An income tax to keep libraries open could be a dead issue as Jackson County officials find the proposal fraught with too many bureaucratic hurdles.
"The idea is DOA," said Jim Kelly, a member of the library advisory committee.
Jackson County commissioners haven't decided how much they will ask voters to pay if a levy is placed on the May ballot to support libraries.
Library supporters have said it would cost 66 cents for every $1,000 in assessed valuation to fund the library at its current budget of $8 million.
The levy would add $110.22 in taxes annually on a house with an assessed valuation of $167,000, the county average.
The county also is considering a levy of 50 cents per $1,000 in assessed valuation, but the proposal was based on the assumption the libraries could charge user fees. According to Oregon Librarian Jim Scheppke, charging user fees would be unlawful.
Commissioners are expected to make a decision in mid-February on whether they will put the levy on the ballot and for how much.
A public hearing on the libraries will begin at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 31 at the Jackson County Courthouse auditorium, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford. Supporters plan a rally beforehand at 8:30 a.m. in Alba Park.
Kelly and other members supported an income tax, but county officials Thursday told them even if it were successful with voters, it could take two years or more before it could generate any money.
The 15-branch library system is scheduled to close April 6 after Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act that pumped $23 million into county coffers annually.
Voters also rejected a levy last November that would have paid for libraries if the federal money was lost.
County Administrator Danny Jordan said his preliminary analysis revealed an income tax would require creation of a new tax code as well as overcoming a potential reluctance on the part of the Oregon Department of Revenue to even collect the taxes. In addition, he said Multnomah County took a year and a half to work through all the technical issues, and Lane County took two and a half years.
"This is way more complicated than just having people vote," he said.
Cathy Shaw, former mayor of Ashland who proposed the tax to commissioners earlier this month, said in a telephone interview Thursday that she disagreed with Jordan's assessment. She said the county could go before voters in May to see whether they even support the idea before they embark on a lengthy process to create the tax law.
Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, is working on legislation that would enable the Department of Revenue to collect the income tax for Jackson County, she said.
The likelihood of not receiving the money right away shouldn't be a deterrent in going forward with an income tax, she said.
"If they know the revenue stream is coming, they can borrow against it," she said.
County commissioners said they still want to continue studying the idea. They also decided to look again at the possibility of putting a levy on the May ballot.
Library supporters told commissioners the levy would have a slim chance of passing because of the so-called double-majority requirement: 50 percent of registered voters must turn out for the election and a majority of those must vote yes for a property tax to pass in a non-general election.
Jim Fety, a member of the library advisory committee, said the November levy failed partially because there was skepticism among voters that the libraries would actually close.
"It almost has to be a crisis before there is a solution," he said.
Library supporters will have to conduct a more vigorous, focused and high-profile campaign to win support among voters if a levy is to succeed this May, said Fety. Even then, he predicts it will be difficult to get it passed.
Commissioner C.W. Smith, fending off criticism that the county isn't doing enough, said that he wants to end the roller-coaster funding battles to keep libraries operating.
If they do close, he vowed that it wouldn't be permanent. "I don't believe that," he said. "We will find a way to get back to square one."
Smith said he would like the county to get out of the library business and find a way for the 15-branch system to operate outside of changing political climates.
If residents of Jackson County have strong feelings about the libraries, Smith said they should direct their concerns to federal legislators who have failed to renew the federal timber subsidies.
Commissioner Jack Walker, whom critics also claim is not doing enough for libraries, said he doesn't want the branches to close. "Everybody in this room wants the library system we have," he said.
Genie Gilliam, chairwoman of the library system's advisory committee, said commissioners shouldn't be blamed for the funding crisis.
"If the libraries close, it's because the citizens didn't vote for them," she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.