Library vote unadvisable

Published 12:19 am Saturday, September 4, 2010

GATESVILLE – As the Gates County Board of Commissioners move forward with an idea to build a new public library, the final decision to do so apparently lies alone in their hands.

Included in the recent debate, pro and con, over this issue was putting the idea to a vote of Gates County citizens. However, it appears there is no legal avenue for a voter referendum to take place.

At Wednesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Gates County Board of Commissioners, the idea of a library referendum was discussed.

“There was a concern by a few citizens about having the library issue put to a referendum,” Commission Chairman Graham Twine said. “At that point in time we began to talk to people about ways to put this to a vote and we got some information about that.”

Twine turned that issue over to Pitt Godwin, a Gatesville attorney who serves as legal counsel to the commissioners.

Godwin went over the details of an e-mail response from Bob Joyce, an elections law expert with the North Carolina Institute of Government, in regards to a request for information sent Aug. 27 by Gates County Manager Toby Chappell. In his request, Chappell wrote…“Having read your Elections Section, specifically the subsection entitled Limits on Calling Special Elections, page 6, I am not sure if this is an issue that can legally be put to a referendum. Can you guide me in the direction of where myself and the County Attorney need to look to find the answer?”

After reading excerpts from Joyce’s response, Godwin said he was of the opinion there was no way statutorily that this issue can be placed on any type of ballot or public referendum.

“The way I interpret this, whether to build a library or not lies with the five of ya’ll,” Godwin said, referencing the commissioners.

In his reply to Chappell’s request, Joyce wrote…“ The general rule is that a unit of government in North Carolina may call a referendum only if there is a statute that specifically authorizes that kind of referendum.  There is no statute that authorizes a county to call a referendum on the question of whether to build a library, so applying the general rule, the answer is no, the question of whether Gates should build the library cannot be put to a referendum.  It is the kind of question that is reserved to the commissioners for decision.”

Joyce did cite General State Statute 153A-149(d), one that read, “With an approving vote of the people, any county may levy property taxes for any purpose for which the county is authorized by law to appropriate money.”

In his response to that, Joyce said, “I assume that if the county borrows the money from USDA to build the library, it will have to repay the loan.  It could, of course, use regular property tax receipts for that purpose, without a vote of the people.  But, if you really wanted to have a referendum, I suppose you could calculate how much of a property tax levy would be required to fund the repayment of the loan and then put to the voters the question of whether to levy that amount of tax for the purpose of repaying a loan to build a library. In effect, then, the referendum, without directly saying so, would be on the question of building a library.”

But even if the voters said yes to a tax levy, Joyce pointed out that the commissioners would not be obligated to levy the special tax; they would be merely authorized to do so.

“They could fund the repayment of the loan through regular tax receipts without levying a special pay-off-the-library-loan tax,” Joyce said. “And, if the voters voted no on the tax levy question, the commissioners could still use regular tax receipts to pay off the library loan; there just would not be the option of creating a special tax. The upshot is that the tax referendum could be used as an advisory referendum only.”

Joyce went on to say that he would not recommend a tax-levy referendum.

Noting the possibility of a tax levy referendum, Commissioner Henry Jordan said that could be presented to the county citizens.

“If we worded it to say to bring it to the county on a referendum that it would take a half-cent tax increase to pay the cost, the annual cost, of building a library,” Jordan noted. “Connecting the library to a tax increase would be legal (to place on a referendum). That would also give the county the opportunity to recognize where the money will be spent.”

Jordan added, “I know we’re saying that we can do this without raising taxes, but I think that’s a little disingenuous because the money we’re going to save from retiring an existing debt, all of a sudden we now say we’re going to use it for a library. I think we need to be upfront and say, hey, if we’ve got some money left over, let’s put it in the general fund so that we can use it for maintenance and upgrades where needed. And let the county (citizens) say I’m willing to put in a quarter-cent tax increase per year in order to build this library.”

“He said he would not recommend any course of action; that the purpose of the rule is that the commissioners are charged with the responsibility of making decisions of whether to borrow the money to build a library,” Godwin said. “The way I interpret this is there is no vehicle in which to place this (as a vote) to the citizens.”

Another source of information for the county in regards to a library referendum came from Don Wright, General Counsel for the NC State Board of Elections

“There is no legal state requirement that an advisory referendum be held in regards to a USDA or other type of loan to be used for a particular purpose,” Wright wrote in an Aug. 30 e-mail to Chappell. “I have never heard of any federal loan requirements that requires a referendum, but I will assume the federal agency involved can confirm that.  There are provisions in state law for referendum under certain conditions as to bonds.”

Wednesday’s discussion over the library issue came on the heels of a special called meeting of the commissioners last week. There the board voted unanimously to move forward with the proposed project.

After putting out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) of architectural companies interested in designing a new library, the county received eight replies.

According to the draft minutes of the Aug. 25 special called meeting, the eight firms submitting RFQ’s were LS3P Associates, LTD; West & Stem Architects; 310 Architecture & Interiors; MBAJ Architecture; William H. Dove; HB+M Architects; Fuller Architecture; and ADW Architects.

Following a board review of each firm, Commissioner Carlton Nickens made a motion to interview three firms: LS3P Associates, 310 Architecture and Fuller Architecture; with William H. Dove as an alternate. Commissioner Wade Askew seconded the motion, which carried without opposition.

“The board will now interview those three selected firms and select the most qualified,” Chappell said in a later interview. “That interview process will occur sometimes next week.”

Once the architectural firm is selected, Chappell said public meetings will help shape the size and scope of the proposed project. He added that the architect will also meet with patrons of the current library to gauge what they thought was needed in the design of a new facility.

“The size of the building, what it will look like and where it needs to be built will be determined by the architect once all the public input has been received,” Chappell said. “None of this has yet to be decided; nothing is yet set in stone.”

At a board meeting in May, one where the Commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, approved the release of the RFQ, Chappell estimated the cost of a new, 7,800 square foot library at $975,000. He added that the USDA would offer a 30-year loan at 4 percent interest (with no upfront money to the county).

The current Gates County Public Library in Gatesville remains located in the old Gates County Courthouse, one constructed in 1836. The courthouse, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, currently has several structural problems, not uncommon for a building nearly 175 years old. Plans to renovate the existing facility, using USDA funds, were ruled out in February by a USDA engineer that visited the current library to determine the feasibility of the project. The engineer was of the opinion that it was not a prudent investment for USDA to invest in renovations to the current library.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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