It’s not often that libraries find themselves on the receiving end of a major lawsuit, but that’s exactly what’s going on right now in Kentucky. Many library systems across the state are now being rolled into a lawsuit that could potentially strip them of millions of dollars, and result in cuts to services and employment across the board.
The lawsuit itself is rooted in an obscure 50 year old 1964 law which stated that libraries would need to get a 51% voter approval in order to raise the taxes in their district from year to year. These taxes represented the direct operational monies for the library systems, and is what is used to sustain their services. Recently, taxpayers in both Kenton and Campbell counties filed a suit that argued that several library districts in the past half century have not been following the law, and have improperly raised taxes on those within their areas.
Shortly after, in the Spring of 2013, circuit judges in the north of Kentucky upheld the plaintiffs’ claims. This was followed by appeals from the library districts in question. This Monday, December 15th, attorneys for Kenton and Campbell library districts made their case, which hinged largely upon the repercussions of retroactive punishment to the state’s library systems, but also cited another law, House Bill 44, from 1979.
The bill states that, as long as the amount increase constitutes a 4% or less increase in income from the year before, libraries can raise their taxes without voter approval. Furthermore, libraries have been advised by officials in the past to follow this statute when considering their tax applications.
Jeffrey Mando, an attorney for Campbell’s library system, noted as well that no one objected to the practice for 30+ years, and it’s unclear why people are now seeking some sort of back pay for their taxes going to the libraries.
Those pushing for the lawsuit say that every dollar that goes into a library system is taxpayer money, and suggest that people may have objected had they known about what was going on earlier.
The repercussions of a decision against the libraries could affect nearly 100 systems in the state, and could also be dramatic. According to library officials, these cuts, if ordered in full, would mean a downsizing of the library budget for the foreseeable future of more than 50%.
Cutbacks would mean library staff layoffs, branch closures, cuts to outreach and children’s programs, reduced computer and technology access, no school visits via “bookmobiles,” etc. The unfortunate reality is that, while it’s true that libraries are publically funded, they are also tools and places that are 100% for the public communities they serve as well. In a fairly direct way, taxpayer money is quickly given back to the people.
Proponents argue that the issue is ideological, and represents a violation of the people’s ability to determine what their taxes are used for and where their hard money ultimately ends up. It remains to be seen how the case will play out in court.