Contributing writers Lindsey Coleman interviewed Calloway County Judge Executive Larry Elkins in her story “Calloway County Library expansion causes community controversy.”
Lindsey Coleman: What would your alternative plans be for the library if they don’t choose the $8 million extension plan?
Larry Elkins The Library Board of Trustees has legal authority and will decide on how much is spent on a library building. The library taxing district, by the end of 2016, will have deposited in local banks, close to $4 million. It is my position that under no circumstances should the library build a building that costs more than that amount. The Library Board Feasibility Committee in March of this year recommended spending $3 million in cash and selling $5 million in bonds. Annual payments would be as much as $349,000 or if you extend it for 30 years $288,000. Ridiculous.
LC: How are you hoping that the community will respond to your statements about letting their opinions be heard about the library expansion.
LE: I have been a County Judge Executive for a long time. This is not the first issue I have addressed where there are differing opinions. The community response has been much as I expected. I anticipated an organized campaign by the library insiders, but maybe has been a bit more venomous than I have experienced previously. I expected opinion writers in the local newspaper to have pretty much unlimited access. I do believe the public discussions have provided sunshine on a very important issue.
LC: Our current library is less than half the size of what state standards say a library would need to be for Calloway County’s population. What are your thoughts on our current library space? Is it adequate for our growing population and size?
LE: I would insert here I am not opposed to the library renovation and affordable expansion. That the Library Trustees would consider an $8 million, or for that matter a $5 million expansion, with decades of debt should concern everyone. The state standards that everyone refers to is a document created by the Kentucky Department of Archives and other library enthusiasts. I do not know the methodology used to establish these standards. Those interested in learning more may go online. Upon request I will provide the link. I assume the standards were established in a thoughtful way. Local Trustees are relying on population numbers to determine needed square footage that include college students. It seems reasonable that to use those numbers you should take into consideration the 60,000 square feet in the Waterfield Library which is located less than a mile away.
LC: Will new library board members be appointed soon? It is my understanding that Ryan Alessi’s term as president has ended but he can’t leave office because he hasn’t been replaced. Do you have any candidates in mind?
LE: I will respond to the last part of the question first. At some point, I will be forced to choose from two people for each open position. The two candidates were selected for my consideration by the current Library Board of Trustees. This process which is established by Kentucky Law effectively restricts discretion the Judge Executive has when appointing Library Board members. As for Mr. Alessi, it is my understanding he has moved from the community with no plans to return. Whether a non-resident can serve on a local taxing district board would be an interesting legal question. As to when I will choose from the names provided, the timing of the appointment will be when I have all the information I believe necessary to make the best decision I can for the future of the library and community. I do not really know any of the candidates. These appointments are very important. They will not be made in the shadows. The candidates will be asked to a public meeting for a public interview.
LC: I read in one of your statements regarding WPSD’s segment about the Calloway County Library Taxing District that you would like to see taxpayer money spent on something other than the “Cadillac $8 million proposal.” You mentioned concerns about school taxes, the animal shelter, inadequate space in the courthouse, etc. What steps are being made to address some of those issues?
LE: Refer to my quote provided in the Murray Ledger and Times. “ I request decision makers at the library realize we are one community with a multitude of needs.” I went on to give examples. The point I was making was, we can’t and shouldn’t, raise taxes to meet every need. Perhaps I should have been more direct. The Library Board has extensive powers including raising taxes. I was hoping they would consider the overall needs of the community rather than being selfish. I was hoping they would consider some in our community are struggling in their personal lives and an additional $25 to $50 per year in addition to everything else could make a difference in their lives.
LC: According to the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives date, Calloway County brought in a total revenue of $39.39 per person in FY 2014-15, which is half of what Marshall County brought in per person ($75.79), and well below McCracken County $(49.96). Is this something we should be concerned about?
LE: It is interesting expansion proponents use Marshall and McCracken as library tax comparisons. I believe you will find citizens of these counties are taxed more heavily than most areas, including a rather large payroll tax. To reply to your question is this something we should be concerned about, I would say it is something we should be proud of. We are a growing community, they are not. People here are building houses and you need only to drive down 12th Street to realize the confidence investors have in our community. There are many factors contributing to our success. It is my position lower local taxes is a very important factor. Those communities, in recent years, have elected more conservative leaders. While some in our community are looking with envy at government buildings in other communities, it is likely people in other communities are looking in our direction with questions as to why Calloway is growing and they are not.
LC: In an email obtained by the Murray State News, you said. “ We can’t and shouldn’t raise taxes to meet every need and satisfy the wishes of every group,” yet the Library Board voted to LOWER taxes on August 10th. Are you concerned that they will raise taxes in the future if they decide to expand?
LE: Between 2010 and 2015, the Library Trustees raised tax rates at levels that resulted in their tax receipts nearly doubling. Whatever their motives for the August rate reduction, it is certainly a welcome development. I am concerned taxes will have to go up in the future. If you double or triple the size of your building you can expect in fixed costs such as utilities, insurance, maintenance, debt payments and etc. There are also requirements other than square footage that are required to meet state library standards. These include, staffing, training, and others. I will be requesting a copy of their analysis regarding what an annual library budget might look like following an expansion.
LC: On Monday when you spoke at the Concerned Taxpayers of Western Kentucky meeting, did you speak about library taxes, and if so, what was their response?
LE: Prior to answering your comment, let me state it is odd the concern the press and the friends of the library group have with the concerned taxpayers. I have been in office almost 18 years and if memory serves, I have spoken to that group twice that I can remember. As part of what I do, I address different groups with varying interests and opinions. At the most recent meeting, I was asked about the library tax, the City’s proposed payroll tax, and other topics. The “Concerned Taxpayers” are a group much like others that have varying interests and opinions. To summarize, they expressed concern that an appointed board, a board not elected by the voters, could have so much power. There are some in our community that would portray those who disagree with their position as people that hate little children and people that read books and must be some kind of right wing nuts. The local library is funded by taxes paid by everyone. For those in the community who think because of their social status their opinions are somehow more important than someone else, that thinking is unacceptable.
LC: When was the last library board meeting you attended?
LE: I have attended at least two board meetings this year. One during the budgeting process, the other during the selection process for the architect. At the budget meeting the board configured their meeting to where half the trustees had their backs to the public in attendance making it difficult to follow. I do recall some discussion about whether to renew a subscription of some type and some talk about raises for the lower paid employees. In addition to the meetings, I have attended at least two library events this year, one an annual children’s program and the other a local author’s book signing that was held off campus at the Weaks Center. It doesn’t make me a hero, but the organizer of the Weaks event later told me that of the elected officials invited, I was the only one who showed up. Also, I recently initiated a meeting with library management and staff in a good faith effort to resolve differences.