ELYRIA – The Elyria Public Library System and the Grafton-Midview Public Library are entangled in a complicated situation involving a new state law, more than 2,000 Elyria residents living in the Midview school district and thousands of dollars in tax revenue that could have far-reaching financial implications for both entities.
On its surface, the issue is simple: Double taxation. But that is where the simple part ends.
The saga started back in 2012 when state legislators passed a new law specifically geared toward public libraries that said homeowners who live in overlapping library districts cannot be taxed twice for duplicate services.
In Lorain County, the new law is creating discord between the Elyria and Grafton–Midview libraries.
That is because there are three small precincts in the Elyria city boundaries that, as residents of the area know well, are also in the Midview school district. They are precincts 3A, 3E and 5B and property owners in those areas pay taxes to both the Elyria and Grafton-Midview libraries.
Nearly a decade ago, in May 2004, Elyria library won passage of a 1-mill operating levy. Elyria library then saw voters pass a 1.9-mill replacement levy in 2009.
Both levies were placed on the ballot for the library by the city – the library as an association library does not have taxing authority – and the voters involved everyone within the city boundaries as a result.
Grafton-Midview library, meanwhile, sought local support in November 2009, but the issue failed at the ballot. It returned to voters in 2010 and passed.
Grafton-Midview library’s boundaries are based on the boundary of Midview Schools, however, which is when the double taxation began.
“Grafton had the area first and it is still our area,” said Adele Infante, director of the Grafton-Midview library. “It was taxed by Elyria first because they chose to make the city of Elyria their taxing district to get the levy passed. They didn't believe a levy would pass if they went through the school district. But in doing so they knowingly encroached on our territory.”
Earlier, in 1991, the Elyria library had used Elyria Schools as its taxing authority so it could place a bond issue on the ballot to build the West River Road branch.
Elyria Schools Treasurer Fred Stephens said the library approached the board prior to the issue and requested assistance.
“Now, we collect the taxes through our tax duplicate, but they get the money,” he said.
This is the only such time Stephens can recall the library using the schools for the purpose of a tax levy.
When Elyria sought the city’s help in 2004, Infante said, the state library board at the time had no authority to stop them.
“So when we decided we had to get local financial help in the form of a levy, we had no choice but to tax our school district. And, in doing so the double taxation was caused,” she said.
With 251 separate library districts in the state and upwards of 10 incidences where residents are paying taxes for two separate systems, the state stepped in to say double taxation had to come to an end.
“I was surprised to learn there are numerous areas in Ohio where citizens are actually forced to pay taxes for two different public library districts," said state Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, more than a year ago when he first introduced the legislation. “It is important to eliminate this double-taxation phenomenon and provide some relief to those taxpayers that find themselves in this unfair situation.”
It would seem like such a simple situation to fix – just divide the disputed area and tax dollars - but with $144,368 at stake for Elyria and the another $94,816 for Grafton, finding a remedy has not been easy.
There was one a time when libraries did not worry so heavily about where every dollar they receive comes from. Up until about a decade ago, libraries could count on funding from the state to sustain operations. Now, state cuts are forcing more and more libraries to seek as much local support as they can.
But Infante said the area is question has always been in the Grafton-Midview area. The last time the Lorain County’s libraries got together to draw boundary lines was in the late 1980s.
“Our board recommends the boundary lines remain as drawn in 1989 so that we may continue to serve our entire district,” she said. “We have worked diligently to include our entire service district and beyond in all of our services. It would be wrong of us to abandon our patrons in any part of our service district by willfully transferring their tax dollars to someone else.”
This is not the only area of double taxation in the state, but it is certainly the most unique case, said Bill Morris, governmental affairs coordinator for the state library board.
“It’s unique because it’s a small area and I’m not sure how you can even divide it in a way that would be easy for people to understand,” he said. “It would have to be an all or nothing sort of division.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact Elyria is an association library and Midview-Grafton is a school district library. The defining area for an association library is not as concrete as that of a school district library, which basically follows the district boundaries although it receives no funding from the school district.
“Most libraries in the state are school district libraries or municipal libraries and the boundaries are equal to the political subdivision they were formed under,” Morris said.
Elyria Library Director Lyn Crouse said Elyria’s purpose and who the original library was started to serve is very clear.
“Charles Ely, the son of our city’s founder Heman Ely, upon his death in his will established a library to serve all of Elyria and the vicinity,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to be double taxed. That goes without saying, but we know where the support for our library lies.”
Picking branch support through patronage
While state and local officials hash out who will ultimately end up with dozens of library patrons on the city’s southeast side, residents are letting their library support be known even if they know nothing of the new law.
“I’m not happy about paying both taxes, but it’s where we live,” said Amy Coward, 37, of Augusta Drive. “But it’s what we have to accept for where we live.”
Coward moved to the street last June and was fully aware she would be in the Midview school district.
“But I live in Elyria. I’m an Elyrian and my kids go to Elyria Schools,” she said.
Coward has chosen to open enroll her children – two attend Prospect Elementary and two attend Eastern Heights Middle School. And, when it’s time to visit a library, Coward said the family makes the less than four mile drive to Elyria’s main branch on Washington Avenue.
“It makes the most sense for us since my children go to Elyria Schools. The Elyria library is so well coordinated with the school they have the school reading list right there and they sort of work together,” said.
If given the opportunity to choose for herself, Coward said she would want her tax dollars to go to the Elyria library.
“I think the way they zone schools and such is just wrong,” she said. “We are Elyria residents.”
The market saturation Elyria has in the disputed area is strong. Of the 2,664 people who live in the area, 2,028 have Elyria library cards.
“Those areas of the city that were part of the annexation benefit greatly from access to the Elyria Public Library System’s multiple outlets,” said Crouse said.
Levy leverage at the ballot
The current dollars each library collects from residents in the gray area they share are not the only things up for grabs with redistricting.
Voter support in the future will be huge for both entities.
Elyria, which has a 1.9-mill replacement levy set to expire in 2014, is the first of the two that would need to go on the ballot. The support they have garnered in previous elections in the three precincts is evident.
When it originally passed the replacement levy in 2009, it did so by receiving 57.6 percent of the vote throughout the city.
However, in the overlapping area, the support was much stronger. There was 60.1 percent support in precinct 3A, 63.6 percent support in precinct 3E and an overwhelming 80.6 percent support in precinct 5B.
“If we lose the disputed area with Grafton, we are in significant trouble,” said Bill McFadden, the Elyria library’s board president. “This is not just about $144,368, but this can affect the support we have in elections and the future outcome of tax levies. The disputed area is home to some of our strongest supports.”
But because Elyria Library chose not to go through Elyria Schools as its taxing authority, it did not have to persuade residents in nearby Elyria Township, who have been fickle about passing tax issues.
Infante sees that as cherry-picking voters to ensure levy passage. She said the new legislation is a much-needed law.
“We are not the only library in the state with a double-taxed area,” she said. “The creation of S.B. 321 was to eliminate any disputes throughout the state. Our only issue is the fact that Elyria Public Library made a choice to pick and choose areas to tax. They chose certain areas that would guarantee passage of a levy. The problem is they chose an area that belongs to Grafton-Midview Public Library.”
Morris, the state library board spokesman, said had the new law been in place when Elyria library went to the ballot in 2009, they would not have been able to pick a more favorable taxing authority because they would know their library district and could not deviate from it just for an election.
Voter support for the Grafton-Midview library in the shared Elyria precincts is less.
According to precinct-by-precinct results from the Lorain County Board of Elections, combined the three areas barely supported passage of the 2010 Grafton-Midview levy. The vote total for those precincts was 430 votes for the levy and 421 votes against the levy. The breakdown for precinct 3F was 239 to 218, 3G was 125 to 141 and 5E was 66 to 62.
Since 2010, ward precincts have been reworked. Precinct 3F is today’s precinct 3E and precinct 3G is today’s precinct 3A.
What the future holds
The state library board has until the end of 2014 to decide library district boundaries across the state.
There is no telling how long the quagmire of Lorain County will last.
Elyria library has already made a request to the state library board as to what it believes its boundaries should be.
Once Grafton-Midview library does the same, the state library board will evaluate both the proposals. However, Morris said the state library board is not bound to pick either request and has the authority to determine what it thinks the boundaries should be going forward.
In addition, both entities have a right to a hearing and an appeal if they object to the state’s recommendation. Either could also seek remedy in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
In the meantime, both McFadden and Crouse worry the issue will hold up placement of the Elyria library renewal on the May 2014 ballot.
“S.B. 321 also says that we can only have one taxing levy in our district, but we have two – one for Elyria and one for the Keystone school district and LaGrange, which asked to be a part of our district in 1987,” Crouse said. “It is our belief we can’t go on the ballot to seek this much needed funded until the boundaries are defined. Doing so means the entire Elyria/LaGrange library population is in danger of losing their library system if we can’t work this out. If we can’t go on the ballot, we will lose half our funding.”
Morris said the state library board does not have a legal opinion on Elyria’s ballot dilemma. He said it would be up to the county prosecutor.
Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes, who is familiar with the situation, said he believes there may be a work around for Elyria that still respects the new law.
“If we can’t get this squared away before a tax issue needs to go on the ballot, I believe Elyria may be able to go ahead and vote it through on the old boundaries in the way they did in 2009,” he said. “But it will have to be resolved before the tax is actually collected. The law is very clear – the residents cannot be double taxed.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.