An impassioned plea from an Eagle Point woman underscored the emotional current running through a Jackson County budget meeting Tuesday as members agreed a levy on the May ballot is the best chance to reopen libraries after their closure April 6.
"I'm going to break the law and say my piece," said Carole Mercer, who donated $100,000 to help build the Eagle Point branch in honor of her daughter, Sarah Ann Mercer, who died in a car wreck 10 years ago. "If I need to go to jail, then take me to jail so I can teach the women to read."
The Eagle Point rancher, who brushed off warnings that she couldn't speak because it wasn't a public hearing, said she wouldn't stand for any attempts to sell off libraries, much less shut them down.
"If you close it, do I get my money back or do I get screwed by the system?" said Mercer.
She displayed a picture of her daughter that normally hangs in the Eagle Point library. She said she took it "illegally" for the meeting but asked Commissioner C.W. Smith to return it on his way home.
Urging a nationwide campaign to save libraries, Mercer asked budget committee members Dick Rudisile and Jack Walker to hold the portrait while she spoke. Walker and Rudisile were the only members to vote against the May levy.
The six-member budget committee, which includes the three county commissioners, didn't respond to Mercer's pleas, but they did agree this was one of the most contentious issues they've ever confronted.
Rudisile, the committee chairman, said the library issue marks the first time in six years the budget committee has failed to reach a consensus. "It's too emotional," he said.
Committee member Craig Morris said, "To take the position our library system is expendable is not something we should do."
County Library Director Ronnie Budge said there is tremendous support for libraries despite a general perception that the levy will be rejected by voters.
A property tax levy in a non-general election requires 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.
The three-year levy will ask voters to increase property taxes by 66 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, adding $110.22 in taxes annually on a house with an assessed valuation of $167,000, the county average. A similar measure was rejected by voters last November.
Libraries became the victim of a $23 million shortfall in the county's general fund after Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act last September.
The budget shortfall will affect not only libraries, but sheriff's patrols, the road system and community justice, said Budge.
But libraries have a more immediate impact on many residents throughout the county, she said.
"It is such a tangible service that impacts people very directly," she said.
The committee members rejected a proposal by Rudisile to keep only the Medford branch open, and they voted down a 1 percent income tax proposal.
The budget committee made it clear that libraries will shut down in April and that no money has been set aside to keep them open.
"The libraries would be closed when the citizens are voting," said Smith.
Commissioner Jack Walker said he saw little chance of the levy passing. "It failed big time and it's probably going to fail again," he said.
Walker said voters are unlikely to approve a library levy because they passed a bond measure for almost $200 million to benefit Medford schools.
"What I've heard today is nothing but a Band-Aid," he said.
Walker reiterated his opinion that more needs to be done to open up Jackson County's forests to logging to help pay for county services, rather than asking taxpayers to foot the bill.
"The answers are out there," he said. "It's just that nobody wants to support them."
County Administrator Danny Jordan told committee members that even if voters approve a levy, the county is not legally obligated to spend it on libraries. He added, however, that political factors would influence any future budget committee's deliberations on how to spend the money.
Voters did approve a levy in 1996 to fund libraries, but Measures 47 and 50 folded all taxes into county coffers.
Mercer said she wants her daughter's name to live on in the Eagle Point library, where an outdoor area is named "Sarah's Secret Garden" in her daughter's honor.
Closing libraries permanently is not an option, but closing them temporarily will be a wake-up call in Jackson County, she said.
"Libraries have to close before people wake up," she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.