Court backs Mid-Continent Library's ballot proposal despite Platte County Commission's objections

Platte County voters will have a say in the 8-cent Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL) tax increase proposal on the Nov. 8 election ballot, due to a last-minute action from the Platte County 6th District Circuit Court. 

On a 2-1 vote at an hour-long special meeting held late Tuesday, Aug. 30, the Platte County Commission approved an order to submit the tax increase question — called Proposition L on the ballot — to the Board of Election commissioners. The move came on the day of the legal deadline for approval by the county. 

Platte County presiding commissioner Ron Schieber cast the dissenting vote; district commissioners Beverlee Roper and Duane Soper voted yes but stated it was only because they were ordered to do so by the Circuit Court’s ruling.

“I have a law license, and I would like to keep it,” Roper said.

On Thursday, Aug. 25 the commission and MCPL filed dueling actions regarding the tax question. 

The Platte County Commission questioned the legality of the ballot proposal in its petition, citing statutory concerns on whether the library could use proceeds from such a tax to build new facilities, as advertised in MCPL’s long-range plan and campaign materials. Commissioners sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. 

A hearing was held before Judge Thomas Fincham on Monday, Aug. 29 with special attorneys Courtney Koger and Juliet Cox representing the county. Fincham handed down his judgment on Tuesday morning, essentially forcing the commissioners to approve placement of the tax question on the November ballot. 

“The obligation of the Platte County Commission to place Proposition L, the tax levy resolution submitted to the Commission by the Library’s Board of Trusteees, on the ballot for the November 8, 2016 general election is mandatory and ministerial, and it is not within the discretion of the Commission to refuse to place the proposition on the ballot for that election,” Fincham wrote. 

During the Aug. 30 commission meeting, Koger told commissioners that the final order of Fincham’s judgment had not yet been filed. Until that order is filed — and Koger said it may not be until next week — the commission will not know the full intent behind Fincham’s judgment. 

“With all due respect to the court, what they’ve said is essentially what my mom told me when I was three,” Schieber said. “Just do this now, and I’ll tell you why later.”

Koger agreed with Schieber’s general assessment of the situation and noted that transcripts from the Aug. 29 hearing are also not yet available. After a review, further litigation at a future date could be appropriate, she said.

Schieber voiced his opposition to a “forever tax” with no sunset clause, which could allow future voters an opportunity whether or not to approve additional funding down the road.

Schieber pointed at Platte County’s parks and recreation and roads taxes, both of which were approved by voters for one 10-year run and then reapproved for another, as examples of better public policy.

“What you’ve done is take away the opportunity for good policy,” Schieber said to MCPL representatives in the audience. “That is just poor public policy, period.”

MCPL director and CEO Steven Potter spoke, after prompting from Schieber.

“I don’t think any of us wanted it to come to this,” Potter said of the legal actions, adding that he and Schieber had a difference of opinion that would likely never be resolved, so it was up to the court to make a decision. “I completely respect what you’re doing and the vigor you inject into your public office.”

By the end of the meeting, Schieber said the battle was not over, and thanked the district commissioners and others — on both sides of the debate — for their comments. 

Republican district commissioner candidates John Elliott and Dagmar Wood, who will also appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, both voiced their support for the commission’s efforts. Elliott suggested voters organize an active campaign against the tax proposal.

Wood asked if the commissioners or the county itself could be legally reprimanded if they appeal the judge’s decision. Koger said that it’s possible for officeholders or the commission as a whole to be held in contempt of court.

“Obviously, we would prefer to avoid that,” Koger said.

In a public statement issued early Aug. 30, Potter reacted to Fincham’s ruling.

“It was the library board’s desire in this matter to ensure that all voters of the library district had the opportunity to exercise their right to vote and voice their opinion on the future of their library,” Potter said. “This ruling ensures that the voters of Platte County will have the same opportunity as the other voters in the library district.”

The largest geographical library system in the 48 contiguous states, Mid-Continent is made up of 31 branches in Platte, Clay and parts of Jackson County. Last week, the Clay County Commission voted 2-1 to place the question on that county’s ballot. Dissenting commissioner Luann Ridgeway cited concerns similar to Schieber’s, questioning the validity of ballot language in the question. 

The Mid-Continent Public Library’s board voted 9-1 with one member absent in June to place an item on the November ballot asking for an 8-cent increase in its tax levy. The lone dissenting vote came from Nancy Kraus Womack of Platte County. 

If approved, Mid-Continent would up its levy from 32 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 40 cents, adding an estimated $9.5 million to its current annual operating budget of $42 million.

Officials hope to invest about $86 million into construction and improvement projects for facilities.

Proposition L will ask voters: “For the purpose of renovating and replacing aging library facilities, enhancing spaces and programming for children and adults, expanding services and collections to serve public demand, and for the general operation of public libraries, shall there be an eight cent tax increase of the thirty-two cent tax per hundred dollars assessed valuation for Consolidated Library District #3, known as the Mid-Continent Public Library?”

Plans for the increased funding include the construction of six new buildings and renovation of 28 others, expansion of access to library services and increased investment of materials — physical and digital books and other multimedia items.

“The Court further finds that the library would suffer irreparable harm if the levy issue is not placed on the ballot for the November 8, 2016 election,” Fincham wrote.

Branches in Camden Point, Dearborn, Edgerton, Parkville and Weston would receive minor renovations including windows, painting, carpet and amenities. Platte City’s location, built in 2006, would receive minor upgrades.

Riverside would have the chance to add new collaborative spaces in addition to the other upgrades, while the Boardwalk Branch would be replaced with a destination library, similar to Platte City’s.

The last tax increase for Mid-Continent came back in 1983 when voters approved a 45-cent levy. However, state law forced rollbacks, and in 1991, voters combined the operating and building levy at 32 cents, which has remained the constant rate for the past 25 years. Many of the branches were built in the wake of the 1983 increase but have become more difficult to operate with the rapid evolution of technology during the past three decades.

Mid-Continent officials have said the library’s operational needs are immediate and emphasized that the flat budget in recent years already forced cuts and adjustments. Without approval of the levy increase, officials might have to consider further reductions in staff and operating hours, the reduction and phasing out of some current programming and deferment of building maintenance, including parking lots, roofs and carpets for the existing buildings.

The estimated yearly cost  would be $15.20 for a home valued at $100,000 to $38.00 for a home valued at $250,000.

Schieber openly questioned the proposed ballot language in early August, and commissioners have held meetings with legal counsel in recent weeks. Specific concerns included placing one-time expenditures in the ballot language, which Schieber believed should have required a second question that would keep that taxation from becoming permanent.

“I ran on a platform to, and was elected to, protect the interests and tax dollars of Platte Countians,” Schieber wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Citizen on Wednesday, Aug. 10. 

Schieber said in the letter that he wouldn’t vote to put a library tax proposal on the ballot and held to that during Tuesday’s meeting.