The debate over how public libraries are funded drew a packed crowd to the chambers of the Campbell County Fiscal Court in Newport on Wednesday.
The Northern Kentucky Forum sponsored the event, moderated by WKRC news anchor John Lomax and featuring panelists Erik Hermes, a Campbell Co. resident who has sued the library system over its funding method, his attorney Brandon Voelker, the library's attorney Jeff Mando, American Library Association President Barbara Stripling, Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions President Jim Waters, Director of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Kim Fender, and staff attorney for the Kentucky Department of Local Government and Georgetown City Attorney Andrew Hartley.
Two state statutes formed the heart of the debate: House Bill 44, adopted in 1979 which gave libraries the same ability to increases taxes as other special taxing districts have through a mechanism that permits an increase of up to four percent more than the compensating property tax rate, and the earlier KRS 173.790, which would require a petition signed by 51% of the voters that participated in the previous election in order to raise the tax.
Hermes and his attorney, Voelker have argued that since the Campbell County Library was formed through petition it should only be allowed to raises taxes as governed by KRS 173.790. Circuit Court judges in Campbell and Kenton Counties have agreed and that could send library funding back to its pre-1979 levels. The case is currently in the appeals process.
"I had taken it upon myself on several occasions to address the library board about how it was being done incorrectly," Hermes said. "This was long before a lawsuit was in place. We could not get satisfaction or attention from the library board because their basic feedback was that they are doing it correctly. The only way we'll be able to get a clear answer is to get a judge's decision."
Hermes and like-minded opponents of the current funding method for libraries have been characterized as anti-library. Voelker, his attorney, said that is not the case.
"No one is opposed to libraries. The issue is one of taxes and following the law," said Voelker, also a Republican candidate for Campbell Co. Judge-Executive next year.
"The case isn't about whether libraries are good or bad. It's about whether people have a say in the size and scope of their libraries."
Library attorney Jeff Mando said that it is his argument that the libraries have been following the law correctly locally and across the seventy-nine other library systems in Kentucky. "House Bill 44 was adopted in 1979, more than fifteen years after the statute that set the specific rate in 1964," Mando said. "When the General Assembly passed this comprehensive law statewide it said that all taxing districts shall use the compensating rate. The library is a taxing district under Kentucky law."
Libraries operated this way for thirty-four years without any question and without any lawsuit, Mando said.
Attendees at the Forum, roughly eighty people, were sympathetic to the libraries. Part of the NKY Forum includes real-time audience surveys. 51% said that libraries require tax support and that the current model works. 58% said that libraries are now more important than ever while another 23% said that they were as important now as they ever were. 17% said libraries were less important. Another 51% said that the tea party, a group that has been vocal against the current funding method, is presenting an argument without foundation.
Stripling, the president of the American Library Association, said that she had not seen lawsuits like these anywhere else in the country. Lawsuits have been filed in the Kentucky counties of Boone, Campbell, Kenton, Anderson, and Montgomery.
"We need to be looking at building up libraries and building up the future," Stripling said. "Libraries across the country have so many potentials for the community in terms of finding a balance between digital and print resources."
"It can't be done without money," Stripling continued. "This is a time when libraries are moving toward the future. It's a time of advancement, not a time of retrenchment."
Jim Waters of the "free market" organization Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions agreed that this issue is about money. "Kentucky families are having to live within their means, Kentucky businesses only have so much money, and government must live within its means," Waters said. "It doesn't mean we're opposed to libraries, it means if you want a library branch it may mean you have to make tough decisions about resources and maybe you don't need so many videos."
Libraries are already facing tough decisions according to Kim Fender, director of Cincinnati's library and a member of the Campbell County Board of Education. Libraries facing the prospect of losing millions of dollars in funding are holding off on hiring and expanding services.
As for the digital materials offered, such as videos, Fender defended those, too. "If we have a demand for fiction of all types, movies, music, electronic formats, then we have an obligation as a public library to make that available to our public," she said. "Not everyone can pay for Netflix. Providing that for those that cannot always afford to pay for those extras is a service libraries have done for many, many years."
Mando, the library attorney, said that it is important to keep in mind the possible outcome of changing the funding method. "What that means is Campbell County's rate of 7.7 would go back to three cents and the library funding would go from $4.6 million to $1.6 million like that," he said. "That would have a drastic impact on services that the library performs for the community. "I know if you lost fifty-percent of your income, you couldn't do the same things you do now."
"Some of these libraries are in small counties where it is the most important cultural center in those communities."
Georgetown Attorney Andrew Hartley said that the confusion of a library's method of taxation can possibly be attributed to time.
"The problem that I see is that some of these districts were created so long ago that not all of them remember how they were created," Hartley said. "Over time, documentation disappears and the next thing you know, nobody knows what kind of district they are or what kind of authority they have."
"The real problem is the legislature needs to take about a thousand statutes and consolidate and fix them and that is a monumental task."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News