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Stand up for your libraries Fight the library threat the old-fashioned way - with a petition drive and pressure on lawmakers

Ohanian Comment: What could be more outrageous: Having to fight for the existence of libraries.

Kudos to Cincinnati Enquirer editorial for their position.

The comments section has several strong statements supporting the importance of libraries and one loony tunes who says libraries aren't in the Constitution and should be privatized.


Libraries in Kenton and Campbell counties do more than just lend books. On any given day the branches host book clubs and scavenger hunts, computer classes and story hours. Residents of the counties are proud of the facilities and programs they’ve built. Campbell County libraries provide more than 7,000 hours of computer use per month, while Kenton County libraries attracted nearly a million visits last year.

But the libraries are operating under a threat that could drastically contract their business. This spring, judges in both counties found the libraries have been improperly collecting taxes for 34 years. If a higher court upholds the rulings, the library systems could be forced to cut up to 55 percent of their budgets, close branches, cut hours and reduce staffing to skeletal levels. A similar lawsuit was filed in Boone County, and activists in other Kentucky counties are considering their own suits.

A court decision settling the matter could be a year off, and Kentucky legislators have indicated they won’t do anything about the matter until a higher court has ruled on it. If residents of the two counties really value the services their libraries provide, though, they have the power to do something about the crisis they’re facing. They could show their love by collecting signatures. Lots of them: 34,772 in Kenton County and 20,580 in Campbell County, to be precise.

It’s not a long-term fix and it would be a hassle, but collecting that many signatures in 90 days would ensure continued funding for the two counties’ library systems. It would provide a bridge until the courts and state legislature decide the matter and would reassure library officials that residents do value services they offer – like child literacy programs and book deliveries to the homebound.

Officials we talked to expressed concern about whether it’s even possible to collect that many signatures in three short months. If the alternative is uncertainty and strife, what’s the harm in trying?

â€Â˘ Contact lawmakers about public libraries

The fight over our libraries stems from two apparently conflicting laws on Kentucky’s books. But it’s also part of a long-running conflict between anti-tax activists associated with the tea party and local governments across Northern Kentucky.

Last year, the Campbell County library board asked voters to approve a tax increase to build a fourth branch in the southern part of the county, which has seen explosive growth in recent years. The measure would have raised taxes $27 per year on a $100,000 house. It was soundly defeated. While researching the issue, lawyer Brandon Voelker, who represents the people suing the libraries, says he stumbled upon the confusion in the laws.

A 1964 law says libraries in the state that were formed by petition can increase taxes only by gathering signatures of 51 percent of county residents who voted in the last general election. Another law passed in 1979 allowed limited annual tax increases for special taxing districts like fire and water districts, and state officials have advised libraries since that the law applies to them. The judges in the Kenton and Campbell suits found that the second law did not override the first and that the library boards have been improperly collecting taxes ever since.

The tax rate for the Kenton County library in that period has climbed from 6 cents per $100 to 11.3 cents, or $113 annually for a $100,000 house. Campbell County’s has risen from 3.3 cents to 7.7 cents per $100, or $77 annually for a $100,000 house. If the libraries must roll back their rates to earlier rates, the operating budget for Kenton County’s library will fall from $11.2 million to $6 million, and Campbell’s from $4.9 million to $2.2 million.

The prospect of cutting budgets by roughly half is a devastating one for the libraries. Though anti-tax activists say libraries are trying to scare people, there’s no way for a library, or any entity, to lose half its funding and still function well. Campbell County officials say they will close a branch, slash hours and cut programming if the tax rate reverts to 1978 levels.

The pro-library forces seem wary of the idea of collecting signatures, both because of logistics and because the tea party faction supports the idea. Voelker says two of three Campbell County plaintiffs would sign a petition to keep library funding level. He also says the library won’t work with them to come up with a solution, but library officials shouldn’t negotiate with individuals. This is a problem that needs to be solved by courts, the legislature or the public at large.

We hope the Kentucky Supreme Court will agree to the libraries’ request to hear the case next, bypassing a lower appeals court, and hear the Kenton and Campbell cases together. The situation requires quick action from the courts and the legislature. But even if the court agrees to hear to the case, a decision could be a year off. And the Kentucky legislature won’t be back in session until January; with at least a few months to pass a bill and another three months for it to take effect, any law fixing this mess is also more than a year off.

The eventual outcome shouldn’t penalize libraries for following state advice in collecting taxes. Forcing them to pay back taxes they’ve collected in three-plus decades is unduly harsh. And any solution must preserve the integrity of the library systems. People in Northern Kentucky are rightly proud of their libraries. Their value to residents, from toddlers to elderly shut-ins, and from urban neighborhoods to the suburbs to rural areas, is immeasurable.

So what better cause for citizens to rally around? We hope they take the challenge to gather signatures, and simultaneously pressure lawmakers to make libraries a priority. It would be a terrible loss to see them atrophy, and, in the long run, would hurt the economic prospects and quality of life in the region. So step up, Northern Kentucky. There are some parking-plan opponents in Cincinnati who could give you plenty of advice.

— Editorial
Cincinnati Enquirer





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