Backers drop petition that might have closed Pulaski libraries

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 30, 2012 

SOMERSET — A group of residents has decided to stop an effort to dissolve the tax district that finances Pulaski County's public libraries, a drive that had threatened to close them.

Barb Sanders, who spearheaded the petition drive, confirmed Friday that members of the group met Thursday evening and decided to drop the petition.

Sanders said one key reason is that state lawmakers will consider a bill in next year's legislative session designed to bring greater accountability to special taxing districts such as library districts.

The petition drive had created great concern that if backers collected enough names, the county's new $10 million library in downtown Somerset would close, along with four branches elsewhere in the county of 63,300 people.

The petition backers would have needed to collect 6,500 valid signatures by Dec. 11.

Sanders said members of the group did not add up how many names they'd collected when they met Thursday.

Library officials and supporters were glad to learn of the end of the petition campaign.

"That's welcome news to us," said David Durham, treasurer for the library board.

The controversy in Pulaski County started after the library board approved a tax increase in September, raising the rate from 6.3 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 6.4 cents. That meant a one-dollar increase, from $63 to $64, on a house assessed at $100,000.

The higher tax was still below the state average for similar districts, said Wayne Onkst, commissioner of the state Department of Libraries and Archives.

The Pulaski County library board and many others in Kentucky have the authority to set tax rates independent of the county fiscal court.

The increase — and the library board's authority to pass it without oversight from the county fiscal court — upset some people.

Sanders called the tax increase "taxation without representation." She and others began gathering names on a petition to dissolve the library board.

The goal was not to close the libraries, Sanders said, but to get a new library board set up that would have to get approval from the fiscal court before altering taxes.

However, the library board's attorney and state officials said the petition drive, if successful, would shut down all of the county's libraries.

Under state law, the library board's only remaining job after a successful dissolution petition would be to pay off debts, according to the state Department of Libraries and Archives.

That would mean closing the libraries, because providing library services would not be considered a necessary part of paying off debts, according to an opinion from Terry L. Manuel, a manager at the state agency.

The district owes about $9.5 million that it borrowed to finance construction.

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.

Library supporters said that meant there was a potential that the tax that created the controversy could stay in place for years, without library service to show for it.

The petition drive sparked a strong show of support for the library, with postings on social media and a steady stream of letters to the local newspaper, The Commonwealth-Journal.

A recent letter, noting that the names of people who signed the petition could be made public, caught the attention of the petition backers.

"If you own a business, you may lose customers," the letter said. "If you plan to run for public office, it will become an issue for you. Your children and grandchildren will always know you had a part on closing the library. You may also lose friends."

Sanders said the group involved in the petition drive decided to drop it because some people thought they had faced harassment for signing.

Another factor in the decision was the effort by state Auditor Adam Edelen and key legislators to bring greater transparency and accountability to special taxing districts, Sanders said.

Edelen's office recently finished a review of such districts, finding that more than 1,200 of them spend a total of $2.7 billion annually that they collect in taxes, fees and other funding.

Many of the districts did not receive audits as required, and about 40 percent that are supposed to submit budgets to local fiscal courts hadn't, the review found. However, the 106 library special taxing districts were all in compliance, Edelen said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo said this week that a measure to create more transparency and accountability for special districts will be a priority when the legislature begins meeting in January.

Edelen said House Bill 1 would require districts to register with the state and abide by local ethics codes, among other things.

Some lawmakers have called for giving fiscal courts veto power over tax decisions by special districts. HB 1 is not expected to include such authority for fiscal courts because it could cause problems by limiting the ability of counties to issue bonds, Edelen said.

"It doesn't work on a practical level," he said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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