By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
A Campbell Circuit judge’s ruling that Kentucky public libraries created by petition can’t raise tax rates without a similar petition by 51 percent of voters has libraries across the state worried.
The ruling also highlights Kentucky’s labyrinth of library laws and the various methods by which libraries are established. That’s on top of passage of a law this year which lumps all libraries — including some which have no taxing authority — into the same category.
On April 2, Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward ruled that because Campbell County Library was created by petition the same law by which it was created requires it to gather a petition to increase taxes, effectively overturning incremental tax increases for the past 35 years.
Library supporters claim a bill passed in 1979 — House Bill 44 which restricts how much tax revenues can increase without voter approval — made the library a taxing district and the library has complied with HB 44 provisions since that time.
But Ward ruled the 1979 law can’t nullify a previous statute under which the library was established: KRS 173.790 says the property tax for a library created by petition “shall not be increased or decreased unless a duly certified petition requesting an increase or decrease in the tax rate of a specifically stated amount is signed by fifty-one percent (51%) of the number of duly qualified voters.”
“Pursuant to KRS 173.790, a library tax created by a petition of the people of a county can only be changed by a petition of the people of that county,” Ward wrote in her ruling. Ward has yet to rule on other questions in the suit and a similar suit is pending in nearby Kenton County as well.
Wayne Onkst, state librarian and commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, said library attorneys don’t agree with Ward’s ruling.
“We respectfully disagree with the decision,” Onkst said. “We’ve been doing this (following HB 44) since House Bill 44 passed. It would be very difficult to provide library services using 1979 tax rates.”
Onkst said he and libraries across the state are awaiting Ward’s complete ruling and also watching the Kenton County case to see if that judge rules differently. He expects an appeal of Ward’s ruling.
If the ruling stands, it would affect 79 of Kentucky’s 106 library districts. The others weren’t established by petition under KRS 173.790.
A myriad of Kentucky statutes provide several ways to form libraries, by petition, by ordinance or legislative action by the local governing body or by direct voter referenda.
Ruthie Maslin, Director of the Madison County Public Library, said the ruling is “obviously a significant concern to all libraries because of the precedent it may set.”
But Maslin doesn’t think the ruling directly applies to the Madison County Library.
“We were not formed under the same statute,” Maslin said. She said a 1987 petition drive under a newly passed drive asked Madison Fiscal Court to establish the library. The court then voted 3-2 to establish by ordinance a taxing district for the library.
“We were made a library district after we were made a taxing district,” Maslin said.
Charlotte Keeney, librarian for the Pulaski County Library, said she is concerned about the court ruling but isn’t sure how it will affect her library.
Keeney said her library is a special taxing district but that a petition was conducted to raise money to construct its building.
“I’m not really sure how the court decision is going to affect us,” she said. “But of course I’m concerned about it.”
Library supporters may face another challenge. This spring the General Assembly passed a bill which lumps special taxing districts, including the 106 library districts, under a statute requiring them to make annual reports to their county governments about their tax rates.
While local legislative bodies don’t control those tax rates, state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, plans to introduce legislation next year giving locally elected governments control over special districts’ rates.
That might produce another problem for some libraries which aren’t even legally taxing districts, like the Mary Wood Weldon Library in Barren County. That library was established by voter referendum in the early 1950s under KRS 173.310 and funded by an appropriation set forth by a companion statute, KRS 173.360.
Under the second statute, Barren Fiscal Court is supposed to fund the library with an appropriation of not less than five cents per $100 of assessed property value. But it has never done so and in the late 1960s began showing a “library tax” on county tax bills which only around 2000 reached 2.9 cents per $100 of assessed value.
But the library has no taxing authority and has never set a tax rate. The word “tax” doesn’t appear in KRS 173.360 which says fiscal court “shall appropriate money annually to furnish such (library) service” and then sets the amount as the equivalent of five cents per $100 of assessed value.
“I can’t see how the Campbell County ruling affects us because we were formed under another statute,” said Bob Cary, Mary Wood Weldon board chairman. “But our board hasn’t formally discussed it because we haven’t met since the ruling.”
Onkst, the state librarian, says there are about seven libraries created like the one in Barren County. One, Fayette County, in the 1980s faced the same situation as the one in Barren County where the local government didn’t fund it at the statutorily required level.
A lawsuit produced a 1984 Court of Appeals ruling requiring the local government to fund the library at the statutory level of five cents per $100 of value.
However the Campbell County case is ultimately resolved, it probably won’t end on-going debates about how — and how much — libraries should be funded.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.