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Proposed Garland County ballot measure would nix property tax that funds local library

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Proposed Garland County ballot measure would nix property tax that funds local library

Jul 09, 2024 | 8:07 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
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Proposed Garland County ballot measure would nix property tax that funds local library
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The petition seeking to eliminate the property tax that pays the Garland County Library's maintenance and operating expenses. (Courtesy of George Pritchett)

Garland County residents are circulating a petition for a countywide ballot measure that would eliminate the property tax funding the local library.

If successful, it would be Arkansas’ second county in two years to reduce its library system’s tax revenue with a public vote.

The 1.6-mill tax has been in place since county voters approved it in 1998. It brings in roughly $3.6 million annually for Garland County Library maintenance and operations, library executive director Adam Webb said.

Reggie Cowan, an advocate for the petition, wrote in a letter to the editor in Sunday’s Hot Springs Sentinel-Record that eliminating the tax would “improve oversight of library spending and overall budget management” and that the library would still be able to operate due to its millions set aside in cash reserves.

Cowan’s letter disputed two letters in the Sentinel-Record a week earlier that called the petition an effort to defund the library.

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“There is no petition to defund the library that I’m aware of; however, there is one that would ask if you would prefer the library be funded with property taxes or county revenue,” Cowan wrote.

George Pritchett, another supporter of the petition, said he agreed with Cowan that the petition would change the amount and method of funding rather than completely defund the library.

Webb said the library’s cash reserves are not meant to be used for operational purposes. He added that he bases the library’s budget every year on “anticipated revenue,” which he cannot do if the tax is repealed and there is no anticipated revenue.

“It’s hilarious for [anyone] to say abolishing our tax isn’t the same as defunding the library,” he said. “It’s absurd, and because it’s not recurring revenue, once it’s gone, it’s gone. I haven’t gone down that dark road yet to try to figure out how long I could keep the library going without any recurring revenue, but it certainly wouldn’t be in perpetuity… We’d be closing Jan. 2 if this passes.”

The library’s funding sources

State law dictates that a public library system can use its property tax revenue for administrative expenses, repairs and upkeep, advertising, utilities, insurance and a range of other things under the umbrella of “maintaining and operating” the library. Another statute says libraries’ property tax dollars “shall not be diverted from the use for which they were levied.”

The Garland County Library’s separate reserve fund has built up over time from gifts, donations, “loose change we find in the couches around here, state aid to public libraries [and] anything that isn’t restricted by the tax,” Webb said.

Pritchett claimed property values have risen since 1998 to the point that the library receives too much tax revenue compared to what it spends.

“We want to bring the money that they get for operations in line because that excess builds up into an increased reserve amount,” he said. “That reserve is from the tax-funded portion of it, not from the private donations.”

The Garland County Library’s 2024 budget anticipated $4.1 million in revenue and $3.9 in expenses, leaving about $200,000. Webb said having some money left over is important since tax revenue does not come in steadily throughout the year and expenses can change from one year to the next.

“We have a little bit that we float from year to year just to make sure we have enough to pay the bills between tax settlements,” Webb said.

The library recently launched a fundraising campaign for a planned expansion, according to the Sentinel-Record. Webb told the newspaper that the library has $5 million in reserves with an $8.5 million fundraising goal, and he emphasized that no tax money will be used for the project.

“It’s really frustrating when you’re trying to do things as a good steward [of people’s money] and then having this surprise attack dropped in your lap,” Webb told the Advocate.

Amendment 38 of the Arkansas Constitution requires at least 100 people to support any changes to a property tax that funds a local library and to submit the petition at least 30 days before the election in which they want the matter on the ballot.

Pritchett said he and others have been collecting signatures for the past month and hope to gather “a few hundred” and submit them in the next two or three weeks. If the signatures are verified, the measure would be on the November ballot.

A statewide issue

Library systems in other Arkansas counties have seen recent scrutiny from the public about how much money they have and how they spend it. For the past three years, the Marion County Quorum Court has refused to approve a merit pay raise for the county library director, contrary to the recommendations of the library board.

Public libraries vs. quorum courts: an ongoing local conflict throughout Arkansas

In November 2022, a narrowly-approved ballot measure cut Craighead County libraries’ funding in half after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library. The library system reduced its hours and made staff cuts at the end of last year to adjust to the budget cuts.

Pritchett said the effort to eliminate the Garland County library tax is based on the one in Craighead County, which was led by a group called Craighead Citizens Taxed Enough. The group claimed the library was overfunded, citing financial information obtained via the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Saline County residents repeatedly mentioned the Craighead County vote last year while decrying “obscene” and “inappropriate” content, often pertaining to LGBTQ+ issues and sex education, in the county’s library system. 

Their objections followed the passage of Act 372 of 2023, which would alter Arkansas libraries’ processes for reconsidering material and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute content that some consider “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” A federal judge temporarily blocked two portions of Act 372 in July 2023 before it went into effect, and the case is scheduled for trial in October.

Plaintiffs seek permanent injunction of Arkansas’ blocked library obscenity law

Saline County Library staff received several FOIA requests last year from residents who wanted LGBTQ+ books kept away from minors, said Patty Hector, the former library director who was fired by the county judge in October. The residents said at quorum court meetings that they believed both the financial information and the library’s slow FOIA response time were signs of misconduct.

The Garland County effort is driven exclusively by financial concerns, not library content, Pritchett said.

“There’s been a substantial amount of discussion about that in Garland County, books in the children’s section that are very explicit in nature and probably belong in a different section of the library,” he said. “However, I have no opinion about that. I personally trust that the library board itself properly vets the books and what they put on the shelves and where they put them.”

Webb said there has not been any discussion so far at local government meetings about the availability of certain library books.

At Monday’s Garland County Quorum Court meeting, a few residents spoke in favor of both the library and Julie Brenner Nix, whom the quorum court unanimously approved to the county library board.

“In our county, there’s an overwhelming majority of our citizens [who] support the library and a small but loud minority trying to politicize our library,” said Stacey Herron, a Democratic candidate for the quorum court.