Commonwealth Journal

March 13, 2013

Library happy with tax districts bill

Veto power over hikes not given to fiscal courts

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

Local library officials are pleased with the way Frankfort has dealt with legislation that would provide more oversight of special taxing districts without putting more power into the hands of county lawmakers.
On Tuesday, members of both the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives reached an agreement on House Bill 1, that would bolster accountability of more than 1,200 taxing districts in the Common-wealth, specially-purposed entities that set and direct tax revenue toward various prog-rams and orga-nizations — such as libraries.
As State Aud-itor Adam Edelen’s report on lack of oversight among special taxing districts in the state brought the issue to the legislature’s attention last year, Pulaski County was mixed up in its own controversy. A petition seeking to disband the board of the Pulaski County Public Library over what was felt by the petitioners to be an unchecked ability to raise tax rates on citizens stoked the ire of library supporters when it was learned that dissolving the district would cause the inadvertent closure of the library itself.
The petition was pulled when the woman seen as spearheading it, Barbara Sanders, learned that Kentucky lawmakers would address special district oversight in 2013. Even so, Edelen had already held up library boards across the state as being an example of districts that did what they were supposed to do.
What House Bill 1 will ultimately do is require special districts to submit their budgets to a publicly-accessible online registry, which is scheduled to be unveiled to the public in October of next year.
The Kentucky Senate had sought to change the bill to put more power in the hands of local county government. A county’s fiscal court, for instance, would have had the ability to veto tax increases voted upon by the board, should they increase the revenue collected the year before.
These changes, however, did not make it into the final version of the agreement that was passed Tuesday evening.
Those overseeing the Pulaski County Public Library are happy with the way things turned out.
“I liked the bill as it was; I didn’t like the amendment,” said Charlotte Keeney, director of the Pulaski County Public Library. “I’m not saying the fiscal court should not be given (influence over) an increase (in the library tax). I’m not sure they’d understand why we’d need to take the increase.”
Keeney explained that hikes in the library tax typically help offset general cost-of-operation swells across the board.
“Increase in utilities is the main thing,” she said. “Maintenance on the building is another. Those are usually the driving forces behind (tax) increases. Books go up; we can get those at a discounted rate, but those still go up. We have to keep up with equipment updates with the computers, new technology. 
“If we take the compensating rate, that usually just guarantees what we had before,” she continued. “If we had a perfect would and there was no increase in the cost of items, we wouldn’t do it (raise the tax), but we don’t operate in a perfect world.”
Last year’s petition controversy began after Keeney appeared before Pulaski Fiscal Court this past summer to inform the magistrates that the library board had elected to accept the compensating tax rate for the 2012-2013 year.
The compensating tax rate was calculated to be 6.40 cents per $100 of real property, up from 6.30 cents last year. Tax rates for personal property also went up a fraction (7.65 to 7.66 cents).
Keeney said there “needs to be more communication” between library officials and the fiscal court, to help explain the purpose behind the tax increases.
“I feel if I’m able to explain it to them, we’ll be on the same page; at least we’ll have an open dialogue,” said Keeney. “... It’s probably my fault if they aren’t understanding why that’s needed.”
Members of the Pulaski County Fiscal Court expressed unhappiness last September after the library board enacted the latest tax jump, stating disapproval of it and calling it an “increase in bad times,” as Fifth District Magistrate Mike Strunk put it.
Library board president Elaine Wilson echoed Keeney’s sentiments, saying “we ought to have better lines of communication” with the court anyway.
“That’s the reason why we started going to the fiscal court meetings, and both (deputy judge-executive) Rita Curry and the judge (-executive Barty Bullock) are both coming to library board meetings,” said Wilson.
Fears that getting fiscal courts more involved could bring political biases and machinations into greater play were also a concern among those opposed to the Senate’s amendment. Wilson did say that the court has been cooperative when it comes to appointing members to the board.
“We’ve been able to work with county judge-executives for years on getting people appointed to the board,” she said. “... They trust us to pick the best people possible for the board and that seems to have worked out.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Edelen said that the compromises made are “in the spirit of the bill’s original intentions,” and that “they add to accountability and transparency without getting into issues of governance that would jeopardize public health and safety and infrastructure services.”
Edelen’s report found that special districts in Kentucky collect $1.5 billion in taxes and fees annually and another $1 billion in grants, corporate sponsorships and fundraising. In all but three counties, taxpayers pay more to special districts in property taxes than to their county governments. The district spend $2.7 billion per year, about $5 less per capita than the state spend on primary and secondary education.
The Pulaski County Public Library’s budget for the 2012-2013 year totals $2,709,434. Of that, about $982,151 goes to personnel at the main branch located in downtown Somerset and at the library’s four other branches located in the county.