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Library, school officials devise campaign for levy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County's school and library systems are honing the message they will take to voters to try to convince them to sign off on a new property tax for their benefit.

The two public entities have been working for months to make sense of a tangled funding relationship that was effectively dismantled in February. That's when the state Supreme Court ruled a 1958 law forcing the school system to help fund the libraries is unconstitutional.

Since then, the library has been scrambling to come up with $3 million — nearly 40 percent of its operating budget — and the school officials have been struggling to decide whether the school system should continue to fund the library voluntarily, in light of its own budget issues — a projected budget deficit in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

They reached a compromise last month: the school system and library system will, together, ask the public to approve an additional excess levy in a special election on Nov. 9. If approved the new tax would generate about $24.4 million the first year it takes effect: $21 million for the school system and $3 million for the library in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

That's enough to keep the library afloat without any reduction in services and, education officials say, enough to help the school system grow over the next five years.

Now, they just have to get it passed.

To do that, the library and school systems are embarking on a campaign to lobby for the bill's passage, and to let the public know just what the organizations plan to do with the additional tax money.

Superintendent Ron Deurring pitched the school system's mission for the coming years and highlighted the initiatives the additional funding would benefit — he touted advances in adult and technical education, as well as advances in technology across the county, among other things.

He also outlined the circumstances that brought the school system to the brink of deficit: cuts in federal funding, increases in system's payout for employee insurance and cuts to Medicaid, as well as the school board's decision last year to cap its first excess levy at a flat rate, limiting the amount of money the system can collect from taxpayers over the next five years.

"We are coming forth to the public and saying we need help," Deurring said. "We need that help in order to move forward in the school system and in order to move forward in the valley."

Mike Albert, president of the library's board of directors, pledged cooperation with the school system's efforts, and said that over the next few weeks education officials will put together a team to hone a message to take to voters, and a plan for disseminating it.

"It's a tough tax, these are tough times," Albert said. "Asking people to tax themselves more than they already are is tough. Asking them to provide over 50 percent of a vote is no slam dunk but we are going to do it, we are going to move forward."

Albert called the past few months a "time of stress and uncertainty." The library has been uncertain of its financial situation going forward, and officials have been looking at a number of extreme measures to cut costs — including layoffs and closing branches — if the library can't come up with some additional funding for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

They've been able to avoid the most drastic of those measures, and Albert said the potential excess levy represents a new, stable funding source for the library — and he's confident voters will approve it.

"We've been through a lot this year," he said. "But I think we're coming out of it. I think we're in pretty decent shape."  

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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