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Libraries opposing bill that would limit hikes in levies for special taxing districts

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PHOENIX – To Cindy Kolaczynski, libraries are much more than just places to check out books.

“We are the community front porch for all those who reside in Maricopa County to access information and attain programming and educational enhancement,” said Kolaczynski, director of the Maricopa County Library District.

Saying it would interfere with providing those services, Kolaczynski and the library district are opposed to a bill that would limit increases in tax levies by special districts, including libraries, jails and public health services, with a formula that already limits increases in primary property taxes.

“We would have to eliminate 64 full-time positions and reduce our operating hours 194 hours across the district,” she said.

Kolaczynski and other opponents argue that HB 2379, authored by Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, would lock in budgets depressed during the Great Recession by using 2014 as a base year.

But Olson said voters have made it clear that they want limits on the growth of taxes.

“The counties have used these special districts to get out from under the will of the voters,” he said.

Olson authored a similar bill in 2011 that passed out of the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. HB 2379 passed the House Ways and Means Committee on a 5-2 vote Jan. 27 and was heading to the floor by way of the Rules Committee.

Reps. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, and Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, voted against the bill.

“I’m satisfied that Pima County can run its own fiscal affairs without being told how to do it by big daddy state government,” Wheeler said in explaining his vote.

Tom Jenney, Arizona director of Americans for Prosperity, a group aimed at reducing taxes and state spending, said secondary property tax levies shouldn’t be allowed to increase at an unchecked rate.

“We are concerned that counties have gotten into the habit of spinning off special taxing districts to effectively get them off the county budget,” he said. “The fact that many of these districts have no real secondary levy limits is troubling.”

But Melinda Cervantes, executive director of the Pima County Public Library, said the bill takes control away from local authorities and puts it into the hands of the state.

“It’s bad policy to govern local services such as this at the state level,” Cervantes said. “We’re very responsible at county and city levels all over this state and are taking great care with the public’s money.”

She noted that the Pima County Library District decreased its funding over the past few years because of the recession and used fund balance money to keep programs going. Setting 2014 as the base year would mean cutting staff and programs to make up the difference, Cervantes said.

“The ultimate result in Pima County is closing libraries and laying off staff,” she said. “I’ll have fewer locations and fewer hours while the demand is great.”

Olson said the threats of layoffs and slashed hours are unfounded.

“For them to say that they’re going to lay off people, that would mean that they’d have less money than they have in the current year,” Olson said. “We’re not taking any funding away from anyone.”

Olson said he is willing to work with special districts to find an acceptable base year that would allow them to have workable budgets.

“I believe that we can find some ways to address their specific concerns by maybe looking back one or two or three years to set the baseline year and establish the rate of growth from there,” he said. “Now is that going to take away their opposition? Perhaps not.”

The Arizona Library Association opposes HB 2379 and has been using social media to get the word out to patrons.

“We’ve got very loyal library users who want to see libraries remain strong and with a good budget,” said Ann Boles, Arizona Library Association president.

For Boles, the real issue lies in taking control away from local areas.

“I don’t have a clue why anyone would want to do that,” she said. “If it’s local people paying to control their local resources, I can’t imagine why you’d want to change it.”