Parties from both sides of a debate over whether to dissolve the library board made their cases known in fiscal court this week.
“One concern I’ve got is we’re getting into a very dangerous legal situation regarding the library,” said library board attorney Bruce Orwin, during Tuesday’s Pulaski County Fiscal Court meeting.
Orwin appeared before fiscal court Tuesday, along with Pulaski County Library Director Charlotte Keeney and attorney Christian Juckett, who specializes in municipality bonding, to discuss the library’s future in the wake of a movement to dissolve the board.
The board has recently come under fire for enacting tax rate increases in the past two years, and a group of concerned citizens, led by Barb Sanders, have met informally to begin the process of dissolving the library special taxing district through voter petition in hopes of reestablishing a board under supervision of Pulaski County Fiscal Court, which currently has no authority over the library taxing district.
The board accepted what’s called a compensating tax rate for the 2012-2013 year, which means the district would receive roughly the same amount of revenue as it received the year before through tax collections. That compensating rate is determined by property values as recorded by the Pulaski County PVA Office. Property values went down slightly, which means the library board had to enact a higher tax rate to get the same amount of money.
The compensating tax rate was 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. Tax rates for personal property also went up a fraction (7.65 to 7.66 cents).
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 and that rate went up to 6.4 cents for this year.
“Nobody is saying the library doesn’t do a lot of wonderful services,” Sanders told the court on Tuesday. “They’re preaching doomsday, like the library’s going to close, it’s not going to be here anymore, and that’s not the case ... because the library will go on.”
But that’s exactly what Orwin, Keeney and Juckett said will happen should the petition be successful.
Information provided to the board from the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) suggests that the board would cease to function in the aftermath of a petition to dissolve the district — except only to repay the library’s debt.
“It is our opinion that the library would close and all staff would be terminated (with the possible exception of an administrator to oversee the debt repayment), as continuing operation of the library cannot be considered as necessary for the repaying of existing debts,” stated Terry L. Manuel, branch manager in program development for the KDLA, in a letter to Pulaski County Library Director Charlotte Keeney dated Oct. 9. “ ... Further, the buildings and all furniture, books, and other material items would be subject to sale in order to satisfy existing debts.”
The library’s debt, much of it extending from the construction of the current building, which began operations in 2008, stands at about $9,507,830, according to Keeney.
An Attorney General opinion (OAG 79-102) states that a tax rate may not be decreased “to the point where it will impair repayment of these existing contractual obligations,” according to Manuel’s letter.
In other words, 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.
That could take years.
“We have a pretty substantial contractual obligation,” Orwin said on Tuesday.
Sanders said the library’s debt, something she says has ballooned far beyond what the construction of the new main branch was supposed to cost, is not the citizens’ problem, and she said some kind of accountability system has to be put in place to ensure the board answers to county officials — who are getting the heat from upset citizens in the wake of higher tax rates, even though their hands are tied.
The magistrates have been outspoken in their frustrations with the library board and the increasing tax rates, but they’ve emphasized that they don’t want the library to close.
“When they (citizens) came in to court and asked us about it, me personally I just advised the community to do what they think was best for them and for the library,” said 4th District Magistrate Glenn Maxey.
Orwin said 95 percent of the library’s budget, which totals $2,709,434 for the 2012-2013 year, is funded through taxes.
“They (the library) live and die with that property tax,” Orwin said.
Orwin invited the court to meet up with the library board, which is made up of Elaine Wilson, John T. Mandt, David Durham, Glenn Shackelford, and Jerry Claunch, to study this year’s budget.
“We all need to sit down, look at it, go over it,” Orwin said. “ ... I think you’re going to find it’s a very tightly run facility.”
But Pulaski County Attorney Martin Hatfield, while in agreement with Orwin’s statements of what a dissolution could mean for the library, said the magistrates can do no more than attend the meetings as citizens, and he said they are forbidden from attending “in tandem” as court representatives because to do so would violate open meetings laws.
“By law, fiscal court has no authority over this special taxing district or any other special taxing district in this county,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield even went so far as to say the court’s role would only be activated should the petition be successful and go before the court. Only then, he said, would he be able to advise the magistrates and Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock on their options.
“This is not a venue I don’t think where all of this needs to be even taking place right now. It’s between the petition gatherers and you folks,” Hatfield told Orwin. “It’s imperative for both sides to get their positions out there to the public.”
Orwin also suggested that the magistrates contact state government officials and work to change state law to allow some sort of oversight on the part of the county.
“Maybe you all should talk to your legislators about some change in the way state law is written,” Orwin said. “ ... Nothing has gone on that’s not perfectly legal, it’s just that unfortunately you all have taken the heat over something, a decision that you don’t make, you simply pass it along.”