By JEFF NEAL, CJ News Editor and CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
Barb Sanders, who has orchestrated a petition drive to dissolve the Pulaski County Public Library Taxing District, said yesterday her group will stop accumulating signatures under one condition — the current library board has to step aside and allow five new members to be appointed.
“The whole board needs to be revamped. And soon,” Sanders said. “We would drop our petition if they all resigned and a new ‘legal’ board was selected.”
Sanders contends the current library board is “not representative of the whole taxing district.”
“The board is made up of all city professionals, mostly lawyers — no housewives, farmers, nurses or average working people,” Sanders said. “There isn't a soul on that board who feels the pain of an average working person in the county.”
Elaine Wilson, who works at Somerset Community College, is the board president. Jack Mandt, an attorney, is the vice president. Glenn Shackelford, an attorney, is the secretary. David Durham, who owns an insurance company downtown, is the treasurer. Jerry Claunch, a banker, is the member at large.
“The library supporters think the library board is selected by elected county officials. It is not,” Sanders said. “(County Judge-executive Bart Bullock) has no input. They bring him two names that they have selected themselves and say ‘here, you must appoint them.’ As a formality, they run it by the state librarian first.
“This is not participation; it is autocratic.”
KRS 173.725 does call for the county judge to “attempt to assure, to the extent permitted by the county’s entitlement to board members, that the board includes members from different geographical areas, and from both cities and unincorporated areas of the county.”
However, even if there are some resignations from the board, the selection process to replace them would not change — the state librarian and commissioner would recommend persons “interested in the provision of library services and living in the county in which the vacancy occurred” to the county judge and fiscal court for approval.
All members currently serving on the library board were ultimately approved by Pulaski Fiscal Court.
For one, Wilson said she would not resign from her post — even if it meant the library would shut down.
“I would stick it out, because I believe there is enough support from people who support the library and what it stands for,” she said. “As long as we’re going to provide the kind of services that all people in the community need, then I will stay and see that out as long as it’s necessary to do that.”
Wilson has already served one four-year term — as well as time on the advisory committee, a necessary qualification for being on the board — and was appointed this year to another term. When asked if she would resign, she laughed and said that would be her “first reaction” to that notion.
“I’m not resigning,” she said. “I believe that I was appointed for a reason. I’m supported by a lot of people in the community.”
Wilson also rejected the notion that the board isn’t diverse enough geographically or socioeconomically.
“I’ve worked at (Somerset Community College); I do live downtown but that helps me with my responsibilities with the school board,” she said, noting that Mandt was the only other board member to live close to the center of town. “We’ve got people on the board who live in lots of places in the community.
“I would like to know what makes them (the petitioners) think they know what people’s socioeconomic circumstances are,” she added. “I don’t think we have wealthy people on the board, but maybe they know something I don’t. I know I’m certainly not wealthy.”
Wilson vigorously defended the board’s record of aiming for fiscal responsibility, saying that in her time on it, they’ve paid close attention to “every penny that’s spent,” and have had to encourage some hard decisions at times.
“We’ve encouraged (Pulaski County Library Director Charlotte Keeney) strongly to cut expenses in any way possible, including employees,” said Wilson. “People are working there for very little money. They’re not getting rich by being there, they’re there because they really want to be there. We’ve cut (budgets for) office supplies, electricity, ... We went through a period where we didn’t even by the normal amount of books.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much money it takes to keep all the branches open,” she added (there are five facilities including the main branch, plus the Bookmobile). “We’ve got to make sure all the services get to people. ... I don’t think that one dollar a year extra for the library services is too much. One dollar won’t even buy you a cup of coffee at most places in town.”
Wilson also pointed out that library board members are not paid for that position, saying that she’s heard statements made suggesting the contrary, even that they’ve given themselves a raise — an impossibility, said Wilson.
“Personally, I feel like we’re doing everything we can to make sure we’re good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” she said.
Many Pulaski County Public Library supporters were outraged when Sanders’ demands were posted in the “Save the Pulaski County Library” Facebook group.
“We think the library is fine. I don't want someone like Barb Sanders being part of the board, nor threatening to close the library because she can't have her way,” said Craig Brunson. “The only thing Barb has done with the library is challenge the tax for some reason. There is nothing wrong with the way things are currently ... other than some people getting upset over $1 (in additional taxes). A "legal" board? Please. I guess following state law isn't legal.”
“How insulting,” said Dan Dutton of Sanders’ demands. “Our community would do well to ever find a group of individuals as good as the board we have now. Anyone who knows them personally, or even anyone who has ever attended one of the meetings, would know that, and would be ashamed to speak about their character, or pretend to know anything about why they volunteer their time and knowledge for the rest of us. I applaud Elaine Wilson, and the rest of the board, for their work on our behalf. Our library tax rate is precisely normal, lower than many surrounding counties, but our library is extraordinary, due to a fine staff, and a fine board of directors.”
Some library supporters fear the petition is about securing some sort of political leverage.
“I think it is pretty clear that the petition group is holding the library hostage by claiming they do not want to close it, but will do what they have to do to get their names out there,” said Darian West. “Giving into them gives them a rhetorical win which only serves their purpose. It would be naive to think this was simply about the minuscule tax increase. It is widely known and documented that whomever is circulating the petition is doing so by misleading those who are signing it. The people who have asked to be removed from the petition all state that the petitioner mislead them in various ways to get the signatures.”
Others dismiss the conspiracy theories.
“There is no great mysterious conspiracy afoot, I don't care how misinformed (Sanders) may be,” said John Withers. “This is about taxes ... period. (Some of these comments) are making me start to think the library supporters are as zealous and removed from reality as the petitioners. And I am a supporter! I'm amazed and disappointed by the total unwillingness to compromise here.”
The furor began when magistrate Mike Strunk took the library board to task during a meeting in October about the “tax increase” for the 2012-2013 year. The compensating tax increase went from 6.30 cents per $100 of real property to 6.40 cents. However, the compensating rate will not increase the library’s operating revenue. The 2012-2013 rate was raised slightly because property values slid this year.
In other words, while taxes went up, the library broke even.
“Taxes were raised to keep the same level of service offered to all residents of Pulaski County,” said Ann Haney, director of the Pulaski County Library Foundation. “Expenses like utilities rise, and last year for example, property values dropped ... when the property values drop, so does the amount of tax dollars collected, thus reducing the library income.
“Each year the library does give Pulaski Fiscal Court a copy of the annual budget. And in past years the library board has actually reduced tax rates,” Haney added. “Library board members are approved by both KDLA and Pulaski Fiscal Court. I agree, improved communication is clearly indicated, on both sides.
“Did you know that 108 counties in Kentucky operate their libraries under the same statutes as we do? The purpose of the law we operate under was to keep politics out of the operation of public libraries,” Haney said. “The library staff understands why raises are few and far between. They might not like it, but are dedicated and want the best for the library. And frankly, many others are not getting raises either.”
The petitioners have until Dec. 11 to collect 6,500 signatures. If successul, the petition would go before fiscal court and the process of dissolving the district would begin.
Case law and state statutes suggest the board would cease to function in the aftermath of a successful petition — 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.
The library’s debt stands at about $9,507,830.
An Attorney General opinion (OAG 79-102) also states a library tax would still exist until the debt is paid off. State law also forbids the creation of a second special district while the first district is still in existence. So, essentially, a board under authority of fiscal court could not be created until the library’s debts are paid off, at which point the first board would be completely dissolved.