What's On the Books?

Northern Kentucky tea party-backed lawsuit threatens library funding across the state

click to enlarge Campbell County Library
Campbell County Library

T

he contemporary library is not what it used to be. 

No longer the classical communal book depot, the public library as an institution has evolved along with the digital age, but its elementary function remains untouched: a social and cultural common ground intended to kindle learning, conversation and enlightenment — something most would agree is worth preserving. 

Today, a tea party-backed lawsuit based on the wording of a 1979 law has Kentuckians wondering what life would be like with a weakened public library system — or, worse, with no library at all.  

It could certainly change the day-to-day life of Randy McIntosh, 56, who says he visits the Newport Branch of the Campbell County Public Library (CCPL) near his home every day, often arriving shortly after the doors open around 9 a.m. 

McIntosh, who is on disability, says he spends at least four hours in the library during his trips, surfing the Internet or reading books and magazines. He used to have a computer, but it’s proven more hassle than it’s worth. “I just got tired of fidgeting with the thing. It’s easier to just be here,” he says.  

His story reflects the importance of libraries to a hefty portion of the population — as pervasive as Internet seems, it’s not as accessible as one might think. According to the Gates Foundation, just 35 percent of the world’s adults have Internet access. In the U.S., 77 million people aged 14 and older use public libraries to access the Internet each year; Kentuckians visited their libraries 20 million times in 2012.

At issue for CCPL and libraries across the state is a tax rate policy that has been in effect for more than 30 years without dissent. Should the state Supreme Court accept the case and rule against the libraries, 79 of 120 library districts would be affected. 

At the helm of the complaints are three members of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, who filed a class-action suit January 2012 in Campbell County that spurred a series of simliar suits in other counties.

Brandon Voelker is the prosecuting attorney for plaintiffs statewide, including Kenton and Brown Counties. He says he was originally approached in November 2011 when CCPL was considering building a new branch. Plaintiffs Charlie Coleman, John P. Roth, Jr., and Erik Hermes asked Voelker to examine a statutory provision in the Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) that says the total debt of a library can’t be more than 50 percent of its revenue. They were concerned building a new branch would cross that line — tea parties are notorious for their anti-government, anti-spending and anti-taxation agendas. 

When Voelker looked more closely at the provision, though, he realized the libraries weren’t actually violating that law, which rendered their accusations moot; the levy failed in November anyway, and plans were abandoned. 

However, in the process of reviewing the KRS, Voelker stumbled upon a 1964 statute mandating libraries must secure the approval of 51 percent of voters to increase or decrease taxes, which conflicted with current library policy. 

According to attorney Jeffrey Mando, who represents CCPL, that statute was legally rendered ineffective by implication by the more recent House Bill 44, passed in 1979, which libraries formed by petition have been following since. 

House Bill 44 says that all special taxing districts in the state must use something called a “compensating rate formula” to set their tax rates, which doesn’t require any kind of voter approval. That formula caps off at a 4 percent increase, though; anything greater requires them to take the issue to the polls. That’s allowed libraries to keep up with inflation with incremental, calculated increases. 

And although libraries aren’t specifically designated in the bill as a special taxing district, current policy assumes that’s implied. Now, libraries are essentially asking the state to clarify which law they should follow, even though it’s been clarified before.  

In 1995, the library director of the Casey County Public Library in Liberty, Ky., sent a letter to the state’s Office of the Attorney General to ask about the applicability of H.B. 44 to the property tax rates of library districts. In a copy of the letter obtained by CityBeat, the attorney general at the time, Chris Gorman, wrote: “We do not believe that the General Assembly intended library districts to be exempt from the provisions of House Bill 44. … These observations compel us to conclude that the legislature was aware of the library tax provision when it enacted House Bill 44 and it did not intend that the older library tax provision override the newly enacted House Bill 44.”

Still, the courts must determine whether the state’s libraries do indeed fall under the umbrella of the “special taxing districts” mentioned in the bill. 

Libraries insist that they’ve been following orders issued by governmental agency Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives (KDLA), which in 1979 issued a memo stating that libraries were required to follow the new tax rate laws created by H.B. 144, affirming that they were “special taxing districts.” 

Last month, Circuit Court Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward ruled the Campbell County Public Library had been improperly raising taxes since 1979 and would have to return to the tax rates set back then, which were just 3 cents per $100 of property value. That would mean a 60 percent budget cut for Campbell County, which Kiki Dreyer Burke, public relations manager for CCPL, says would lead to 

reduced services, restricted hours and force one of three branches to close; the effects on Campbell set an example for the detriments that would ripple across the state should the Supreme Court rule against the libraries.    

A Kenton County Circuit Court Judge assessed the same ruling days later. Both libraries filed notices of appeal with their circuit courts on May 14 to have the proceedings expedited to the Kentucky Supreme Court, where the cases sit now. 

Time is running out, which forced the CCPL Board of Trustees to throw together an alternative budget plan reflective of possible cuts. Libraries across the state are facing impending deadlines to set budgets and pass tax rates; the new fiscal year begins July 1, and in Campbell County, the board must present the approved 2014-15 tax rates to the county clerk by Sept. 15. 

While the debate sizzles, patrons carry on, passing through branch doors just as they always have, a tidbit of hope for Dreyer Burke and her colleagues. 

“Nobody wants their library to close,” she says. “The library provides incredible services and patrons who use the library know that.” ©

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