A Library without a Tax

Madisonville, KY – Reports say library usage across the country and the Commonwealth has gone up significantly during the recession. But as patrons rush to take advantage of free materials and services, one Western Kentucky library is just trying to keep its head above water. Angela Hatton explains.

It's 10:30 on a Wednesday morning and a semi-circle of parents and children sit together on floor mats for Story Time at the Madisonville-Hopkins County Public Library.

This crowd is mostly one and two year olds. Later in the afternoon, there's another Story Time program focused on ages three to five. Library Director Lisa Wigley says programs like these are an important part of what the library offers to the community.

"Our strong suit is public service; we are marvelous in programming. Our short suit, as you can see, our building. It's very, very old. It's over a hundred years old. We'd like to have something on one level, but there are actually three and a half levels to this building and we've acquired the building next door."

Right now the Madisonville Library utilizes only two floors of their structure for public space. Wigley would like to renovate the under-utilized parts of the library for a new meeting room, a concert hall, and even a children's science museum. There's just one obstacle: funding.

Madisonville-Hopkins County Public Library is one of only a handful of libraries in the Commonwealth that do not receive funding through a taxing district. Library officials have asked for one on several occasions, most recently in 2008, but the measure continues to fail in the fiscal court. Instead, the library's finances fall under the city and county budget.

"So when the city and county fall on hard times, guess what's the first thing they cut . . . library. So we have lost a tremendous amount of revenue for this year."

The library lost five thousand dollars in state funding in fiscal year 2008 and have not had an increase in their local funding in several years, despite requests. Wigley says because of that she has had to cut some staff positions and outreach programs. She has also had to shut down the library on Fridays to help manage the tight budget situation.

Wigley says during a down economy, it doesn't make sense to cut library services because people tend to gravitate toward the free options the library offers.

"One thing that we've really noticed is that our DVD checkout has doubled. Because people don't have the money to go out to the movie anymore, so what do they do? They come to the library, check out three or four DVD's and they're set for the weekend."

Wigley says patrons also come to the library to use the internet computers, which are always busy. A recent non-commissioned Harris Poll reports 75 percent of responders have a library card, up ten percent from two years ago. Libraries across Kentucky are seeing more people becoming regular patrons.

The McCracken County Public Library in Paducah has seen tremendous growth since they lobbied for and received a library taxing district in 1998. Director Marie Liang says today the library has been able to improve their facility through technology updates and floor space expansions. She says that wouldn't have been possible without the additional funding from the tax.

"Definitely, especially in the area of the internet and the web presence. Many, many people come in to use our computers."

Liang says when her library lobbied for a taxing district, they had usage statistics to back up their argument. But she says the most significant reason the tax passed was what she calls the "tremendous support" of local officials.

Hopkins County officials have not been as supportive as those in McCracken were ten years ago. The county library's proposal for a 3 and a half cent per hundred dollar property tax failed 4-3 last year. Hopkins County Judge-Executive Donnie Carroll says local government can't in good conscience pass any new taxes.

"In Western Kentucky since 2006, February 1, 2006, there's been over 6,343 jobs lost. So, y'know, to say you want to enact a tax on somebody when we don't know how everybody's going to be making it now."

Library Director Lisa Wigley knows this isn't the best time to be asking for more money.

"I too understand the plight of the people not wanting to pay any more money. If we could just call it a love offering. If we could do that, they'd do it in a minute. But, y'know, nobody likes the word tax."

Wigley doesn't expect the library tax issue to come before the fiscal court again soon. Right now, the library is trying creative methods of getting some extra cash. In addition to Friends of the Library booksales, the library also sells some books through eBay, and holds fundraisers on large and small scales. Wigley says for now, the staff at Madisonville-Hopkins County Library will continue to offer as much as they can on their limited budget.