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In Depth: Tax Cases Could Have Far Reaching Implications For State Libraries

Josh James

A group of cases currently pending in Kentucky appeals court could affect the way libraries in 79 counties have operated for decades.

The challenges hinge on whether libraries created by petition have been following the law when it comes to generating revenue. But where some see a battle over taxpayer rights, others see a potentially catastrophic setback for the state’s library system.

A Question Of Law

The first chapter of the current legal saga winding its way through Campbell, Kenton, and a handful of other Kentucky counties began at a time when visitors to the state’s libraries would have been greeted by card catalogues instead of scanners and computers.

It was 1978 when state lawmakers passed KRS 173.790, a bill that says any library network voted into being by petition can only raise taxes through a similar petition process. A year later the legislature approved another measure, House Bill 44, that libraries claim gives them the authority, as special taxing districts,  to enact small annual tax increases of up to four percent without putting a petition up for a vote.

Now, skip ahead to 2011.

Attorney Brandon Voelker was hired by Northern Kentucky Tea Party members opposed to a new branch location for the Campbell County Public Library to investigate whether a legal challenge could be mounted. And while he didn’t find any problems with the library’s plan for financing its expansion, he did run across the provision dealing with petitions buried in KRS 173.790.

"And that's when I mentioned that to them and they had no idea about that. Then they asked me to go the board meeting and ask the board about the statute," Voelker says.

After several unsuccessful attempts to get answers about the discrepancy from local library board members and the county fiscal court, his clients filed suits in Campbell and Kenton counties – suits they eventually won. That meant only tax increases passed by petition in those counties were valid.

"Since they had not done so since inception, whatever was the last petition-approved rate is the tax rate for the library," Voelker explains.

The Ripple Effect

That ruling, taking libraries back to their 1979 tax levels, set off more than a few alarm bells across the state.

"I think that when these started, almost everyone pulled out his or her calculator and started making some quick computations," says Julie Maruskin, director of Clark County Public Library, which also got its start thanks to a public petition.

If the rulings stand and all similar libraries face challenges, she worries about a domino effect.

"My understanding is that approximately 70 libraries throughout the state would close or be very much diminished, as much as 80 percent, in terms of the materials and services that they would offer their public," she says.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Patrons utilize free computer services at the Clark County Public Library

Echoing Maruskin’s concerns is Lisa Rice, former Kentucky Library Association President.

"Just imagine trying to run your own household on your income from 1979 and then add to that an added debt service," she says.

Rice also says special taxing districts can’t be dissolved if debt exists, meaning some counties might potentially lose their libraries but wind up continuing to be taxed anyway until the district’s debt is paid off.

At the Clark County Public Library, which last raised its tax rate by petition in the mid-90s, the effects would be less severe, but dramatic nonetheless. Still, Maruskin remains optimistic the libraries will be successful in their appeal and that judges will rule that House Bill 44 supersedes the 1978 law, something libraries have assumed was the case for the last two decades. 

Gauging Support

Despite all the legal wrangling, Voelker says there’s a much simpler fix available: simply put the libraries’ current tax rates up for a vote.

"It's a distrust of the public that they don't want them to decide the size and scope of the library in those counties, so they just run out and talk about doom and gloom, 'We're going to shut down branches.' If there is widespread support to maintain the current level of libraries, why don't you just go get the petition signed?"

And that’s where the story becomes a little less clear: If Voelker and his clients are successful, how many other communities would follow suit? And if libraries are asked to return to the ballot box to regain part or all of their funding, would we lose more than just services in the meantime?

Maruskin argues yes.

"If Kentucky public libraries shut down as a result of this, vast amounts of our personal and cultural history history will be gone forever. We collect a lot of ephemeral material and until we digitize it, it's fragile," she says.

Be that as it may, Voelker stresses that those pressing these cases are not anti-library. He argues it's a matter of fairness and keeping libraries accountable to the taxpayers who fund them. 

The question is now in the hands of an appeals court, which could opt to hear oral arguments or rule based on briefs next year. Litigants anticipate a protracted legal battle that could go on for years as both sides are virtually guaranteed to appeal any rulings against them.

Whatever the case, Voelker suspects this particular narrative will likely reach its climax at the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.