by Amelia Ferrell Knisely, West Virginia Watch
July 28, 2023
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Cabell County libraries and parks are bracing for funding cuts — and even litigation — if their local school board moves forward with a proposed levy that would drastically reduce how much the programs would receive.
School leaders said that the proposed funding cuts are driven by a declining student population — the county has lost around 1,400 students in the last six years — and the loss of $11 million in federal COVID-19 relief money that was helping pay for staff.
The proposed levy, which the school board will vote on next week, would give the library system $195,000, a sharp decline from the $1.7 million the libraries have been receiving under the current levy, which expires next year.
The Cabell County library system serves more than 90,000 people — the third largest reach for libraries in West Virginia.
“It’s really, really scary,” said Kristy Browning, business manager for Cabell County Libraries, which has a total of eight locations, many of which are located in rural parts of the county. The main library is in Huntington; its seven branches operate on a $1.1 million budget annually, according to Browning.
“I don’t see how we could keep every library open if we lose that much money,” she added.
The proposed levy would take effect in 2025.
Del. Danille Linville, R-Cabell, represents the Milton area, where one of the library branches is located. He said the potential closure of his local library would make it difficult for some residents in his community to access library services, which include a notary and help navigating social services for those in need.
“We’ve got to make sure the services are near the people being served,” Linville said. “With the cost of gas, if you have to drive into Huntington from the farthest east part of the county, that could cost you $20.”
Cabell County Schools leadership predicted a $4.5 million budget shortfall for the upcoming school year, which they said, was spurred by inflation and new state laws that included a teacher pay raise and a teaching assistant requirement for some classrooms. Schools spokesperson Jedd Flowers said that with pandemic aid running out, the schools have eliminated 80 positions for the upcoming school year.
“To assist the school district in minimizing impact on schools and classrooms as it prepares to face these budgetary challenges, the Cabell County Board of Education has proactively begun the process of determining what potential funding priorities will be included as part of a future excess levy,” Cabell County Superintendent Ryan Saxe said.
Funding priorities for the excess levy being discussed include employee salaries, school resource officers and other safety measures, along with playgrounds.
“Our board and I share an appreciation for what our local libraries and parks provide and hope that, regardless of the outcome of funding decisions made regarding the excess levy, we can all continue working for the benefit of our communities and our children,” Saxe said.
West Virginia Libraries Commission Deputy Commissioner Andrea Rayl Thompson said in an email that the state department “only has purview over the state funding of libraries, not the local funding.”
She added, “This year we were happy to be able to provide an increase in library funding.”
The proposed levy would also eliminate the school board’s funding for parks and recreation in the county, which Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District Commissioner Josh Keck said violates a special state code and would result in a lawsuit.
Earlier this year, Linville introduced a bill that would have exempted the school board and town of Milton from having to fund the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District.
Linville said that the bill, which failed to pass, followed conversations he had with Milton city officials, who felt they were not receiving the park services they were paying for since all but one of the parks weren’t in their area. “We want great parks, we just want what we’re paying for,” he said. He noted that he never proposed legislation to decrease funding requirements for libraries.
The current proposed levy offers zero funding to the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District.
The levy has made up about 20% of the parks’ funding, according to Keck. He is hoping that the funding issues can be resolved without legal action, but it is a possibility at this time.
“The idea of three government bodies fighting it out in court is a waste of taxpayer money,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to avoid litigation.”
Keck said that recreation programs would be the first things to go if the parks lose levy funding, which this year provided $500,000 for those programs along with parks upkeep and staff salaries.
Browning also said that proposed funding violates the library funding formula, which is determined by tax revenue collections required under the Cabell-specific code. The board of education can also give the library excess levy funds. She didn’t want to speak on specifics about any potential litigation, but said a lawsuit is an option.
“I’m confident that any decision that the board may make with respect to a future excess levy will be in the best interests of the students of Cabell County Schools and consistent with applicable law,” Saxe said.
A 2011 decision by the state Supreme Court could set precedent in the potential case, sources for this story noted. The Justices sided with the Kanawha County School Board, who sued the county library system, saying that they were treated unfairly by being required under a 1957 special state act to give a portion of their budget to libraries since some counties didn’t have any libraries to fund.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said that if his office were to intervene, it would be to “facilitate a collaborative environment.”
“Budgetary challenges are an unfortunate part of the world that we operate in today,” he said, in part. “The one strategy for success in the best of times and the most challenging of times is collaboration. We are friends of the school board, the Cabell County Public Library and the Park District.”
The Cabell Board of Education is set to vote Aug.1 on the proposed levy order.
Cabell County libraries will close early that day so that employees can attend the meeting.