You may have read or heard about some recent interactions between the Geauga County Public Library (GCPL) and the County Commissioners concerning the half mil bond issue for capital improvements that will be on the November ballot. If approved by the voters living in the library district, the issue will raise $24 Million to pay for a mix of new library buildings and expansion or improvements at others. The principal and interest on the bonds would be repaid over 30 years, with the annual cost to property owners projected at about $16 per $100,000 of taxable property value. So if the taxable value of your home is $250,000, the annual cost to you would be approximately $40 (@11 cents a day) and over the course of 30 years the total cost would be approximately $1200.
Whether it is a property tax to raise operating funds or a tax to pay the principal and interest on capital improvement bonds, the Ohio legislature has put in place very specific procedures about how the “power of the purse” is to be exercised with respect to requests to use property taxes for public library funding. Reduced to its essence, the law provides that the library trustees decide if and when to ask for a levy or bond issue that would tax property owners and the voters in the district, whether they own property or not, get to decide whether there will be a tax by voting yes or no. The recent interactions between the library and the County Commissioners came about because Ohio law requires that the County Commissioners “confirm” and “certify” requests for a vote on new property taxes made by the library trustees as long as the requests are made in accordance with the law.
During the August 8 meeting of the County Commissioners, they expressed their unhappiness about not having any real say in whether the bond issue requested by the library should be placed on the ballot. As a library trustee, I was one of the representatives of GCPL that attended the August 8 meeting. The Commissioners asked what role the library thought they had and on behalf of the Library Board I told them that it was our understanding that their role was to merely to confirm and certify the library’s submission of a proposed property tax to the voters as long as the request complied with Ohio law. In other words, they did not have the authority to substitute their judgment for that of the library trustees as to whether the tax request should be placed on the ballot. Although they admitted that their own legal counsel had told them essentially the same thing, the Commissioners wondered why the Ohio legislature would give them no real say about the need for the tax? The inference that can be drawn from their comments during the meeting is that they felt they, as the elected representatives of the county voters, should have the authority to keep library requests for funding off the ballot if they as commissioners were not persuaded a new tax was necessary.
I cannot say for sure why the Ohio Legislature drafted the procedures governing library requests for funding through property taxes the way it did. But I am convinced that it is a very good thing that the law doesn’t give the Commissioners the right to override the judgment of library trustees as to if and when to ask the voters to approve new property taxes for the library. Public library districts like GCPL are independent governmental subdivisions of the State. Although GCPL is a “county” district library, it is not a subordinate entity of the County. Both the library and the County are creatures of the State. The State has given the County Commissioners charge of much of the county’s business, but the county library system is the charge of the Library trustees. How to operate and finance the library is not within the scope and the responsibility of the County Commissioners. Preserving and respecting this division of powers is likely at the heart of the explanation for why their role is limited to confirming and certifying the library’s submission of a bond issue to the library district’s voters. If the Commissioners were to have the authority to prevent a library’s request for additional funding through a new property tax from being put to a vote, the independent nature of the library as a governmental entity would effectively be destroyed. The way things are right now is how they should be – the library trustees have the authority to exercise their judgment as to if and when to ask for additional property taxes, it is the voting public they must persuade not the County Commissioners, and it is the voters that have the final say.
For Town Hall meeting times and locations, please read here.
Raymond Rundelli has been a Geauga County Public Library Board trustee since 2006, a Geauga County resident since 1998, a father since 1995, a husband since 1989, a practicing attorney since 1985, and a patron of libraries in Ohio and other places since 1968.