It was Mike Strunk, Pulaski County’s 5th District magistrate, who spoke up when this year’s library tax-rate increase was brought before Pulaski Fiscal Court.
The fallout from the increase spurred a petition drive to dissolve the library taxing district and set off a community-wide uproar concerning the future of the Pulaski County Public Library.
The issue turned into a ticking time bomb when it was revealed case law and state statutes suggest the board would cease to function in the aftermath of a petition to dissolve the district — except only to repay the library’s debt. The library and its branches would close, and the assets of the library would be sold off to satisfy the debt.
Strunk says that is not what he had in mind when he spoke up.
“We don’t want the library to close ... I can tell you that no one on fiscal court wants that,” said Strunk. “The library is a wonderful asset to our community. It is a much-needed facility — people go there to use computers or even watch television.”
Pulaski County-Judge executive Barty Bullock agreed.
“I do support the library wholeheartedly,” Bullock said. “I really think that when this all started, nobody thought this would go as far as it has. No one wants the library to close.”
But that doesn’t mean fiscal court is okay with the library board raising taxes every year.
“Last year, we got it rammed down our throats the last minute and we took the heat for it,” Strunk said. “People don’t understand that we have nothing to do with setting the tax.”
The library board accepted for the 2012-2013 year what’s called a compensating tax rate, calculated to be 6.40 cents per $100 of real property, up from 6.30 cents last year. That means a person who owns property assessed at $100,000 would pay around $64. The compensating rate will give the district roughly the same amount of revenue as it received the year before through tax collections.
The library tax rate increased in 2009 to 6 cents per $100 of real property, and that rate stayed the same in 2010. It increased in 2011 to 6.30 cents per $100.
Early this year, Pulaski County 4th District Magistrate Glenn Maxey grilled Pulaski County Library Director Charlotte Keeney on the 2011 tax rate when she came before fiscal court to ask that two board members retains their seats.
At that time, Keeney vowed that she would keep fiscal court involved, and updated on any possible tax increase.
That didn’t happen prior to the 2012 tax hike, according to Bullock.
“We need to look at their budget,” Bullock said. “We need to look for things that would warrant a tax increase.
“They (the magistrates) are not asking anything unreasonable,” Bullock added. “They just wanted to be included a little bit more.”
Strunk stood firm on his statement that a tax increase should be “the final option.”
“I know (the tax increase) really doesn’t seem like much, but in this economy, no one wants to pay additional taxes,” Strunk said. “Sometimes you just have to cut back.”
Although Keeney has said the library has done some belt-tightening since 2009, Strunk wonders if there could be more measures taken.
“Businesses all over are having to cut people, cut programs ... it’s reality in these economic conditions,” Strunk said. “The library board has not shown us where they’ve cut anything.
“A few years ago, fiscal court had to cut $2 million from the county budget,” Strunk added. “When we got finished, we had the jailer mad, the road department mad, the sheriff mad ... but we certainly didn’t want to raise taxes. We either had to make some major cuts or raise taxes, and we decided to make the cuts.”
Both Bullock and Strunk said communication between the library board and fiscal court is a necessity to avoid future blowups.
“I’ll either go to those (library board) meetings myself or appoint someone (to go),” Bullock said. “We will have a representative there.”
But has the fate of the facility already been cast? The petition to shut down the library taxing district is still very much active, and the group has until early next month to collect the required signatures to take the issue before fiscal court.
“We definitely don’t want to see the library close down,” Bullock said. “But, if the petition comes before fiscal court with enough signatures certified, we wouldn’t really have a choice.
“That would be devastating for the county as a whole. It would take a long time to pay that debt off,” Bullock noted.
CJ Staff Reporter Heather Tomlinson contributed to this story