This post first appeared in Alternet.
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.
If the courts’ decisions are upheld and extended, Campbell County’s library budget would be slashed by 55 percent, Anderson County’s by 60 percent, Montgomery County by 70.
After the first court decision Eric Hermes, one of the lead plaintiffs in the original lawsuit proclaimed, “The people of Campbell County won.” To him the tea party had struck a blow for freedom. “Our country was founded upon those taking action against tyrannic government.”
Tyrannic government? Even though libraries believed they had the authority under the 1979 law to raise taxes 4 percent per year actually they exercised that authority judiciously. From 1978 to 2012 Campbell County raised its library taxes by a total of $45 or 2 percent per year, far below the rate of inflation. Since 1967, Anderson County’s library taxing district increased its taxes about 1 percent per year and had not raised the rate since 2009.
During 2012, Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen conducted a survey of all special taxing districts in Kentucky. The auditor’s final report cited library districts as models of transparency and accountability, with strong governance and excellent fiscal oversight.
None of that placated the tea party. Right after the Campbell County court decision they asked the judge to place in escrow $2.7 million, more than 55 percent of the library’s tax revenue. Doing so would effectively decimate the library system.
Kentucky legislators could fix the problem, but they’ve indicated they won’t do anything until a higher court has ruled on it. That could be a year away. Meanwhile, cities have to budget for the next fiscal year and any new debt will be considered more risky by investors.
It is both instructive and revealing that the tea party would challenge so energetically such a hallowed institution as the public library. One hundred-eighty years almost to the day the Kentucky circuit courts issued their decisions, the good citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire, created a radical, uniquely American concept — a taxpayer-supported library. All town residents, regardless of income, had the right to freely share the community’s stored knowledge. Their only obligation was to return the information on time and in good condition, allowing others to exercise that same right.
By 1910 all states had a public library network. Today 9,000 central buildings plus about 7,500 branches have made public libraries one of the most ubiquitous of all American institutions. Campbell County’s 63,000 residents possess almost 30,000 library cards. Kenton County’s library system’s million annual visitors not only borrow books and DVDs; they use its computers and its meeting rooms and rely on librarians to help them do their homework or ferret out information about jobs and government services.
The tea party argues that a library tax increase of any size, no matter how trivial, is unwarranted because of economic hardship. A far more compelling argument is that times of economic distress demand a larger, not as smaller information commons. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, public libraries were serving 60 percent of the population. They had so proven their value that very few libraries closed their doors during the 1930s. Indeed, between 1930 and 1940, the nation became home to 765 new ones. In a time of soup lines and economic destitution, the library was known as the “bread line of the spirit.” The packhorse librarians of Kentucky became famous for their willingness to ride horses with saddlebags full of books to rural households.
In response to the tea party lawsuit, one Kentucky mother wrote about the enormous financial benefit her family gained from participating in the information commons. Her family of six visits the library regularly. They have access to over 550,000 books, CDs, newspapers, magazines, movies and video games. The amount of money her family saves by using the libraries’ many resources far surpasses the property tax they pay.
Which is the foundational principle of the public library. We all chip in a little bit to gain access to a free resource beyond our individual budgets. The public library proves that sharing is the wisest of all investments.
On the Northern Kentucky tea party blog, Legate Damar asks, “Why should my neighbors be able to rent non-educational DVDs and video games at a cost to the taxpayer when I rent mine at Redbox? Redbox charges a $1.27 per movie including taxes which I think is a steal.” First of all, no one rents anything from the library. They borrow it from their community. Second, the economic case for going to the library rather than Redbox is incontestable. Assuming I borrow just one DVD a week, I’ll save some $70 a year, as much or more than my household pays in taxes for the entire library.
Revealingly, the tea party’s vigilance over the dollar we spend for public services doesn’t seem to extend to the dollar we spend for private services, even when they are supplied by regulated monopolies. In Kentucky the rates of cable companies, the phone companies, the electric utilities are all subject to government oversight. But when Kentucky utilities recently proposed to increase utility bills 10 times more than any proposed library tax the tea party was MIA. According to the FCC, cable companies raised their prices at twice the rate of inflation from 1995 to 2010, boosting the average household’s bill by an astonishing $400 a year. The tea party circulated no petitions. Its members filed no lawsuits.
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.
If the courts uphold the decision most counties in Kentucky will require a 51 percent vote simply to keep their libraries open. The turnout in off year elections is notoriously low and negative voters usually turn out in much higher numbers. If the initiatives lose each Kentucky household will be $50 richer. But their communities will be immeasurably poorer.