By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
The firestorm over questions of the future of the Pulaski County Public Library — spurred on by a petition to dissolve the library’s board in the face of tax increases — grew even more this week.
Nearly 200 people, many of them there to show their support of the library and to speak out against the petition that could lead to its closing, heard from both sides of a debate that has sparked impassioned reactions from Pulaski Countians during Thursday’s informal meeting at the Pulaski County Public Library.
“This is really not a library where you can rent out books for a week or two, it’s a cultural institution and a wonderful asset to this wonderful community that we have here in Somerset, Ky.” said Chris McNevin. “We can’t let this close down because of some silly damn tax business.”
The controversy over the library’s tax rates — and the ensuing revelation that to dissolve the library board would mean the library’s closing — has been brewing for several months now.
Pulaski County Fiscal Court, which had already taken some heat from citizens last year after the library enacted a tax increase, expressed frustrations earlier this year over a lack of oversight for the library’s special taxing district. The court has no authority over the library board, which is made up of appointed board members who get no compensation, and the county’s magistrates made it known that they didn’t agree with how things were set up, stating that they dealt with angry citizens for tax rates they couldn’t even influence.
The library board accepted for the 2012-2013 year what’s called a compensating tax rate, calculated to be 6.40 cents per $100 of real property, up from 6.30 cents last year. That means a person who owns property assessed at $100,000 would pay around $64.
The compensating rate will give the district roughly the same amount of revenue as it received the year before through tax collections. That compensating rate is determined by property values as recorded by the Pulaski County PVA Office. Property values went down slightly, which means the library board had to enact a higher tax rate to get the same amount of money.
The library tax rate increased in 2009 to 6 cents per $100 of real property, and that rate stayed the same in 2010. It increased in 2011 to 6.30 cents per $100 and that rate went up to 6.4 cents for this year.
The newest tax increase resulted in a petition to dissolve the library board, and a petition is the only way to do so, as the special taxing district was created through voter petition. That document has been circulating since September.
“I’m for the taxpayer,” said citizen Barbara Sanders on Thursday, who has spearheaded the petition effort. “That’s who I’m for. I’m just sick and tired of the tax increases.
“ .. We would like to see some accountability to the taxpayers,” Sanders continued. “Currently there is none.”
But the issue became more complex when the library board came out with information provided to them from the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) that stated the library, which is millions of dollars in debt due to the construction of the new building that began operations in 2008, would close down should the board be dissolved.
Case law and state statutes suggest the board would cease to function in the aftermath of a petition to dissolve the district — except only to repay the library’s debt.
“It is our opinion that the library would close and all staff would be terminated (with the possible exception of an administrator to oversee the debt repayment), as continuing operation of the library cannot be considered as necessary for the repaying of existing debts,” stated Terry L. Manuel, branch manager in program development for the KDLA, in a letter to Pulaski County Library Director Charlotte Keeney dated Oct. 9. “ ... Further, the buildings and all furniture, books, and other material items would be subject to sale in order to satisfy existing debts.”
Manuel attended Thursday’s meeting and confirmed those sentiments.
The library’s debt stands at about $9,507,830, according to Keeney.
An Attorney General opinion (OAG 79-102) also states a library tax would still exist until the debt is paid off. State law also forbids the creation of a second special district while the first district is still in existence. So, essentially, a board under authority of fiscal court could not be created until the library’s debts are paid off, at which point the first board would be completely dissolved.
The county’s officials have backtracked, stating that they never intended for the library to cease operations.
The petition’s supporters have largely expressed the same thought — that no one wants the library to close.
Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock said during Thursday’s meeting that he would begin attending the library board meetings himself to ensure that a line of communication stays open between the county and the library board.
But those statements weren’t enough to those who are seeing the end of the library in a possible future.
“It’s all well and good to come up and say we don’t want the library to close, it’s a lovely facility, but the way this has been handled guarantees that if you get the votes and this goes through, this board will dissolve,” said citizen Christine Brinson. “Without a board, there is no library. The library will close. All branches will close. And we get the benefit of still paying the taxes while our library is closed.”
The petition’s supporters, who were significantly outnumbered during Thursday’s meeting, emphasized that their problem wasn’t with the library itself, but with the idea that the public is being taxed without any oversight.
“We’re not being represented, folks,” said former judge-executive Louie Floyd.
Former judge-executive Darrell BeShears was also in attendance Thursday and he asked that the library board figure out a way to refinance their bond rates — which Keeney said stand at 3.9, 4.30 and 4.70 percent.
After more than an hour of questions and debate, those board members in attendance agreed to look into refinancing in an effort to avoid further tax increases.
Keeney said that, since 2009, she’s reduced the number of employees at the library and its four branches by 20 percent, reduced salaries by five percent, reduced material expenses by 49 percent, reduced operating costs by 25 percent, and reduced technology costs by 23 percent.
Keeney also said staff development costs were reduced by 63 percent.
“I have taken my budget down to where it is right at the bare bones minimum to offer the services at the level we have today,” Keeney said.
State Librarian and KDLA Commissioner Wayne Onkst said the current special taxing system is working well, and he said the board’s members are citizens themselves who work hard to ensure the library operates as it should.
And Onkst said dissolving the board and re-creating it under fiscal court, once the debt is paid off, would be a mistake.
“The one thing they wanted to do (when the state’s library system was created) was to keep politics out of the library,” said Onkst. “The way we go about this ... we don’t want the fiscal court running the library.”
“I like the way this system works,” Onkst continued. “Library boards are the last true citizen pieces of government.”
Library supporters asked that Sanders not turn the petition in. Sanders said she had been told that the petition, which must have 6,500 signatures, has to be turned in Monday, but Manuel said she actually has 90 days to do so. That would put the petition deadline in December.
Sanders said she couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t turn the petition in, but she and those petition supporters with her agreed to meet with Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese — who was at the meeting as a private citizen — to work on a different solution.
“If I can work with you and figure out another way that would satisfy your all’s needs and keep our library and not file the petition ... would you consider doing that?” Carrie asked, although she later emphasized that she would not help the group “destroy the library.”
That solution? To change the law at the state level in an effort to provide more oversight by county entities over the taxing districts.
“We built a great library system ...,” said Onkst. “That’s set up in state law. If the petition goes through, that law’s not going to change.
“If you do want to change the law, there’s a way to do that, through the legislative process,” Onkst continued, “but I think that would be a serious mistake because we want to keep our libraries owned by the citizens who use them and governed by citizen representatives on the board, not political people.”