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Capitol Update: Cuomo’s Starr Library Veto Gets It Wrong

Mike Neppl, Director of Government Relations and AdvocacyMike Neppl

Below is an OpEd column that ran in the Poughkeepsie Journal on Sunday, December 7, 2014, in response to Governor Cuomo’s veto of a bill that would have authorized a public vote on the formation of the Starr Library District in Rhinebeck, NY.

On Friday, November 21, Governor Cuomo exercised his veto authority on forty bills that passed the Legislature during the last session. One of those bills, A09847-A Cahill/S07259-A Gipson, sought to authorize the voters of the town of Rhinebeck to create the Starr public library district. This particular veto demonstrates the Governor’s lack of understanding of the structure of and mechanisms for forming library districts.

In his veto, the Governor states:  “While I appreciate the Legislature's desire to assist in the maintenance and growth of a public library, I am concerned that this bill would establish yet another level of local government. At a time when taxpayers are being overwhelmed with out-of-control property taxes, this bill has the potential to add to this onerous burden and add further to the plethora of levels of local government.” (Veto #509)

This position harkens back to the Governor's 2014 State of the State address, in which he lumps library districts in with many other types of taxing jurisdictions. He remarked: “So why are our property taxes so high? Because we have too many local governments and we have had them for too long. 10,500 local governments, these are towns, villages, fire district, water district, library, sewage district, one district just to count the other districts in case you missed a district. We have a proliferation of government that is exceedingly expensive and costly.”

The problem with this argument is simple:  Library districts do not operate like any of the local taxing entities Cuomo cites.  Unlike fire, water or sewer districts, local citizens vote directly on the taxes levied by their library district, approving or rejecting those taxes at the ballot box.  The establishment of library districts puts control over spending on library budgets directly into the hands of the voters.

Communities support their libraries and value the access and services they provide.  When given the opportunity to vote on local library funding, local voters statewide have approved those budgets over 96% of the time over the last three years.

What’s more, the Cahill/Gipson bill didn’t even unilaterally establish the new library district. To the contrary, the bill simply allowed the matter to be put before Rhinebeck’s voters—the very same voters who would be responsible for the taxes that a newly formed library district would levy. And yet Governor Cuomo found it preferable to make that decision for those local voters, denying them the opportunity to vote on whether to improve their library services through the creation of a district.

The Governor’s veto purports to prevent the imposition of another onerous burden on local taxpayers.  This too is wrong-minded.  Libraries have long been models of efficiency and deliver value to patrons several times over. Through the shared services provided by New York’s libraries, card holders receive access to materials and services that save them $1B annually.

At a time when demand for library services is increasing, and libraries are providing critical access to the Internet and technology, it is unacceptable that Governor Cuomo has refused to allow Rhinebeck voters the chance to determine the value of their local library and how to fund it.

Jeremy Johannesen
Executive Director
New York Library Association

Citations
Veto Message:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/247794598/Veto-485-525
State of the State Transcript:
http://www.governor.ny.gov/news/transcript-governor-cuomos-2014-state-state-address

What’s next for Special Library Districts post-Starr veto?

In the wake of Governor Cuomo’s veto of the Starr Library district legislation, many in the library community have expressed the desire for immediate action, particularly through direct action such as a letter-writing campaign, or to fight for a veto override through the state legislature. Neither of these strategies is likely to produce a favorable outcome. Veto votes are incredibly rare, and veto overrides even more so. Complicating matters is the uncertainty of a potential special legislative session before then end of the year, and the defeat of the Senate’s sponsor, Terry Gipson, in the November elections. Because this veto was borne out of a fundamental misunderstanding of what this legislation accomplishes, the solution is to educate the Governor and his staff rather than express dissatisfaction with his decision through hundreds of letters.

NYLA, along with our partners who consulted and advised on the Starr legislation, have scheduled an initial meeting with the Governor’s staff to begin the process of educating them on what special district legislation actually accomplishes – not what the Governor described in his veto memo as adding another layer of taxation, but rather putting funding decisions in the voters’ hands, increasing oversight by instituting a publicly-elected board of trustees, and creating sustainable funding models for our libraries.

It is important to note that the Governor has previously signed legislation allowing the creation of special districts to go to a vote. This makes the Starr Library veto even more troubling – was this the result of a misunderstanding or miscommunication amongst the Governor’s staff, or is this indicative of a shift in policy? The immediate future of special library districts in New York hinges on the answer to this question, and it’s one for which NYLA and our partners are actively seeking answers.