Tony Agricola of Elsmere, Ky., reads a book in the Erlanger branch of the Kenton County Public Library. The Enquirer/Patrick Reddy / Patrick Reddy, The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI -- Lawsuits filed by some Northern Kentucky tea party members against library taxes have drawn attention, puzzlement and in some cases ‚?? ridicule ‚?? elsewhere in the country.
No other libraries in the country face such challenges, Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association, told the more than 100 people assembled in Newport, Ky., for a forum on the issue this week.
"I think it's a very negative way to approach a problem," Stripling told The Enquirer after the forum. "Rather than finding a solution, to sue and tear down what exists, that's not the way I approach problems. I look for positive solutions, building on good things that are happening. This has the potential to really destroy library services in this part of the country."
Huffington Post blogger David Morris, in an Aug. 18 article titled "The Tea Party vs. The Public Library," asked why the tea party in Kentucky has challenged libraries and not the private sector, particularly regulated monopolies like utilities and cable companies that have steadily raised rates.
"But if a library raises taxes by $1 a year, the tea party's pitchforks appear, the Declaration of Independence is waved, the Founding Fathers invoked, an American-as-apple-pie institution forcefully attacked," wrote Morris.
Those filing the lawsuit have maintained, as they did at the forum, they support libraries but don't believe the library district have followed the law in raising taxes.
And so far two circuit court judges, one in Kenton and one in Campbell County, agreed.
"What you run into with the Huffington Post trying to phrase this as the tea party versus library, it's political spin and rhetoric," said Brandon Voelker, attorney for the plaintiffs in Kenton and Campbell County. "It is not about libraries. It's about whether people can decide if their taxes go up. The libraries weren't created by the fiscal courts. They were created by the people."
Those lawsuits are on appeal, and similar lawsuits in three other Kentucky counties ‚?? Boone, Anderson and Montgomery counties ‚?? are on hold.
At stake for libraries is half or more of their annual budgets.
If the tea party prevails, that would mean cutting branches and services, librarians say.
The basis of the lawsuit stems from the tangle of laws in the state governing special taxing districts.
Paperwork gets lost over a century, said Andrew Hartley, former staff attorney for the Kentucky Department for Local Government and Georgetown city attorney.
The voters defeated the tax increase last November. But it brought to light the incongruity in the law, said Erik Hermes, president of the Campbell County Tea Party and lead plaintiff in the Campbell County lawsuit.
The plaintiffs contend, and circuit courts upheld, that the library districts followed the wrong law on raising taxes. The Kentucky General Assembly in 1979 passed a law, House Bill 44, that governed how special districts can raise taxes.
It allowed special districts to operate like fiscal courts‚?? counties' top elected bodies. House Bill 44 gave special districts the power to raise property taxes to bring in up to 4 percent more revenue than the previous year. But are libraries "special districts" under the bill?
The lawsuits charge that House Bill 44 doesn't apply to libraries created by petition before the bill's passage.
To raise taxes, the lawsuits contend, these libraries must follow the previous law requiring a petition signed by 51 percent of the number of voters in the district who voted in the last presidential election. The signatures must be gathered in a 90-day time frame. In the case Kenton County, for example, that's about 30,000 signatures.
That's an almost impossible task, said Jeff Mando, attorney for the Campbell County Library District in the lawsuit.
Both sides agree that a legislative fix is needed. For members of the tea party, they want voters to have a say in tax increases. The state could resolve the issue by either resting the power of library tax increases with an elected body, most likely the fiscal court, or making library boards elected post, Hermes said.
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