Court to decide between lower property taxes, library funds

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ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. (AP) — Washington County's 11,800 people have one public library in a 4,000-square-foot building that, for many of them, is the only place they have to access the Internet.

The library operates off of a $480,000 annual budget, generated from property taxes that equal about $81 per year on a home valued at $100,000.

"And we have very few $100,000 houses," library director Tara O'Hagan said.

But a lawsuit before the state Court of Appeals could take away more than 60 percent of Washington County's library budget, along with 99 other public libraries across the state. That's why O'Hagan was one of dozens of library officials who drove to Elizabethtown on a cold Monday morning in December to listen to lawyers argue before three state judges who will likely decide how the state pays for its public libraries.

The issue is what law public libraries use to set tax rates. A lawsuit originating in northern Kentucky says voters must approve any tax increase. But library officials argue another state law, passed in 1978, allows special taxing districts to raise taxes up to 4 percent each year without asking voters' permission. That's the law most of the state's libraries have been using for more than 30 years.

"There is no doubt you did everything in good faith," Judge Kelly Thompson said. "The question is did you do it by the law."

Eric Hermes, a 53-year-old general contractor in Campbell County, is one of a handful of northern Kentuckians who stumbled upon the 1978 law while researching another local library issue. His lawsuit contends libraries are not special taxing districts and are not covered by the 1978 law. The lawsuit asks the court to undo all of his local library board's tax increases dating to 1978. To restore the taxes, the library would have to get more than 51 percent of registered voters in the county to sign a petition.

Hermes said he contacted the library board and his local elected officials about the law but was ignored.

"The one thing I didn't want to do was bring a suit against a library," he said. "But no one wanted to listen. No one wanted to hear what we were trying to point out. So it just got down to, 'Well, we need to get a judge's decision.'"

A state judge ruled in Hermes' favor last year, prompting the libraries to appeal. Attorneys for the libraries point to other court decisions and state laws they say clearly define libraries as a special taxing district, giving them the authority to raise property taxes at least 4 percent. And they point to a series of Attorney General opinions and other state government directives that order local libraries to follow the 1978 law. Furthermore, they pleaded with the judges to recognize the effect their decision could have on state libraries.

"You're talking about programs that are not just borrowing books. It's where veterans go to fill out job applications. It's where senior citizens go to meet. It's where children undertake literacy programs. In some parts of this state, it's the only computer access that these kids have," attorney Jeffery Mando said. "While I know it's a legal issue before this court ... those types of impact factors cannot be totally dismissed."

But attorney Brandon Voelker dismissed those arguments as a "plea for emotions."

"One of the big reasons that the appellants seek to have this reversed is it's a library. If we were sitting here talking about a sanitation district or a fire district — it's almost like they seek to have you examine what that role of government does and then whether or not it is OK to perhaps unlawfully issue a tax," he said. "This preserves a fundamental concept of our country, the right of the people to vote and decide."

In Washington County, however, O'Hagan said upholding the lower court's ruling would mean one thing: the library would close.

"There's just no way," she said.

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