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Advocacy Spotlight: Putting Libraries on the Ballot

Tom Atkins
Library activist Tom Atkins.

In 2010, computer software designer Tom Atkins, 70, was an advocate for Colorado public libraries who had spent more than 20 years asking policymakers and local county officials to keep library funding intact. Then, without warning, commissioners in his local county of Jefferson, Colorado, voted to divert property tax revenues away from the library system into other county departments. Atkins, along with his wife, Alice, teamed up with several Jefferson County Public Library patrons to take on an entirely different advocacy strategy to protect his local library’s funding: they would file a “voters petition” to convert their county library into an independent library district. Learn how Atkins, who was awarded the 2011 Library Advocate of the Year Award by the Colorado Association of Libraries, is using his knowledge of Colorado state law and public relations to protect his county’s public libraries.

What made you want to become a library advocate?

In the 1990s, my county was threatened with significant budget cuts, and the cuts were going to affect my local library. I joined friends and neighbors to protest the cuts, and it was my task to look up statistics about the library to prepare us for our meetings with political leaders. The libraries kept wonderful statistics, and I discovered, after looking through the data, that my local library, the Golden Library, was too small for the number of community members that depended on its services. I realized that we needed to increase the funding for the Golden Library, not just to prevent cuts.

I found that the city owned a building next door to the library that was soon to be vacant. It was an old recreation center, and was twice the size of library. I went to the city government and lobbied for an even trade of their old recreation center for the existing county library building. The city knew that residents were up in arms over the proposed county budget cuts. But they had to hold an election to approve it because land transfers required public approval. In the end the transfer was approved by 96 percent of the voters, funding was restored by the county, and the library got the bigger building. It was probably the most lopsided vote I have ever seen. Because of citizens, advocates and friends, we made a significant difference. It showed me that positive advocacy could be a win-win for everyone.

Do you see a local success story like that one happening in the future?

I don’t see the outcome being as easy to achieve now because the county government has determined that they can use library tax revenue for other county purposes. They’re all in a difficult budget circumstance, and it’s not as easy to achieve a solution here. Our problem is that county voters approved a property tax levy 25 years ago that is supposed to be dedicated to the library, but the county feels they can divert some of those funds to other places.

Fortunately, the state of Colorado has a way to turn the county library system into an independent library district (ILD), which is a wonderful feature of Colorado library law. As an ILD, the tax funding goes straight to the library trustees. Although voters approved tax funding for the library 25 years ago, the county won’t give it to them. We’re asking tax-paying voters to take the money back into their own hands so it can’t be diverted for other purposes.

So we’re not asking for an increase in taxes. We just want the money that the people voted for to actually go to the libraries, and we know that independent library districts can ensure that through state law. It’s happened with other counties–there are more than 50 library districts in the state of Colorado and they represent the most successful libraries in the state.

How are you working now to turn Jefferson County Public Library into an independent library district?

Last year, Alice and I, along with several local residents and former library board members, started a citizens group called Save Jeffco Libraries. As a group, we met frequently with the county library board and we collect signatures online to support our mission to convert the Jefferson County Public Library into the independent “Jeffco Library District.” Independent library district conversion is done by a petition process, so patrons and taxpayers have to file a petition to hold an election. It’s a struggle because the county does not want to give up their ability to take money from the library and use it elsewhere. We’re working with pro bono attorneys to ensure that our petition results in an election.

The Save Jeffco Libraries Petition Booth
The Save Jeffco Libraries Petition Booth.

We are getting attention now for the work we are doing because we started a public relations campaign, complete with press releases, marketing materials, and articles for local newspapers. So far, it’s been very successful–we have amazingly strong support throughout the county. We also try to be visible: for example, we stand outside of the library at their book sales. It’s wonderful to experience the level of support people have for their libraries.

What do you hope happens in your county?

Our plan is to get so much library patron support throughout the county that the citizens approve the creation of an independent library district to protect the library’s funding. Historically, this could very well happen: Colorado has a strong tradition of taxpayer-voter approval for taxes. We have a law called TABOR, which says that governments cannot increase taxes of any kind without voter approval. But once voters do approve a tax, we don’t think it should be used for other purposes.

Right now, we have about 5,000 signatures, though we only needed 100 on the petition! I think the reason we have so much support is because libraries are so important to the people of Jefferson County — they are an icon of the community.

Do you have any advice for first-time advocates?

First, make the commitment. If libraries are important, make that personal commitment to advocate for them and treat it like a job with responsibilities. Surround yourself with good people, and get friends who think and feel the same way about libraries because it helps to reinforce each other’s efforts.

Second, never forget why you do it. We have so much political contention, but libraries are still a bastion of truth. Libraries are one of the most important things we have in this democracy–they are that vital. They guarantee that information is available to everyone in the community and they protect the availability of information for future generations. Libraries are still places where everyone, whether they have a computer or not, is able to access information and get real facts. I work on behalf of our libraries because I know protecting that access to information is critically important.

Tom Atkins was one of the founders of Save Jeffco Libraries, a citizen initiative created to support Jefferson County Library (CO) funding. Follow his organization on Facebook and Twitter.

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Jazzy Wright

Jazzy Wright is a former press officer of the Washington Office.

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