Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said Wednesday that he wants to place limits on the taxing authority of local library boards by requiring their members to either be elected or appointed by an elected official, such as the county judge-executive.
Staring at a hearing room full of library supporters wearing yellow stickers, the Senate State and Local Government Committee removed Senate Bill 48 from its agenda. The bill would give judge-executives the authority to name their own library board members if they found the candidates presented to them by the state Department of Libraries and Archives to be “unsuitable.”
Opponents of the bill say it would let county political bosses extend their influence to public libraries, which should be independently run resources for communities.
“We have some counties in Kentucky that already don’t have the libraries their communities deserve,” said Nanette Eichell, a retired Scott County librarian. “You might get a progressive or an open-minded judge who would appoint good people. But you also might not. You’re sort of betting that this person is going to look out for the best interests of the library and the people who use it.”
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Thayer told the audience at the Senate hearing that many library districts in Kentucky can raise taxes without any direct representation by citizens.
Under current law, library districts with taxing authority send the names of people interested in sitting on their boards to the state Department of Libraries and Archives, which passes along two candidates for each open seat to the county judge-executive. (The Lexington Public Library, which does not have taxing authority, is run by a seven-member board appointed by the mayor.)
“I’ve been a longtime advocate of bringing greater accountability and transparency to the numerous unelected, appointed boards with taxing and spending authority,” Thayer said.
“I’m still greatly troubled by the fact that we have hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer moneys being spent by appointed, unelected boards. And I know that (the libraries’) intentions are always good,” he said. “But I’m also always, first and foremost, going to look at protecting the taxpayers.”
Thayer then suggested “open elections for our public library boards,” a proposal that he believes the legislature should study later this year and consider as a bill in the 2018 legislative session.
Taxpayer groups have criticized libraries around Kentucky in recent years, most notably in a lawsuit that challenged the taxing authority of libraries in Kenton and Campbell counties. The state Court of Appeals sided with the libraries. Had the taxpayer groups won, they could have forced most of the state’s library systems to roll back their tax rates and collectively refund millions of dollars.
The sponsor of HB 48, state Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, said he has pushed similar legislation for several years. But he requested that his bill be removed from Wednesday’s committee agenda because he was not prepared to advance it.
Schickel said he knows of a dozen Kentucky counties where the library’s property tax rate equals or exceeds the county government’s tax rate. He added that he would favor direct election of library board members, as Thayer proposed.
“I would definitely support that. I’d actually prefer that to my own bill. We’re going to bring some accountability to these boards one way or another,” Schickel said.