NOW WHAT?

Levy backers say there's only one 'surefire' way to get the county's libraries reopened
Dark and stormy skies hang over the Central Library in Medford Friday night after all 15 branches of the countyís library system were closed because of budget cuts.

Libraries closed indefinitely Friday and Jackson County residents now must sort through a bewildering array of possibilities to reopen them.

Congress and President Bush might reauthorize a federal safety net program that provided $23 million annually to Jackson County for roads, public safety and libraries, but that is highly uncertain.

What's on the ballot

A library levy would raise $8.3 million annually for three years if voters approve it on May 15.

Property owners would pay 66 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, adding $110.22 in taxes annually on a house with an assessed value of $167,000, the county average.

Since it's not a general election, 50 percent of registered voters must submit ballots for the election and a majority of those must vote yes for a property tax to pass.

County commissioners are trying to get local communities to pool their resources to open some of the libraries, but that hasn't developed much traction so far.

Supporters have placed a levy on the May 15 ballot that would raise $8.3 million annually for libraries for the next three years, but because it is not a general election, at least 50 percent of registered voters must vote and the majority of those must vote yes for the levy to pass.

"The only surefire method to open the libraries as quickly as possible is to vote for the bond levy," said Joe Davis, campaign chairman for the Save Our Library System.

Davis said the levy would provide a bridge to find a permanent solution to keep libraries open.

Voters, some of whom believed libraries wouldn't actually close, rejected a similar levy in November. But libraries have enjoyed immense support in the past. In 2000, a $38.9 million bond measure to build new libraries was passed by the so-called "double majority" during a non-general election.

Some voters are concerned that if they approve the levy for libraries, Jackson County could divert the money to fund other services because serial levies, unlike bond measures, are not considered dedicated revenue.

Voters had been approving levies to keep libraries open until 1997, but after Oregonians passed Measures 47 and 50, all levies — including those of the libraries and Southern Oregon Historical Society — were merged into the county's general fund. The county paid for libraries for 10 years, seven years longer than the life of the original levy.

All three commissioners have stated emphatically that if the May 15 levy is approved, the money would be used for libraries only.

Commissioner Jack Walker, who was the only commissioner opposed to placing the levy on the May ballot, said, "If the voters approve the levy, we would only use that money for libraries."

Commissioner C.W. Smith said, "Every penny of that money will be spent for library services. If the levy is passed, we will move as quickly as possible to reopen libraries."

Smith said it would be "completely irresponsible" for commissioners to even think about using the levy money for anything other than libraries.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said, "We will not betray the public trust."

If commissioners used the money for anything other than libraries, Gilmour said he would support a recall of commissioners. "I'd be the first to sign it," he said.

Adding to the confusion is the question of whether the federal government will reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, created to help counties throughout the country that have seen sharp declines in timber harvests on federal lands because of environmental restrictions.

The U.S. House of Representatives proposed a one-year emergency funding measure. Then, last month, the U.S. Senate proposed a similar emergency funding bill, but included an additional four years of money, with 10 percent decreases each year.

The county funding is included in a war appropriations bill, but Bush has threatened a veto because it includes a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and appropriations not related to the war effort.

Library supporter Davis said all the issues surrounding the libraries have made discussions about the levy more confusing for voters.

Some local residents think Congress will come through with the timber money. Others worry about increasing their already high property taxes.

"I don't know all the answers to all those questions either," said Davis. "It's a confusing time for the voters and a confusing time for the county."

He said some residents have suggested increasing timber harvests locally, but that would entail working through myriad environmental restrictions. "If the timber lands opened tomorrow, there would be a significant period of time, potentially years, before the lands were identified and harvested," said Davis.

Still other residents say that because of the Internet, libraries aren't needed anymore, although 40,000 library card users went to county libraries last year. Most of the computers at library branches in Jackson County were funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which estimates 14 million people nationwide rely on these computers to further their education and to find employment, health and government information. Forty percent of Americans don't have Internet access at home, according to the foundation.

Despite the naysayers, Davis said he has been impressed by the number of library supporters. "I continue to be very encouraged," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.


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