Tea Party Wages War on Public Libraries
Photo Credit: yaskii/ Shutterstock.com
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
In September 2012 the Library Board of Pulaski County, Kentucky raised property taxes $1 per year for a typical homeowner to maintain the existing level of services in its five libraries. Voters were not given the opportunity to reject the increase; in 2006 however, they were and resoundingly approved a much larger increase to finance a new library.
But in 2006 the county and the country did not have a Tea Party. That grassroots movement sprang up early 2009 in fury at the federal government’s attempt to help millions of people facing foreclosure stay in their homes. In 2010 it escalated into a full-throated attack on the federal government’s attempt to expand medical care access to tens of millions. By 2012 the Tea Party movement’s virulent anti-government, anti-tax philosophy and take-no-prisoners, I’m-not-my-brother’s-keeper attitude had come to define American politics.
Pulaski County Tea Partiers, justifying their fury by noting the $1 increase had not been voted on by the people began circulating a petition to dissolve the library tax district completely. The effort’s leader declared her group would stop accumulating signatures only if all members of the current library board resigned.
The board did not resign and ultimately the petitioners found they had too little time to gather the necessary signatures. But the Tea Party had demonstrated its strength and revealed its willingness to use scorched earth tactics.
A year before the Pulaski library district raised property taxes without asking voter permission, the Campbell County Library Board proposed a $20-per-year tax increase to finance the construction of a new library in the underserved southern part of the county. It would submit the proposal to voters on the November 2012 ballot.
In six public hearings Tea Party members tried to stop the project from being on the ballot. When they failed they asked a lawyer to identify ways to halt the project. He came across a 1964 statute that prohibited library taxing district formed by a petition from voters—as the Campbell County district was—to change its tax rate without a petition signed by at least 51 percent of voters in the last election. In January 2012, 11 months before the voters were to decide the issue (they rejected the project) several Tea Party members went to court. A few months later Tea Party members in Kenton, a neighboring county, did the same.
Library districts argued that they were governed by a 1979 law enacted when high inflation threatened to erode basic services like sewers, sanitation, roads, fire protection and libraries. That law allowed the voters to establish a special purpose taxing district with the authority to raise taxes by 4 percent per year without a popular vote. For 34 years public libraries had operated under that statute. Until the Tea Party suit no one had questioned their right to do so.
In April 2013 two circuit court judges upheld the Tea Party’s argument. Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward ruled that the earlier statute trumped the 1979 law. “…(A) library tax created by a petition of the people of a county can only be changed by a petition of the people of that county.” Little more than a week later circuit court judge Patricia Summe ruled that Kenton County likewise had been improperly raising taxes since its founding in 1967. The courts ordered Campbell County to roll back its rates to 1978 levels and Kenton County back to 1967.
By July, Tea Party members had filed suits against three more county libraries in northern Kentucky. The courts’ decisions could have wide repercussions since 90 percent of library funding in Kentucky comes from local property taxes and 79 out of 106 library districts in Kentucky would be affected by these rulings.