Will the voters take the bait? The library tax haggle gets weird
BY CARY STEMLE and RICK REDDINGmain branch: Photo by Ben Schneider Outside the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library.The woman, who looked for all the world like an erstwhile Highlands Volvo driver, just guessing, peered at Mark Hebert incredulously. He’s not very smart, is he? She referred to Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, whom she had just seen during a panel discussion at last Wednesday’s Louisville Forum. As Hebert and his cameraman walked out of Vincenzo’s toward their SUV on Market Street near Fifth, the woman could not resist insulting Heiner, the District 19 Republican who represents the far East End, impugning his motives in the process.He’s pretty smart, Hebert rejoined.Street smart or smart-smart?Both, Hebert suggested.The woman scoffed. She went on her way.Things have become rather tense as Louisville Metro readies itself for a vote on increasing occupational taxes to pay for better libraries. The strangeness has particularly picked up in the past week or so, as the cheerleading daily newspaper has confused readers by actually running tough stories, the library director (and public face of the initiative) has gone underground and a Republican Metro Council member has stepped to the forefront of the pro-tax effort, shoulder-to-shoulder with the mayor.Further, a hastily arranged anti-tax group is sprouting legs behind a local developer, while a former library manager is doing his damnedest to let the world know about what he says were improper actions by his former boss, library director Craig Buthod, as well as other library supporters, in pushing the initiative.The public gets to vote on Nov. 6, the same day voters will cast ballots in the gubernatorial race.Norman Morton and Chris Thieneman: Photo by Ben Schneider Norman Morton and Chris Thieneman have teamed up on the Support The Libraries, Not The Tax campaign. Morton worked in management at the library for seven years; Thieneman is a developer who’s jumped into hot button issues in the paLouisville isn’t a big referendum town. There was that little merger vote, sure, but otherwise, not so much. But it has voted on providing library funding via tax before, most recently in 1991, when it went down 52-48. One complaint at that time, says Mayor Abramson’s spokesman Chad Carlton, was the lack of a plan for how the library would spend the money, and so an effort was eventually mustered to come up with a master facilities plan, which was completed in 2000. Since then, it’s been a game of wait-and-see as the library has stood in line with every other entity that wants city money.Objectively speaking, no one seems willing or able to argue that Louisville’s library system doesn’t need serious financial help. The Library Improvement Plan put forth by the library is the result of years of study, and comparisons to similar cities show Louisville’s financial support of libraries near the bottom in almost every category. The Library’s Annual Benchmark Cities Report is a dismal account: Louisville ranks last among 16 cities in branch library square footage per capita, and no better than 11th in 15 categories studied.If the tax plan passes, anyone who works in Louisville Metro will pay an additional two-tenths of one percent of his or her wages, and businesses will pay the same percentage of profits. That amounts to an extra 20 bucks per thousand dollars earned, or to cite the common example, a worker earning $38,000 a year will pay another $76 annually, about $1.50 a week.Inside the main: Photo by Ben Schneider Inside the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library.Under current projections, that would produce about $40 million annually, which supporters say is enough to fund new construction and improve library services as laid out in the Library Improvement Plan. The tax in question is the same amount, and the same type of tax, that funds the Transit Authority of River City, Carlton says.Like TARC, a five-person board appointed by the Mayor and approved by the Metro Council would manage the library. (Those names would come from the list of people who signed the petition to place the question on the ballot.) The money collected would vary each year, but proponents feel sure it would be adequate to fund library improvements and keep the branches supplied and staffed. Proponents would like to see the library removed from the annual Metro budget grind, where it’s always competing with many other seemingly worthy causes.Norman Morton left Louisville for Chicago some 50 years ago, fashioning an advertising career that he says was very good to him. He returned to his hometown in the mid-1990s and soon began volunteering at the Louisville Free Public Library. He got so involved, in fact, that his retirement ended; he joined the staff as the head of marketing and community relations. While he was there, the library’s profile grew markedly.This spring, Morton resigned over his disagreement with the plan to push for the occupational tax. He was aggrieved, he said, because while the library clearly needs a lot of help, the plan to provide it was premature.Within all such public drama, there seemingly exists a character like Norman Morton, the quintessential fly in the ointment with a penchant for drama. When the Metro Council took public comments about the referendum this summer, 44 people spoke in favor and one — Morton — spoke against. Lately he’s been sharing inside information with reporters, and he’s allied with the anti-tax group.The loquacious and white-bearded Morton says he enjoyed his time at the library and that he and director Buthod ultimately agreed to disagree. He says they parted with a handshake in late spring, and that he harbors no ill will toward his former boss or the library.Buthod, in a July interview, declined to discuss Morton on personnel grounds, but one gets the feeling he wishes he would go on a long trip and spend some of that retirement money.Yard signs: proclaiming that “A Library Champion Lives Here” began showing up this summer. While the wording may imply support for the library plan, the signs were actually presented to children who completed the library’s summer reading program.Morton says he was privy to high-level discussions of the initiative, and he asserts that the non-profit Library Foundation put up funds to support the initiative to get the tax question on the ballot, which he says crosses the line prohibiting 501(c)3 organizations from engaging in political activity. Morton also has copies of e-mails that indicate library staff worked on the initiative on city time, which he forwarded to the state attorney general’s office, which kicked the complaint back to the local level. It’s unclear whether anything will come of that complaint before or after the referendum. Library Foundation attorney Frank Chuppe did not respond to an interview request.In the July interview, Buthod said the Library Foundation has attorneys to consult on various matters, and that the library received the green light from legal counsel on using Foundation funds and its own resources to secure enough signatures to trigger the referendum. Carlton, the mayor’s spokesman, said this week that the mayor’s senior staff reviewed applicable statutes and found no conflict.Now Buthod seems to have dropped out of sight. He was scheduled to sit on last week’s Louisville Forum panel but canceled; Metro Councilwoman Ellen Call, R-26, took his place. And when LEO asked for an interview last week, we were told Buthod was unavailable. Carlton addressed the disappearing act this week: “The issue has become much more politicized. It’s difficult to ask someone who comes to Metro Council to do head-to-head battle in debate and then think you can go back to those folks and it won’t have an effect. He’s not elected; he’s not a politician.”Morton has allied with Chris Thieneman, the southwest Jefferson County developer who has stepped in to lead the anti-tax group, which has been dubbed Support The Libraries, Not The Tax. Together they assert that the vote is actually a bait-and-switch, with the library being dangled as the enticement in a scheme to return the money in the library’s operating budget — $16.5 million — to the control of the mayor.Thieneman’s group has about one-tenth as much money as the pro-library group, but it has whipped up a sharp video that hangs the mayor on his own words — during his reelection campaign, the mayor boasted of various achievements, including funding the library, without raising taxes.Thieneman, a sort of everyman who has stepped into the middle of hot button issues before, says he favored the tax until about a month ago, when he began getting calls from people who oppose it, asking him to take a deeper look. He contacted Call, and says she told him she realized the plan had shortcomings but that it was the best the city could hope for.(Call, who is now appearing in TV commercials with Mayor Abramson in support of the tax, held a press conference last Friday to rebut Thieneman’s description of her as a “lukewarm” supporter. “I’m passionate about improving our libraries and providing my children — our children — with the kind of library system they deserve,” she said. Her full statement is at www.librariesyes.org.)Call’s support of the referendum, and that of her colleague Julie Raque Adams, R-18, prove this is not a conventional political issue. They’ve broken from the rest of the Metro Council Republicans, including Heiner, who released an alternative plan this summer after the successful petition drive was completed.Heiner’s plan seems simple on the surface. Pointing to the city’s strong bond rating and impending payoff of a number of big projects by 2013, he says it can adequately fund library expansion by adding $1.5 million per year to the city’s allocation to the library budget. Instead of an added tax, he would rely on a $25 million bond issue in each of the next seven years to fund new construction of libraries, totaling $175 million over a seven-year period.He favors that approach, he says, because Louisville workers are already the sixth-most taxed of the 51 largest cities in each state. He also wants to see the library remain under direct Metro government oversight. (If voters approve the tax, the money will be directed by a library board, a quasi-governmental agency — like the Metropolitan Sewer District board — that would operate with little if any oversight.)Heiner’s plan would begin with interest-only payments that would allow for borrowing without a major increase in debt payments. In other words, it would borrow money against future revenue. It has critics as well.“Hal Heiner’s plan sounds nice, but if it were the case, why hasn’t he pushed to make it happen before now?” Carlton asks. (Heiner says the timing wasn’t right before.) Carlton adds that voters who oppose the tax should realize they can’t have it both ways. “There won’t be any great push for funds to seek to do (the improvements) if the vote fails. The worst thing for voters is to think that they can vote ‘no’ and it’ll happen anyway.”Call doesn’t question Heiner’s sincerity; she just disagrees about his plan’s feasibility. She is deeply concerned, she says, about the city’s current and impending financial commitments. It paid $65 million to cover pension obligations this year, and that figure is projected at $95 million by 2009-2010. Healthcare costs have gone up 10 percent a year, she notes, and the city is facing a likely settlement of $30 million to $60 million with firefighters regarding overtime pay.“After five years, it is apparent to me that we cannot build out the master plan in the confines of the current Metro budget,” Call says. “Our growth in revenues has been 4 percent a year for the past few years. Do the math and you see a tremendous amount of pressure to stay balanced.”Beyond the finances, the anti-tax group doesn’t like how the semantics game has been played. They say the ballot language, which was written by the attorney for the library foundation, is dense and misleading because it never mentions the word “tax”. They also take issue with yard signs.It might be logically assumed that the signs, bearing the slogan “A Library Champion Lives Here,” represent the sentiments of people who put them in their yards. It turns out, though, that the signs were really the gold at the end of the rainbow for children who completed the library’s summer reading program. Read 10 books, get a prize. You’re a champion, little Susie, BECAUSE IT SAYS SO ON THE SIGN. Except, you know, there must’ve been a 30,254-way tie at the top. Can everyone really be a winner?Then there is the issue of media coverage.Until late September, The Courier-Journal was the only local media outlet paying much attention to the issue. Throughout the spring and summer, both its news coverage and editorial page content had been tilted unapologetically toward the library’s plan.The C-J hasn’t just written an editorial or two in support of the plan. It has encouraged library supporters to tell warm and fuzzy stories about the library’s importance in their lives. It has published those stories prominently on its Op-Ed page, along with countless letters in support of the library.In an Oct. 10 column, editorial board member David Hawpe explained that this is a rare issue that the paper is willing to support full throttle, and he noted the newspaper has given space to opposing forces. The same day Hawpe’s column ran, though, The C-J published the first news story that laid out accusations that Buthod pressured employees to support the campaign. Three days later, another tough story appeared, recounting the e-mails that show staff involvement in promoting the ballot initiative.The Op-Ed testimonials are designed to evoke passion for the cause. They includes headlines such as “My First Library Card” and “The Portal of My Future,” and the latter, in fact, was written by public relations executive and former library board member Leslie Holland. In her essay, she recalls her youth, expressing joy at the prospect of getting five books FREE for a whole week. Holland says she is supporting the library tax plan, flawed or not, because she puts the library on a level of importance with police and fire protection. She has plenty of company among the city’s elite — including 17 of 26 Metro Council members who support the plan. Corporate citizens are on board — Humana and National City Bank head the list of donors to the Libraries Yes campaign with $50,000 contributions.“I think it’s critical for our city,” Holland says. “Great libraries make for great work forces. More people are using the library, and it’s difficult to keep pace with services because of inadequate funding. It’s the foundation of a great community.”But it could be argued that The C-J editorial page is mainly seen by people inclined to support the library tax — the wealthy, educated and well-read — while the public at large is more likely to be influenced by broadcast media.Television has only recently begun paying attention to the campaign. As a more immediate medium that’s more likely than print to seek out conflict, TV news coverage has given plenty of airtime to opponent Thieneman, who is just the sort to telegenic and passionate advocate who makes for good TV. Last week, as he made the rounds and recounted his conversation with Councilwoman Call, saying she had expressed frustrations with the plan, both WLKY-TV and WAVE-TV interviewed Call for a reaction. She refuted the charges, but the media damage was done. That is when Call published her statement, which leaves no doubt about her vehement support of the tax. On Oct. 15, WAVE-TV aired a Hot Button editorial recorded by Thieneman. Still, in the struggle for free media, pro-library forces are winning the war. What about paid media, the force that drives political campaigns? The supporters have an advantage there, too. The Libraries Yes campaign has nearly 10 times the money available for paid media, and has put together a radio and TV campaign that features an extremely popular mayor standing next to Call, a Republican. Their spots are professionally produced and will get a generous schedule.Thieneman, who kicked in $10,000 of his own money to start the opposition group, has a hastily assembled TV spot focused on the Mayor’s campaign promise to build libraries without taxes.During the second week of October, many Louisville residents received a postcard in the mail from the library, congratulating the 30,254 kids who read 10 books during the summer and got a sign for their yard. It didn’t say anything about the tax proposal, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not smartly timed.In addition, the library’s monthly newsletter became much slicker during the summer leading up to the vote. The October issue, printed in color on high-quality paper, is eight LEO-sized pages with plenty of space devoted to the referendum.As election day quickly approaches, this one seems like a supreme toss-up. Privately, library supporters express frustration that the public relations effort seems to have suffered more than a few black eyes. Still, they are resolute in their belief that this is a key issue in Louisville’s future, and that its time is right now.The Volvo lady and her ilk appear absolutely convinced of their righteousness, and yet one wonders, in this game of persuasion, whether the PR missteps that seem innocent enough will give Joe and Josie Sixpack the de facto proof they need that the establishment is trying to pull another fast one.On Nov. 6, we will learn whether the library supporters, in their understandable zeal, have carried the day — or inadvertently killed their own baby. Rick Redding is the owner and founder of The ’Ville Voice (http://thevillevoice.com), a Web site focused on Louisville-area news and media. Contact him at email@example.com. Contact Cary Stemle at firstname.lastname@example.org.