Charging a user fee to help keep public libraries open would run afoul of Oregon law, Jackson County officials have discovered.

"It's a state statute," said Commissioner C.W. Smith. "It's against the law."

Commissioners have investigated user fees as a way to keep Jackson County libraries open. They are scheduled to close April 6 to help alleviate a $23 million annual shortfall in county coffers after Congress failed to renew timber subsides last year.

Commissioners are wrestling with other possible solutions as well as consequences, ranging from costs to keep an individual branch open to what would happen to the buildings if libraries closed.

Smith said he's received many calls and e-mails from residents suggesting user fees to help fund the $8 million annual library budget. He said he wants the public to realize that's not an option.

State Librarian Jim Scheppke said Oregon law forbids the collection of a fee for a library card.

"Any public library that did so would cease to be a public library under Oregon law," Scheppke wrote in a recent letter to the county.

If Jackson County's library system charged a fee, no public money could be used to support the branches and they wouldn't be entitled to grants or other support from the state or federal governments, according to the law.

During the 19th century, there were many private libraries throughout Oregon that were open only to people who could pay the annual subscription fee.

In 1901, the state passed a law that created the public library system, which does not discriminate based on a person's ability to pay.

Scheppke said that even if it were possible to charge user fees, they wouldn't generate the $8 million the library system currently receives from the county.

Last year, 40,000 library card owners used the county library system. If a user fee could be charged, each of those library card owners would have to pay $200 to generate $8 million annually.

Scheppke said that in Eugene, there has been little success in charging $80 for residents in outlying areas who want to use the libraries in the city.

Eugene raised $77,677 in revenues in 2005-06 from about 970 cards issued to outlying members. Library officials said the total operating budget for the downtown library and two branches is $10 million, paid mostly through revenues raised within the city.

Smith said he is exploring other options that he hopes could lead to reopening libraries.

One is creating a consortium of cities interested in operating libraries that would essentially form a special district similar to Southern Oregon Regional Communications, the county's emergency dispatch service representing 36 local agencies and the sheriff's office.

"What we're trying to do is get the libraries independent so they're not on our funding yo-yo all the time," said Smith.

It would also be a library organization that would allow cities to join later if they can't afford it now.

The county is considering asking voters to approve a 1 percent income tax that would generate $30 million annually for county services, including libraries, roads and the sheriff's department.

But Smith said the earliest the money could be collected is 2008, and the state wouldn't disperse the money until 2009. This would create an almost two-year funding gap for the libraries, he said.

County officials are also looking at putting a library levy on the May ballot. However, the levy would require a so-called double majority to pass 50 percent of registered voters must turn out for the election and a majority of those must vote yes in order for a property tax measure to pass during a non-general election.

Meanwhile, the Ashland City Council has vowed to find a local solution to keep its own library going.

Smith said he's hoping he will have a better idea in the near future as to which cities would be interested in his consortium idea.

However, he said the reality is that not all cities will have the financial wherewithal to sign on to the consortium.

"Some of the libraries may close, some may not," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or