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Librarians: Ky. bill could endanger nonpartisan mission of state's public libraries

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This story has been updated.

Some library advocates say a bill passed by the Kentucky legislatures Wednesday poses a threat to the nonpartisan mission of libraries.

Senate Bill 167, sponsored by Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler of Pikeville, gives judge-executives in most counties in the state the ability to decide who sits on public library boards. These boards have taxing authority and decide how local libraries are run. They play a role in renovations, programming, finances, personnel and even what books wind up on the shelves.

Prior to the bill passing, the library board filled vacancies by sending a list of nominees to the state librarian, who then passes them on to be finalized by a county judge-executive. Now, if judge-executives in counties with taxing districts opt into the system, they'll be the ones making the selections.

The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 20-10 earlier this month and the House 52-37 on Wednesday, the day before Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s 10-day veto period began. It now goes to the governor's desk. Similar measures have been proposed in recent legislative sessions, but failed to pass amid opposition from local advocates.

Wheeler, the bill’s sponsor, says it will make library boards better stewards of taxpayer dollars.

According to the Kentucky Association of Counties, there were 25 counties in Kentucky where the local library got a larger cut of property taxes than the county government. Wheeler says that’s a problem.

“Those libraries get more money than what they get to maintain roads and things. That’s a little bit insane in my opinion,” Wheeler said. “I’m not saying libraries are there for books only, clearly they’re more than that, but you know you can get 99.9% of the great classics of history on your iPhone for free.”

Republican Senator John Schickel, who's carried similar bills in the past, celebrated its passage.

"The libraries have had a stranglehold on Kentucky taxpayers without any accountability," he said.

Property tax rates for the library tax districts used to be set by local library boards, but a bill passed two years ago took that decision out of their hands. Now, only fiscal courts can approve an increase to the tax rate.

Kenton County Public Library executive director Dave Schroeder is against the legislation, which he says will bring partisan politics into library boards.

“We have a long tradition not only in Kentucky, but across the country, that libraries are here to serve everyone,” Schroeder said. “My opinion is the more that we can remain an independent unit that is outside of politics the better we can do our job.”

Wheeler says this bill will make library boards accountable to elected officials, and, by extension, voters.

“These are stewards of public monies and to some degree if you’re a steward of public money, whether you want to be political or not, you’re part of the political process because you’re dealing with public funds,” Wheeler said. “And, if you’re dealing with public funds, to me it’s not really even a library question, it’s an accountability question.”

Beyond changing who controls library boards, the bill allows library funds to be used for other purposes, including leasing buildings for educational institutions. County fiscal courts would also have to approve library expenditures for capital projects exceeding $1 million. Louisville and Lexington’s library systems — and a handful of libraries in non-taxing districts — are organized differently and wouldn’t be impacted by the bill.

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A study compiled by the Legislative Research Commission says over $290 million is held in reserve by public libraries across the state, excluding the Lexington Public Library, Louisville Free Public Library and a few others data was unavailable for.

Wheeler says library boards are sitting on too much money.

“We’re talking about a huge amount of public funds that are under management. Library boards as an entity, as far as having cash on hand, are probably some of the richest entities in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Wheeler said. “They’ve got over a quarter of a billion dollars in cash reserves on hand. And we can’t forget that these are taxpayer dollars.”

Lindsey Westerfield is the director of the Russell County Public Library system and chairs the Kentucky Public Library Association. She says her organization recommends libraries to have at least three months worth of salaries and benefits in reserve, and three to six months’ worth of operating expenses.

“I think if a library is working to consistently achieve higher standards it means that they’re consistently working to provide better and more and more effective services to their community based on their community’s needs and wants,” Westerfield said.

•••

Lawrence County Judge Executive Phil Carter told a legislative committee earlier this month that he’s argued with his local library board over its reserves, its property tax rate and an expansion he believed was unnecessary and expensive.

“It was a disaster,” Carter said. “We just need some oversight.”

The county’s public library director Carlie Pelfrey disagreed with Carter’s testimony. In an interview, Pelfry characterized Carter as “willingly uneducated” about how his county’s library operates and said the board has a “non-existent” relationship with the local leader.

“This really just, I think, boils down to him in particular, but a lot of other county judge-executives, wanting control of public libraries,” Pelfry said. “When you get someone that’s wanting control, wanting fiscal control, wanting to dip into library reserves then it’s absolutely destructive for every library in the state.”

Carter has been at odds with the Lawrence County Public Library for years. When the board attempted to fill a vacancy and selected nominees, Pelfry says the judge-executive “ignored those two names” and attempted to appoint previous Lawrence County attorney Michael Hogan to the board. The board then hired an attorney to challenge Carter’s actions, though no suit was ultimately filed. Hogan has since been federally indicted for wire fraud.

Pelfry said giving judge-executives more power over library boards endangers the nonpartisanship of public libraries.

“Tax money that is accrued for the purpose of a library should be spent for a public library and not to support another agenda, such as a charter school or things of that nature,” she said. “It’s an undisguised power grab is really what it is.”

•••

The bill has changed during its journey through the legislature this year. Wheeler eliminated a provision that would end the terms of all active board members terms in the state, and also raised the cap for capital expenditures library boards could make without fiscal court approval to $1 million, instead of $500,000.

A House Committee Substitute was passed as the final version of the bill. It amended the board appointment process to allow for the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives to submit two additional recommendations for unfilled board seats after its initial two before a judge-executive can appoint a candidate of their choosing. The substitute also exempts library construction fund awards made before the legislation takes effect from being subject to fiscal court approval.

Wheeler said judge-executives can still keep the current system in place if they want, but otherwise aggrieved library board members can seek recourse at the ballot box.

“I guess they could go out and campaign against the judge,” Wheeler said. “I’m a legislator, they can repeal me in the next election,” Wheeler said.

McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer doesn’t think he would replace his county’s library board. He sees the local library as a partner to the fiscal court and is happy with the amount of input he has and the way they conduct their business.

“As of right now I think we’ve got a strong library board and I’m certainly pleased with everybody on there and how they’re doing,” he said. “There’s always potential that a judge-executive would want to have more control over who’s on the board at some point. I don’t really see that happening here.”

Kenton County Public Library executive director Dave Schroeder feels there was already sufficient accountability on boards’ behalf. He wants to safeguard libraries as institutions open to all with sufficient capabilities to give communities the services they need.

“Libraries are one of the few free open institutions for everyone,” Schroeder said. “Once politics come into play that could all change.”

Additional reporting on this story was done by Capitol Reporter Ryland Barton.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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