EDITOR’S NOTE: If you can read this, thank a taxpayer

Not surprisingly, the Louisville Free Public Library has yet to arrive on the American Library Association’s list of the nation’s 100 largest systems. There are many reasons for this, none of which is that the city failed to pass a slight increase in the occupational tax last November that would’ve resulted in a brand-new budget for library director Craig Buthod and emancipated some $16 million in city funds. 

No, the failure of the library tax by more than 2-to-1 hasn’t killed our chances to one day make that list, although it will slow us down. First, we’ll need to bond a smaller amount of money to arrive at a suitable figure to underwrite the library’s revised “master plan.” Because the city can’t borrow money for operating costs, we’ve had to scale down the funding plan, which explains the $100 million — $80 million from the city, $20 million raised by the Library Foundation — for beginning expansion. Both Republicans and Democrats developed that proposal, and it retains bipartisan support. 

Not surprisingly, there is a problem. 

Appearing before the council’s budget committee last week, Buthod found himself on the receiving end of an interrogation, when he showed up with a bunch of handheld electronic reading devices instead of a revised master plan. In fact, Buthod could offer virtually nothing satisfactory in his answers, and he seemed unprepared at best. 

Instead of working to meet a deadline on the plan (Buthod and the Library Advisory Commission have now blown two: one in March and the other last week), he and the mayor’s office — via its budget — have decided to spend $1 million of the $2.5 million set aside for research and design for the revised master plan to build a new branch in the Newburg neighborhood. Their reasoning is essentially this: Let’s build a test branch, with innovative technologies and all the trappings of library modernity, and then see how it goes. 

Buthod has been obtuse when he should’ve been direct, and awkward-feigning-funny when he should’ve been straight (he spent the first 10 minutes of the hearing clumsily trotting out electronic reading devices before Kelly Downard, R-16, mercifully demanded an end). With this dithering, Buthod attempted but failed to make a mockery of people like Downard and Hal Heiner, R-19, a man who Mayor Jerry Abramson called a “snake-oil salesman” in an interview with me earlier this year for his role — that is, suggesting a sensible alternative — in defeating the tax. Downard and Heiner, along with a host of other council members, including many Democrats, are ready for the business of putting together an actual plan — and yes, borrowing money to do so — but Buthod is apparently unwilling to accommodate them. 

Let’s suppose for a second this crap is political. Just days after the referendum’s defeat in November, Buthod told American Libraries, the magazine published by the ALA: “The thing that’s come out clearest in all this is that nobody’s against the library; some people are against the tax.” 

It’s surprising to read that given the politics of the situation: In short, that’s been the line of the Republicans and anti-tax folks, the same people who have drawn the ire of people like Mayor Abramson, a man who has been unable to contain his frustration and discontent over the referendum’s failure, perhaps to such a degree to sabotage — along with the petulant children of The Courier-Journal’s editorial board — any progress for which someone else could claim responsibility. 

Abramson and Buthod were big buddies during the campaign, making public appearances on behalf of the libraries, coordinating media campaigns with Louisville’s elite class (and, perhaps devastatingly, only Louisville’s elite class) and lobbying voters to give up $76 of their annual $38,000 take to help insure that poor kids can read. It wasn’t until a couple weeks before the vote that Buthod went underground, a media and PR blackout that seemed so out of place, so amateur, that it wasn’t until after the measure’s crushing defeat that I began to realize that Buthod must’ve seen it coming. It is a time I remember clearly, as LEO prepared a major story on the referendum and the strange politics involved, and could never get Buthod on the record, despite at least two weeks of trying. 

For the director of the public library system in a city trying to be major, going dark during a major funding campaign was unacceptable. So is screwing around with a Metro Council that’s trying to give you money that you desperately need.  

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