By Will Phillips
An ongoing lawsuit against libraries in the state of Kentucky could have drastic effects on the Henry County Public Library, according to a statement of impact released Monday by Library Director Jessica Powell.
“If the lawsuit facing Kentucky’s public libraries is not resolved in a manner that maintains our current level of funding, the Henry County Public Library would suffer a drastic cut to services,” Powell said. The statement continues, “Last year our bookmobile delivered over 25,000 books to children and adults throughout the county and over 2,500 people enjoyed outreach programs presented throughout the community by our dedicated staff members. There is no feasible way we could continue offsite services when trying to operate with a loss of 50-70 percent of our budget.”
The statement is in response to a lawsuit filed two years ago by Tea Partiers in Campbell and Kenton Counties regarding the tax rates that public libraries can use for funding. They found a loophole in a piece of legislation, House Bill 44, written in 1979. That particular piece of legislation was meant to define the taxing districts in Kentucky. That is, which public institutions were allowed to raise taxes in order to fund themselves. Included are operations like sanitation, fire departments, police departments and, until recently, libraries.
House Bill 44 was written in such a way that public libraries were not included in the actual language of the law, which gave ground to the lawsuit.
The fight has now moved to a statewide level, with legislators weighing in on both sides. The state House of Representatives recently approved a bill that would take a direct route to ending the feud by making libraries a taxing district. The bill would retroactively apply the status to libraries across the state, ensuring that they are within the confines of the law as it is written. The state Senate shot down the bill, because, according to Representative Rick Rand (D-Bedford), chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, “[the case] is still in litigation.” Rand continued, “If [the libraries] lose, it could be devastating. We [pass bills on cases in litigation] virtually every session. This one is important enough…libraries are one of the cornerstones of our community.”
Lisa Rice, Director of Warren County Public Libraries, agreed, saying that House Bill 44 shows intent to include libraries.
“If the ruling in the lawsuit was against libraries,” Rice said, “It would have a really devastating effect. Probably 30-34 counties would lose their libraries.”
Some libraries, according to Rice, would not be affected by the ruling. She continued, though, “Probably 100 [libraries] would lose funding. Ninety-nine libraries definitely would.”
Henry County’s public library is one of those that would, according to the statement by Powell. In addition to the comments regarding the bookmobile, the statement claims that the entire community would be affected, and for more reasons than just limiting the availability of books.
“Our internet computers were used an astounding 17,259 times by people in the community searching for jobs, doing homework, filing their taxes, etc. In a county like ours, where reliable Internet access is difficult to find in so many small communities, any reduction in library hours would be deeply felt by those that depend on us to provide access to services that are only available online.”
In addition, Powell’s statement says that it’s not just adults who would lose out if the library’s funding were to be cut.
“Over 337 teens spent their free time attending more than 31 programs at the library last year, including teen book club and ACT prep classes. Some also participate in the valuable teen volunteer leadership program, which helps provide the myriad of children’s summer reading activities that we present.”
Again trying to show the impact of the lawsuit on the community, the statement continued bluntly, “It would be unreasonable to expect that we would have the staff to keep so many teens involved in productive community projects if we lost [50-70 percent] of funding.”
Regarding the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Rice said that she isn’t sure of their goal.
“I don’t believe they have a full grasp of the consequences for counties with heavily used libraries. I can’t believe someone would consciously make the decision to devastate libraries.” Rice said. “Libraries are a place for the unrepresented and misplaced,” She added that she feels the lawsuit is “based on a technicality.”
The plaintiffs, led in Campbell County by local Tea Party President Erik Hermes, have contended that House Bill 44, which allows certain districts to raise taxes to bring in as much as 4 percent more revenue than the previous year, doesn’t apply to libraries. Their solution is to revert the libraries to a tax rate from 1979. The lawsuit states, according to Campbell County Public Library’s website, that the libraries must have a petition signed by 51 percent of the voters in the county that voted in the previous presidential election to raise taxes.
Powell’s statement ends with a plea to the people of Henry County for support. “Our doors swung open 74,000 times last year as the people of Henry County used and enjoyed a place they and their children have come to count on for learning, entertainment, guidance and support,” it said. “They said yes to their library by checking out 86,000+ items. A budget cut of the size being proposed would have severe consequences for the community and would be felt by everyone we serve, adult and child alike.”