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Benjamin releases dissent in earlier library funding opinion

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Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Supreme Court Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Supreme Court

Chief Justice Brent Benjamin expressed concerns about a majority's ruling earlier this year in the Kanawha County public library funding case.

The case was originally filed by the Kanawha County Board of Education challenging the Legislature's special act, which provided funding of the Kanawha County Public library through "discretionary monies, provided additional state funding to county school boards, and permitted school boards to move library funding obligations from the regular levy to the excess levy."

West Virginia Supreme Court justices found the special act unenforceable.

The case stems back to a 1957 special act providing that three entities — the Kanawha County Board of Education, the Kanawha County Commission and the city of Charleston — fund the Kanawha County public library.

"Specifically, Section 5 of the 1957 Special Act provides that the three supporting governmental authorities are required to raise an annual, regular levy of ad valorem real property taxes of a certain fixed assessment and pay the levy so raised to the library as the library funding obligation," the state board's court brief states, noting that in the 2007-08 fiscal year, the county school board paid more than $2 million in regular levy taxes to the library.

Petitioners argue that although the funding is 1 percent of the county school board's budget, it is 40 percent of the library's budget.

Eight other public libraries in the state are set up by similar acts.  These counties are Ohio, Berkeley, Hardy, Harrison, Raleigh, Tyler, Upshur and Wood counties.

Cabell and Lincoln also receive funding from county school boards' excess levies, court briefs state.

Benjamin released his dissent June 19, saying the public library "serves a legitimate school purpose" and should be funded by the school board.

"Instead, funding the public library actually furthers the provision of a thorough and efficient education to the county's public school students," Benjamin's states in his dissent, later adding, "Inexplicably, the majority opinion reaches the opposite conclusion by finding that the school board's support of the public library, which serves a school purpose as explained above, improperly infringes upon the right of county students to a thorough and efficient education."

Benjamin said because of the loss of funding, the library faces an uncertain future. Benjamin noted the library had to cancel its 2013 West Virginia Book Festival.

"In sum, I am troubled by the school board's miserly decision to stop funding the public library," Benjamin's dissent states. "This decision can be characterized only as short-sighted in that it sacrifices the long-term educational benefits of a sufficiently-funded public library system in favor of the school board's short-term benefit of immediate control of a few more dollars of its budget. I am even more troubled, however, that a majority of this court permitted the school board to carry out its ill-conceived decision."