The latest version of the Kentucky budget, unveiled by House Republicans on March 5, could spell trouble for libraries around the state with its $2.5 million cut in direct aid for the institutions.
The Kentucky Senate’s budget, passed committee Thursday, also includes the proposed cuts. The budget saw its first discussion in the general assembly Monday.
While $5.3 million will still be available for libraries, the budget contains strict language limiting its use to construction costs. This could disproportionately affect libraries in rural and low-income areas, leaving the systems with less money to spend on programming, staffing and payroll. For some systems, this could even mean closing the doors permanently.
Susan Baier, McCracken County Public Library executive director, told The Sun that this wouldn’t have major consequences for local patrons, but that’s not what she’s concerned with.
“The impact here in McCracken County would be minimal, but it’s bigger than McCracken County,” said Baier, who chairs the advocacy committee of the Kentucky Library Association. “There’s some libraries where this could truly be devastating.
“Not just fewer books on the shelves, but fewer hours or days open, fewer people working, and, in some more extreme cases, possible closure.”
McCracken’s funding comes mostly from property taxes, but not all county systems are tax districts. Many of the more rural libraries in the Purchase Area are highly dependent on state aid. The Ballard-Carlisle County Public Library gets 98% of its budget through the $22,000 in state aid it receives. Hickman County gets nearly 40% of its budget through it.
The Marshall County Public Library system, due to open a new Benton branch in coming weeks, will be unable to provide the extended hours it was planning and will be working with less programming dollars. The Fulton County system would have to cut a good deal of programming. In Calloway County, its system would have to make do with fewer funds for materials.
Livingston County’s library system would have no money for materials if this budget passed, as it uses all of its state allotment on new books, movies, CDs, games and other media. This would force the system to either request additional funds from the Livingston fiscal court or use up its programming funds through its Friends of the Library group.
“Since we are a small library, our biggest contributor is our tangible checkouts and this would greatly affect them,” said Tracey Dismore, acting director of the system. “We were really surprised. I had no idea that the House was even considering a bill to take away state aid. Usually we have some kind of warning.”
Ballard-Carlisle County Library, in Wickliffe, is already open just two days a week because of lack of funding for operations and staffing.
“We’re already hurting,” said Mary Silgals, the volunteer director of the library. “We use everything we receive for operations and materials and paying bills.”
State Representative Steve Rudy, R-Paducah, who chairs the House budget committee, was quoted in a Lexington Herald-Leader story Wednesday saying he heard some libraries don’t need state aid. Rudy represents multiple Purchase Area counties — Ballard, Carlisle, Fulton, Hickman and McCracken — that would be affected by the proposed cut.
“There’s a lot of communities concerned about the reserves that some of these libraries have, and I think we’re going to do a deeper dive into it where we continue to have conversations,” Rudy said. “Some of them are sitting on quite a bit of cash, and I’ve been contacted from a lot of fiscal courts and county judge-executives saying our libraries keep raising taxes and we can’t do anything about it.”
State aid for local libraries has been supplied since 1952, based partially on the populations served.
The state, in Baier’s opinion, gets a good bang for its buck on the library system, which saw more than 17 million visits statewide in 2019.
“We know this is a tough budget time in Frankfort and hard decisions have to be made, but we also want Frankfort to know just what kind impact libraries are having in their districts,” she said. “This touches so many people and for what I think is a relatively modest amount of money statewide.”
Similar cuts to the budget were proposed three years ago, and Silgals has been preparing for this possibility since then. Since her library has no paid staff, Silgals has been able to hold $15,000 in reserve. She believes this could “extend the library’s survival” for more than a year, but it’s hard to project past that.
“I don’t want to sound like a fatalist but I knew this could possibly happen and it doesn’t surprise me, it just means that maybe the inevitable is going to happen sooner than what we thought,” she said.
Dismore, Silgals and Baier — along with many other area library directors — are hoping that the public will speak up for libraries by calling into the Kentucky Legislative Message Line, reachable by dialing 800-372-7181.
“If people have any kind of input about budget issues, especially how it pertains to libraries, we are encouraging them to call the legislative hotline in Frankfort and leave a message for their senators and representatives to let them know what their priorities are and if they think that public libraries should be a part of the state budget.”