Clouds hang low in the air behind the Ketchikan Public Library on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

The author of a ballot proposition that would remove borough funding for Ketchikan’s library says he doubts the measure will pass this October. Former Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly member John Harrington says he filed the initiative petition this summer on behalf of a group of parents that object to LGBTQ content at the Ketchikan Public Library.

Harrington and a library supporter debated the ballot initiative during a KRBD forum on Thursday.

Proposition 2 would remove a 0.7 mill property tax on homes and businesses outside Ketchikan and Saxman city limits that provides about 40% of the Ketchikan Public Library’s annual budget. If the roughly $500,000 annual funding cut goes through, Ketchikan’s library director says she’d be forced to cut almost all programming, reduce services and lay off half her staff. Residents who live outside city limits would not be eligible for a library card.

The tax costs the owner of a $350,000 house about $250 each year. 

The author of the ballot proposition, John Harrington, said during a forum on KRBD that he expected voters to reject it.

“I doubt that it will pass,” Harrington said.

But if it does, Harrington said he’s confident that city or borough officials would find some way to fill the hole in the library’s budget before the measure took effect in 2024.

“I think there’s no question of a doubt that the Borough Assembly would take an action which would fund this library,” he said.

Harrington declined to say how he expects Ketchikan’s borough to make up for the budget cut. The former Borough Assembly member said he could think of “two or three ways” the assembly could replace the funding. But he declined to share them when asked for specifics.

Borough Mayor Rodney Dial previously suggested that the borough could replace the half million in annual funding with its share of state cruise ship head taxes.

Rural Ketchikan resident and library supporter Kathy Bolling said that was unlikely to be successful, given that state head taxes can only be spent on port facilities, harbor infrastructure or amenities for cruise ship tourists.

“Juneau got dragged into court over a whale sculpture, so I don’t know how we can say, ‘Gosh, you know what, we don’t want to pay for library programming, so we’ll have the people from Ohio do it,’” she said.

Bolling argued against Proposition 2 at the forum. She said it was unrealistic to assume that the funding cut would somehow be covered as the city and borough wrestle with budget issues after the pandemic. 

“I just think we’re not being responsible, and we’re not being realistic about if this little piece of property taxes on our borough properties goes away that that money is just going to appear,” she said. “Because even if there’s a will, we’re already thin.”

Harrington says the measure is a reaction to LGBTQ content aimed at young children. He said the library’s decision to host a storytime with a drag queen “had an impact” on the push for the ballot proposition — Harrington presented the ballot measure to the assembly just three days after the reading — but he said the campaign to defund Ketchikan’s library began in earnest last winter. That’s when he says a group of parents reached out to him about a display in the library that touched on LGBTQ themes.

“The material having to do with gender identity and sexual identity and this stuff, the parents just felt this was inappropriate to be targeting those there are kids with this material, and they wanted to do something about it,” he said.

Harrington declined to say what titles or materials the parents found objectionable or offer any other details about the display.

“I can’t tell you anything about that. I did not see it. I was not there,” he said. “I was just contacted very soon thereafter and said, ‘John, you’ve got to help us.’”

He said the library should have consulted the group of concerned parents when considering how to present its materials. 

“People should not be excluded because they feel that people are not listening to them,” he said. “They’re not dealing with them on their concerns.”

Ketchikan’s library director said during the drag queen controversy that the reading and other Pride month programming were an effort to promote inclusivity.

Bolling, the library supporter,said it’s important that libraries contain and display materials on a variety of subjects.

“If a vegan walks into the library, and the library is having a session on how to field dress your mountain goat, are their rights being denied? Should they feel unwelcome?” she said. “Or should they just recognize that there are people interested in that?”

She said there’s already a process for challenging specific books at the library that patrons find objectionable, and that parents who attend the library with their children can steer them away from books or events they find inappropriate.

She said a core duty of libraries is to present a wide range of perspectives.

“There’s the expression that a library should have something to offend everyone, there should be something in there that somebody isn’t going to like,” she said. “And that’s why we get to go in and pick up whatever it is that we want to read. That’s the beauty and the gift of libraries.”

The proposition goes before Ketchikan Gateway Borough voters outside Ketchikan and Saxman city limits on Oct. 4.

You can listen to the full forum here, or watch the video on Facebook below.