Ky. voices: Al Smith says Tea Party taking aim at state's public libraries

On Nov. 16, readers, such as Cheryl Ahlborn of Orion, Mich., with author David Baldacci in 2010, will flock to the Kentucky Book Fair.
On Nov. 16, readers, such as Cheryl Ahlborn of Orion, Mich., with author David Baldacci in 2010, will flock to the Kentucky Book Fair.

As 170 authors, 100 from Kentucky, prepare to meet readers at Frankfort's 32nd annual Kentucky Book Fair Nov. 16, mystery writer Sue Grafton is the headline attraction, but a case as puzzling as any she ever invented threatens the financing of most state libraries to which the fair's profits are donated.

'W' for Wasted is the current best-seller in Grafton's alphabet mysteries featuring Kinsey Millhone. She published her first book in 1982, the second year of the Book Fair and only three years after the legislature passed a law commonly known as House Bill 44 detailing how tax rates were to be set.

A conflict between that law and another passed in 1965 was seized upon by a small group of Tea Party supporters and others in five identical lawsuits to force public libraries in five counties to roll back their tax rates to 1979 levels.

Circuit judges in Campbell and Kenton counties, where the first suits were filed by attorney Brandon Voelker of Cold Spring, upheld Voelker in April, stunning library board members everywhere.

A stay of execution has been ordered by the Court of Appeals until arguments can be heard next spring. Attorney Sheryl Snyder of Louisville, who has figured in several important cases involving state government, said he will file his first appeals brief for the state's public libraries by mid-November.

Voelker argues that HB 44 did not exempt libraries from a 1965 statute requiring them to raise tax rates the same way the taxing district was created — either by a petition signed by 51 percent of the number of voters in the last election or by a ballot initiative.

On the contrary, said Snyder in an interview, his brief will maintain that HB 44 does apply and this was reaffirmed by the legislature in 1990 when it enacted the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Since 1979 libraries have assumed HB 44 gives them taxing status and allows them to raise tax rates by four percent without petitions.

If the Campbell and Kenton decisions are affirmed "the impact would be catastrophic for library services," says State Librarian Wayne Onkst.

Of Kentucky's 119 library systems, 99 would be impacted as, in the case of Logan County which will open a $3 million library in January. Bonds pledged on part of the cost and to be paid off under a current tax rate of 7 cents per $100 of property valuation would be jeopardized by a rollback to 2.5 cents, the rate in 1979.

The impact would most hurt rural and smaller counties, Onkst said, for "a cumulative loss of at least $60 million per year."

Although Louisville and Lexington would not be affected because they do not set their tax rates, at least 30 counties would be without library services and service would be limited in 30 others, Onkst said. Sixty bookmobiles would shut down and "the negative reaction to closing libraries will reverberate nationwide."

As Kentucky reached statehood in 1792, a library was being organized in Lexington and by the 1830s thousands of volumes were in college libraries and some readers became writers. Of the ten books on a best sellers' list in 1903, five were written by Kentuckians.

But Kentucky is a land of contrast, as historian Thomas D. Clark said, and a century later enthusiasm for education, which peaked with passage of the KERA law in 1990, waned in the rise of the Tea Party and anti-tax sentiments like those expressed in the library suits.

Meanwhile Grafton will have plenty of celebrity company, including coaches Rick Pitino and Joe B. Hall, author/environmentalist Wendell Berry, political analyst Eleanor Clift and several authors who Book Fair President Carl West believes are on the way to becoming famous.

A Children's Day on Nov. 15 will be a "starter kit," for young readers, says West, the veteran editor of the Dix family's Frankfort-Journal, who founded the fair. "Starting with fingers crossed and only 40 authors, there were some dark days," West recalls.

One president of a New York publishing company wouldn't send writers because he said "Kentucky folks don't read books." Then he came himself, says West, "and saw the long lines around Dr. Clark, our most popular author ever, and changed his mind."

So, what will change minds about books in Kentucky is again a mystery, but maybe Kinsey Millhone can solve it — and tell Sue Grafton.