Ketchikan residents demonstrate against ballot measure that would cut library funding over drag queen storytime

From right, Kathy Bolling, Caitlin Jacobson, Jessi Chapman and Cathy Cooley hold up signs opposing a ballot measure that would remove borough funding for Ketchikan’s library on Sept. 19, 2022. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

Ketchikan Public Library supporters gathered Saturday for what organizers called a “read-in” opposing a ballot measure that would strip borough funding from the library. People waved signs, handed out books and urged voters to support the library this October.

“I want people to learn and read and question and think! I support it because I like it,” said eight-year-old Aurora Hopps, standing on the side of North Tongass Highway with a handwritten sign saying, “I love the library. It is for everyone.”

Her sister, seven-year-old Anaiya Hopps, had a sign that says “We love our library.”

“We get to read, and sometimes we like to get CDs and headphone sets, and while we’re cleaning up our house, we get to listen to them,” she said. “And the books are really nice.”

Their mom, Nina Hopps, says the library is a central part of her family’s life. She homeschools the kids and says Aurora and Anaiya check out over 100 books a month.

“The library has really been foundational to our family,” she said. “They have all the activities and ways to meet other families and kids to be friends for life, basically, so the Ketchikan library is part of our family.”

The family was at Wolff Point Saturday waving signs because they’re concerned about Proposition 2. It’s a ballot measure that would remove the borough’s authority to collect a 0.7 mill property tax on homes and businesses outside city limits. That tax  provides about 38% of the Ketchikan Public Library’s annual funding — about half a million dollars. The ballot measure was proposed this summer after the library hosted a storytime with a drag queen.

If the measure passes, Ketchikan Public Library Director Pat Tully says she’d have to make drastic cuts to services. She’d have to lay off about half of the library’s employees and cut its hours by 25%. The roughly 2,000 library card holders who live outside city limits would not be able to check out materials. And almost all programming for children, teens, adults and elders would have to be cut.

Nina Hopps says it would be a devastating loss.

“To lose that resource of the library would mean that we would lose hundreds of books that we would read each year that my kids memorize and remember and become part of them,” she said. “Losing that amount of books, resources and activities would be a huge impact.”

A little further down the street was Caitlin Jacobson, the librarian for Ketchikan High School. She says a funding cut for the public library would have a ripple effect on the school system’s libraries.

“Our schools are looking at drastic cuts if this were to go through,” she said. “We borrow from the public library over 1,400 items a year. That equates to almost $30,000 worth of books that we borrow from the public library — just our students district-wide. So that’s a huge, huge benefit to our students that would be gone if this proposition were to pass.”

And she says that would have a ripple effect on literacy for children all over Ketchikan.

“All studies show that the more books the child has, whether it’s at home or in the classroom, is going to make them a better reader and make them enjoy reading more — especially, most importantly, freedom of choice,” she said. “That’s what makes kids excited about reading. If they find that Garfield comic book that they want to read, they’re going to want to pick it up and keep reading.”

All told, a couple dozen supporters showed up to the rally.

Republican state House candidate Jeremy Bynum was there, too. He wouldn’t say whether he supports or opposes Proposition 2 — as a city resident, he can’t vote on it anyway.

“I’m going to leave it up to the voters that are in the non-areawide (outside city limits) to make a decision on whether or not they would like those property taxes to continue to support the library,” he said.

But Bynum, who also sits on Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly, said he would support alternate ways to fund the library if the measure passes.

“I think the library is an important institution, and it’s a community requirement that we support that,” Bynum said. “I think that regardless of what happens with the proposition, that we will find ways to support the library in the future, whether that’s from the city and/or from the borough.”

That’s the thing about Proposition 2: it doesn’t prohibit the borough from funding the library. It just removes the property tax that currently provides the borough’s portion of library funding. So if voters pass the proposition, the assembly could, for example, impose a new borough-wide tax to fund the library.

Borough Mayor Rodney Dial, who was also there with a sign reading “Here to answer questions if you have any,” suggested a different funding source.

“One idea that was discussed is that the assembly could use cruise ship tax money to replace the loss,” Dial said. He’s been noncommittal on the ballot measure, saying it’s inappropriate for a public official to weigh in on the topic.

Part of what’s driving the ballot proposition is the idea that residents outside city limits don’t have enough say in what goes on at the library. Only the Ketchikan City Council, rather than the Borough Assembly, has the authority to set the library’s budget and review programming decisions.

Nina Hopps — the homeschooling mom — says there are plenty of ways residents can have their voices heard.

“I’m on the advisory board, and we’ve had meetings where nobody shows up. So if you want an in, and you want someone to listen, we are there to listen, and we’re there for open opinions and suggestions,” she said. “And since nobody’s showing up, it’s showing me that they maybe only care about money.”

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