SOMERSET — A petition to dissolve the taxing district that finances Pulaski County's public library system threatens to shut down what many see as one of the community's best assets, supporters of the library say.
Those pushing the petition say the goal is not to close the libraries, but rather to set up a new board that would have to answer to elected officials for tax increases.
The county of 63,600 might have no public libraries for some period before that could be done, however.
Those calling for an end to the current taxing district have until Dec. 11 to gather the names of 6,500 valid voters on the petition, a number based on local turnout in the 2011 general election.
If they succeed, the county's spacious new $10 million library in downtown Somerset will close, along with four branches around the county, said Charlotte Keeney, the director.
"They will tell you their intent is not to close the library," Keeney said of the petition backers. "Unfortunately, that's a consequence of what they're doing."
If the petition has enough valid names, the library district would be dissolved without a vote from the public.
The effort to kill off a library district is rare. The last time it was done successfully was in Taylor County about 30 years ago, said Wayne Onkst, commissioner of the state Department of Libraries & Archives.
The controversy in Pulaski County flared after the library board approved a small tax increase in September, raising the rate from 6.3 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 6.4 cents.
That means the portion of a county property-tax bill designated for the library is $64 on a house assessed at $100,000, up from $63 in 2011.
Pulaski County's library-tax rate is below the state average, Onskt said.
The 2012 rates are not available for all counties, but in 2011, when Pulaski's rate was 6.3 cents per $100, the average in the other 105 counties with similar districts was 7.76 cents, Onskt confirmed.
The library board is an independent body, so Pulaski County Fiscal Court has no role in setting the tax.
However, some fiscal-court members complained about the increase.
Soon after, a group of citizens started the petition drive to dissolve the library taxing district, touching off a spirited debate locally.
The district was created by petition in the late 1960s, so a petition was the only way to get rid of the current board and set up a new one, said Barb Sanders, who is helping lead the drive to collect names.
Sanders said the library offers wonderful programs and no one involved in the petition drive wants to shut it down.
What she and others don't like is that the library board can raise the tax without oversight from elected officials — "taxation without representation," said Sanders, who has long been active in Republican politics.
"We're tired of these special taxing districts being able to raise taxes anytime they want to without the approval of any elected body," Sanders said. "They don't have to answer to the voters."
People pushing the petition also have argued that the members of the library board, while all good people, don't represent the diversity of the county's population.
Under state law, members of the board choose other potential members. The state Department of Libraries & Archives then selects two nominees and notifies the county judge-executive, who appoints one.
Pulaski County's board is made up of two attorneys, an insurance agent, a banker and a community-college administrator.
"I don't think there's a single person on that board who feels the pain of the average taxpayer," Sanders said.
The petition backers have not accused the library of improper spending, but they say there would be ways to cut costs. One suggestion has been to refinance the library's bond debt.
Petition backers are not convinced the libraries will close if they gather enough names.
If the petition succeeds, the library district still would have to pay off the outstanding $9.5 million debt on bonds used to build the main downtown Somerset building, which opened in 2008, and two branches.
The district would technically remain in place until the debt was retired.
That creates the ironic potential that the libraries would close, but the tax that sparked the petition drive would stay in place to pay off the debt.
Sanders, however, said one potential is that the county could quickly pay off the bonds another way, such as through a new bond sale, then set up a new library board accountable to the fiscal court and get the facilities open.
Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock said the county certainly doesn't have $9.5 million to pay off the bonds, and that he had not researched whether the county could step in quickly to obtain that money and pay off the debt.
But Bullock said if the petition has enough valid names, he believes it will result in the libraries being closed "for a pretty extensive time."
The Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives reached the same conclusion.
The department cited a court case that said after a successful dissolution petition, the library board's only remaining job would be to pay off debts.
In the department's opinion, that would mean closing the libraries and laying off all the workers, except for perhaps one employee to oversee debt repayments.
That's because providing library services could not be considered a necessary function in paying off debts, Terry L. Manuel, a manager at Libraries & Archives, told Keeney in a letter.
Manuel said the library buildings and all books, equipment and furniture could be sold to pay the debt.
The county couldn't set up a new library district until all the debts of the old one were paid, "which could take years," Manuel said.
That would be a terrible blow to the community, supporters of the library say.
"I think the library is essential to the education of kids," said Josh McCoy of Somerset, who was reading a book to his daughter, Miliana, in the children's section of the library one day last week.
The library offers a wide array of services, not just lending books but providing meeting space, Internet access, reading and literacy programs and classes in a variety of areas, including job skills.
There are 15,000 visitors a month to the new main branch, a building attractive and advanced enough that it is used as a recruiting tool to tout the community's quality of life.
"It's one of the crown jewels of the county," said library-board attorney Bruce Orwin, whose father worked to get the library taxing district established 45 years ago.
David Durham, the treasurer on the library board, disagreed with the assertion that its members don't "feel the pain" of taxpayers.
The board members, as well as library employees, are well aware of the need to be good stewards of public money and hold down costs, he said.
The board has cut the tax rates some years when it was possible, Durham said.
The tax rate went down in 2007 and again in 2008.
The board raised the rate in 2011 by the maximum 4 percent allowed by state law, but this year raised the tax by the lesser "compensating rate" — the level calculated to being in the same amount of money as last year, which was $2.2 million, Durham said.
Officials said there have been unforeseen expenses at the new library, including problems with the heating and air-conditioning system that cost $100,000 to fix.
The library cut employees and other costs, but officials felt there were no more savings to be had without closing some branches.
"The budget is pretty much at the minimum to provide the services that we have," Keeney said.
Library supporters say state law controls the things that the petition backers don't like, such as the fact that fiscal court doesn't have oversight of library-tax decisions.
The petition backers should work with state legislators to try to change those rules, rather than go after the library district, those opposing the petition say.
Sanders said she and others will do that.
Sanders said last week she could not say how many people have signed so far because several people were circulating the sheets.
The library and supporters are pushing back, asking people not to sign, or to remove their names if they have.
A number of people have contacted the library asking to take their names off as word spread that the petition could shut down the facilities.
Some said they were misled about what the petition would accomplish, Keeney said.
Sanders offered to scrap the petition if the library board members would resign so new ones could be appointed, but the members think that would be a mistake, Durham said.
It might have been easier to close some library branches rather than raise the tax, but members felt the services justified a small increase, Durham said.
"We looked at what was best for the library, and I think it was best for the county as well," he said.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.