COLD SPRING, Ky - When Betty Daniels began her crusade to bring a library to her hometown, she never dreamed that 35 years later, that vision would be blurred into a legal battle.
On Sept. 5, 1978, Daniels made it official—the first Campbell County Library had been founded in Fort Thomas thanks to her efforts in obtaining 11,651 signatures, more than the 51 percent required to open a library. Now those very signatures are what might hinder the library to continue to do all that Daniels once hoped.
A lawsuit against the Campbell County Library—filed by three Campbell County residents, two of which are tea party members—has the courts looking at the way the library has taxed homeowners for more than three decades.
And as the library inches closer to its July 1 budget, library officials and supporters find themselves in limbo between possible tax rates for the coming fiscal year—the current tax rate of 7.7 cents per $100 property ($77 per $100,000 home) and the possibility of falling back to the 1978 tax rate of 3 cents per $100 or $30 per $100,000 in property.
“We hope that such an order is never given. Returning to a 1978 tax rate would be devastating to library service today,” said JC Morgan, Campbell County Library director.
If that should happen, the library’s revenue which funds branches in Fort Thomas, Newport and Cold Spring, would drop from $4.6 million to $1.6 million.
That kind of massive cut to the library’s budget could mean a blow to its programming, staff and overall operation that encompasses circulating more than 1 million items and serving 629,000 visitors annually, according to court documents filed by the library.
To date, no order has come but, the library is preparing for the worst.
“No decision to eliminate any library service is ever easy. To even consider the elimination of services, while knowing the impact on the people who use them, is very difficult for me,” said Morgan.
While decisions are difficult, the library has had to prepare for the possibility of these drastic measures in its next budget. Although more than 60 percent of personnel would be terminated under its plan, the library does intend on keeping its senior outreach within reach for the aging communities, where the library delivers books to nursing facilities and homes.
“For many of the people who use this service, the library is one of the few outside contacts that are made each month. They need us. They need the diversion that a book or a movie offers. The thought of denying that, taking it away from someone so isolated is extremely difficult for me,” said Morgan.
While the library’s outreach to the elderly and the homebound would most likely survive cuts, its outreach to youngsters would likely fall victim to a major hit financially.
Children’s outreach, together with senior citizen outreach takes approximately 2 percent of the budget. But Morgan said it’s one of the library’s possible eliminations.
“As a standalone service, it’s one of our newest innovations and I’m very excited about the impact that it can potentially have on children getting ready for their school years.
In keeping library services alive on a drastically reduced budget though, I had to make many tough choices in what we could support. Eliminating children’s outreach would be a very tough decision to make in the end.”
One program that would suffer in that elimination would be the newly initiated “Eating the Alphabet”—the library caravans to the local schools during the summer months during lunchtime. After kids eat their meals, they are invited to read and play word activities and crafts in an effort to keep their minds actively learning all year round.
“[It] keeps our students where they need to be. [Reading] is one of the things that gets them ready for school,” said Patty Peterson, Dayton Independent School District’s assistant superintendent.
“Without this program our kids would have no reading experience over the summer…reading can take them everywhere,” said the educator.
Laura Willis, of Bellevue, Ky., knows that all too well. The home school teacher and mother enriches her three children’s minds all while extensively using their local library, both onsite and within their home. Reading is part of her family’s culture, she said.
Every room of their house includes a large basket overflowing with books, all checked out from the library. On any given day, the family—which includes Lucy, 8; Maryrose, 5; and Ashton, 7—has 100-125 library books on hand.
“I like fiction because I really like to imagine myself as that person sometimes. It’s really fun to be where they are,” said Lucy, who has been reading since she was 4.
“It opens a lot of possibilities and I appreciate the materials they offer and the help they give,” said Willis about the librarians and tools that the library provides during her children’s research projects. “There’s no way I could provide the same education without the library because we use an absorbent amount of books.”
Conflicting Satutes Pose Legal Validity
The risk of scaling back library services stems from a lawsuit filed in January 2012 against the Campbell County Library by attorney Brandon Voelker, who is also representing: Bob Klette in a lawsuit against the Boone County Library; and Garth Kuhnhein in a lawsuit against the Kenton County Library.
The debate that lies combatively between The Campbell County Library and three taxpayers who are suing the special taxing district is: whether or not the library special taxing district can raise taxes without continuing to go back to the people who approved the district at the outset of the creation of the library system.
Plaintiffs Charlie Coleman, John (JR) Roth Jr., and Erik Hermes—who, in recent years, have also sued the fiscal court, the City of Alexandria and the school board for “overtaxing”—claim that the library is and has been breaking the law, plain and simple.
“What we want is the voters to decide. Let it go the people,” said Coleman, a tea party member. “…Seems this is how this country was formed.”
“I have to play by the law—you have to play by the law,” said Roth. “There’s a set of laws, they seem to think they can bend the laws or break it because they’ve always done it.”
The library was founded in 1978 by petition, as a special taxing district, and was governed under KRS 173.710-800, which was passed in 1964. Library officials maintain that they have been following the correct and legal statute as a special taxing district .
Beginning in 1979, the Campbell County Library was directed by the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives to start following KRS 132 (known as HB 44)—which states that a special taxing district only has to go to the voters if taxes need to be raised more than a 4 percent compensating rate—which means that once the tax rate is set, it can provide no more than a 4 percent increase to the library’s revenue. They would not, however, be required to seek votes nor a signature to raise the taxes for increase less than 4 percent.
In fact, the library did go to voters in November seeing an increase in taxes in order to raise enough funding for a new south branch in Alexandria. The new $5 million branch would cost taxpayers an additional $20 per year on $100,000 home, raising the total to $97 per year per $100,000.
The voters rejected the tax levy by 62 percent of the vote.
According to Kentucky Revised Statute 173.790, the plaintiffs argued, the library must get a petition signed by 51 percent of voters every time it wants to raise taxes because that is how the library was originally founded. The lawsuit argues that the library should maintain operations under this statute, not the one they have been abiding by all these years.
The library, however, argues that the revision in KRS 132 allows for special taxing districts, like libraries, to raise taxes differently—although libraries are not specified in that revision.
“The changes made it clear that ‘all’ taxing districts are included. Taxing districts were not specified by type (i.e. library district or health district) because the changes were intended to apply to ‘all’ taxing districts. There was simply no need for the legislature to make a distinction when ‘all’ taxing districts were included,” explained Morgan.
Libraries, according to Kiki Dreyer Burke, spokeswoman for the library, have been considered a taxing district since 1966, via KRS 65.060.
Kentucky libraries that operate under this statute join other special taxing districts across the Commonwealth, like police and fire departments and others who provide services like water, sanitary sewer, health services, water conservancy, soil conservation, housing, and park and recreation services. So the court decision in Campbell County could have far wider implications.
Where the Taxes Rate
In April, Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward, ruled against the library finding that KRS 173.790 should have been governing the library’s tax rate by way of petition.
Judge Ward did not, however, rule on what the library should do from here on out, nor what the tax rate should be.
In May, the library filed a Motion for Intermediate Relief with the Kentucky Supreme Court to keep the taxing rate at its current level.
“At this point, we have not been ordered to do anything,” said Morgan. “We’re asking [the Kentucky Supreme Court] not to make us do anything [further].”
The library’s motion was filed with the Kentucky Supreme Court on May 17. The court has yet to decide whether or not to hear the case. If they hear it, the decision could take one or two years, said Morgan. If they reject the case, the library will then file with the appellate court which would decide whether or not to send it back to the Supreme Court or deny their appeal altogether.
In the meantime, the library has had to make some budget-tightening decisions knowing that there is a chance it will be forced to revert back to the original tax rate of 3 cents.
“With all these things looming, we hope the Kentucky Supreme Court clears it up.”
The ruling could affect 99 other libraries throughout Kentucky who were also founded by petition and operate as a special district. Among them are Kenton County Library, which was recently ruled against in court only to see that decision appealed and the Boone County Library, which is currently facing litigation as well.
“If the higher courts uphold the decision of the circuit court, the budgets of 79 [counties’] public libraries would be impacted. Almost all of these libraries would be impacted in a significant fashion,” said Kentucky State Librarian Wayne Onkst.