Pocahontas County Commissioners Hope to Avoid Library Funding Crisis
After word got out that Attorney Bob Martin disclosed during the July 5th Pocahontas County Commission Meeting using Hotel/Motel tax money to fund the Pocahontas County Free Libraries was illegal under current State Law, the July 18th Commission Meeting drew a standing room only crowd of citizens, all of them to protest any defunding of the libraries.
First up was Bob Martin, who said this first came to his attention recently when he received word that Mercer County was required to drop its Hotel/Motel funding of its libraries. Martin said found that the law specifies only 10 items which can be funded by the Hotel/Motel Tax, and libraries are not among those items. The closest of those items he could find were:
- The establishment and maintenance of public parks and for recreational facilities, and
- The promotion of the arts such as music, dramatic arts shows, festivals art displays and plays
He said he hoped to find a way to define the libraries as either recreational facilities or art centers, but upon further research found the libraries did not strictly qualify as either Arts Centers or Recreational facilities. Gene Simmons, the County Prosecutor also said he reviewed the law and agreed with Mr. Martin’s interpretation of it.
Martin explains just what this law means about the continued funding of the libraries using Hotel/Motel Tax money.
“The spin that I have also heard is that this is ambiguous” said Martin. “Well, it very possibly may be. However, this is a penal statute – right Mr. Simmons? – (County Prosecutor agrees from the audience.) It provides for a violation of the criminal law. As recently as May of 2017, by our Supreme court is that penal statutes are strictly construed, so there is no leeway here. The penalty section for violation of this statute is: ‘any member of a governing body who knowingly and willingly votes to, or causes to be expended money generated by the provision of this section (Hotel/Motel Tax) for purposes other than specifically set forth in this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than a hundred dollars”
Martin further stated that Chapter 10, Article 1, Section 2 of the WV Code says that libraries can be funded only by using a county’s General fund or through a library Excess Levy.
Michelle Jeffers, trustee and Treasurer of the Pocahontas County Free Library Board then made a shocking revelation.
“When this all het the papers last meeting, we had to have an emergency meeting” Jeffers said. “ It’s well over 50% of our budget. Our only recourse for right now is we will have to close all our branches except McClintic. We will have to lay off 6 or 7 people and run it on a bare bones budget. And it will happen as of Monday, we will have to close all the branches.”
Attorney Josh Hardy disagreed with Martin and Simmons assessment of the law.
“I don’t think we have as big a problem as we are making it out to be” Hardy said. “I think this is a very ambiguous statute. We might have a problem saying ‘we are going to give you sixty thousand dollars for a building fund library, but if you want to run a program, you describe the program and we’ll fund the heck out of that. And we can do that through Hotel/Motel Tax.”
A number of others –too many to mention here- spoke up in support of the libraries, including Hillsboro Assistant Librarian Connie Zeitler who pointed out the Pocahontas County Libraries were awarded the Number 1 Rural Libraries in the U.S. 13 years ago. Many others spoke out in opposition to Martin and Simmons’ interpretation of the law. John Leyzorek proposed using those Hotel/Motel taxes to some other organization in the county government who would qualify under the statute while giving the general fund money currently used by those organizations to the libraries.
Gene Simmons proposed forming a committee of lawyers and others to find alternative ways to fund the libraries, while at the same time obtaining an opinion from the Attorney General and approaching legislatures to change the law. Simmons also assured the Commissioners he would not charge anyone under the statute until all these efforts are made. The Commissioners seemed more than willing to leave the funding in place until these alternatives could be explored. All three of the Commissioners said they would not leave the libraries without any funding no matter what it takes – either getting a ruling or finding an alternative means of funding the libraries.