Foes Slug It Out Over Louisville Library Tax Proposal

Published November 1, 2007

Louisville, Kentucky is enmeshed in a debate over whether to create a new taxing district to provide more money for the city’s public libraries. A measure to pass a library tax is slated to appear on the November election ballot.

Opponents of the plan believe the metro government’s $200 million Library Master Plan can be accomplished without raising taxes.

Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner suggests using funding that will soon be available as old bond issues are paid off for big-ticket capital projects such as Slugger Field, where the Triple A minor league baseball Louisville Bats play.

“We are very well positioned for future bond payments,” Heiner said. “Why not use a portion of that funding being freed up to finance a new 20-year bond issue for a drastically improved library system?”

‘Fee’ on Workers, Profits

Heiner derides the tax proposal for its projected annual cost of $40 million and its plan to remove the library from the local government’s oversight.

The plan calls for an occupational license “fee” of 20 cents for every $100 to be collected from individuals on employment earnings in Jefferson County. Raising the city’s occupational tax by 0.2 percent would cost workers earning $38,000 an additional $76 a year; those making $50,000 would pay another $100.

The same tax rate would apply to the net profits of business activities.

Mayor’s Flip-Flop

The initiative also calls for creation of a five-member board, appointed by the Louisville mayor, that would no longer be under Louisville Metro government’s “umbrella.”

Heiner points out Democratic Mayor Jerry Abramson was against the tax before deciding to support it.

“Last October, our mayor stood in front of the TV cameras and talked about building new libraries without raising taxes. Now he’s for [the new tax],” Heiner said. “What’s changed?”

If the initiative passes, it will give the mayor access to the library’s $16.5 million appropriation from City Hall.

Temporary Funding Alternative

Heiner’s plan would produce $25 million a year for seven years, which would raise $175 million by 2015. Library director Craig Buthod has said the remaining $25 million could be raised by private contributions.

The Library Master Plan approved by the Metro Council two years ago calls for improving the 17-branch system, with a major share of new funds going toward building three new 40,000 square foot regional libraries and work on the city’s downtown 300,000 square foot facility.

Buthod, other local bureaucrats, and labor groups are aggressively promoting the plan as a way to free the library from having to compete against other city agencies for funding.

Competition for Funds

Supporters employ a Web site dedicated primarily to passage of the tax to vent their frustration with the fact that the library must “vie for limited funding from the Metro government general fund.”

But that’s not a bad thing, Heiner said. “Competition for funds is good,” Heiner explained. “It makes agencies perform better and provide more services to citizens.”

Heiner contends allowing local unelected board members to operate separately from local government goes against the spirit and goals behind the voter-approved merger of city and county governments, which occurred on January 1, 2003.

Resigned in Protest

The substance of the tax proposal and the strategies being employed to persuade voters to pass it caused Norman Morton, the library’s marketing director, to leave.

“I resigned because this doesn’t make any sense,” Morton said in a phone interview. “There really isn’t public support for this tax. It’s being done out of desperation.”

In July, Morton told the Louisville Metro Council the library foundation, which takes most of its cues from Buthod, “diverted funding from library services and programs” to fund the services of “an expensive consulting firm from Seattle” during the petition drive that netted more than 14,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

City Employees, Facilities Misused

Along with using city employees on the clock to “seek out and solicit petition signers on city time,” Morton says signing stations were set up in every branch, despite “a strict prohibition against any kind of political activity on library property.”

Morton says management experts from the private sector should be better employed to help offset the library’s notoriously poor management. His career includes a stint as vice president of J. Walter Thompson U.S.A. in Chicago, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies.

“People who come out of school with a Master’s in Library Science often don’t have any idea on how to manage,” Morton said.

Morton said his concerns “were dismissed out of hand” by library officials.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

New Libraries Without New Taxes, Councilman Hal Heiner’s proposal to finance Louisville’s public libraries without new taxes:

Libraries Yes! Web site supporting a library tax for Louisville: