happen here is that there isn’t sufficient funds to meet all the priorities of the county,” Seter said. “And under the library law, the county has to continue appointing a library board. While that board might not have the funds to keep the library open as [the law lays out], that board can force election questions for funds dedicated to the library.” 

Seter added that the board can also “seek donations and grants and it can wait for the economic climate to change or for the political climate to change.”  

Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Moffat County’s Craig library branch on Aug. 13, 2019.

Last November, voters rejected a property tax increase that would have provided $1.2 million a year toward Moffat County Libraries and the Museum of Northwest Colorado. 

A mill levy has been a significant funding source for Pueblo City-County Library District for decades. It expires soon, and voters will decide whether to continue it. 

"If this tax ... is allowed to expire, the library, its operations, the programming and facilities themselves are not sustainable,” executive director Jon Walker told KRDO earlier this month.

KRDO reported that up to two branches could close if the mill levy isn’t continued. 

Davies said branches that are shut down can reopen once circumstances are more financially viable again, as was the case in Aurora several years ago

“It tends to be a joyous experience,” she said of branches reopening. “If a library system can afford to maintain the facility while it’s closed … they can go dark for a time and then come back online when there’s funding.” 

Davies added that the role libraries play in communities is invaluable.

“They’re the community living room,” Davies said. “It is the place where everybody is welcomed … It’s there to make a community better.”