Centralization spreads the cost

Go-it-alone library tax rates show value of a county system

The cost estimates for cities operating individual libraries reported in Sunday's Mail Tribune may come as a surprise to some, especially when paired with the estimated tax rates needed to keep the doors open. But the conclusion is obvious.

County officials compiled the figures for a task force examining solutions to the funding crisis. The numbers are sobering.

For most cities, restoring library service to previous levels would cost taxpayers more than the countywide levies voters rejected last fall and this spring.

If the levy had passed, every property owner in the county would have paid 66 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. If each community with a library operated it alone, only three communities would see a tax rate lower than 66 cents. Most would pay more — in some cases, a great deal more.

Operating the Medford library at its previous service level would cost city residents nearly 82 cents per $1,000 assessed value. Ashland's library would cost nearly 75 cents per $1,000.

The cost per $1,000 in smaller communities would be extreme in some cases: Gold Hill, about $4; Rogue River, $5; Butte Falls, nearly $7.50.

Why are these numbers so large? Because the value of the tax base varies widely from town to town, while the cost of operating a library does not. Labor costs and expenses — lights, heat, water, books, Internet access — remain constant across the county, although they do fluctuate with the size of the individual library.

Also, it's not possible for a town to tax residents of the surrounding unincorporated area without creating a special taxing district. So towns are limited to the revenue from property inside city limits.

For those who wondered why we had a countywide library system, there is the answer. Spreading the cost over the entire county makes libraries reasonably affordable for everyone.

So far, only Ashland is seriously proposing a local levy to reopen its library. Given the fact that the countywide levy passed there, it's a good bet voters would approve an Ashland-only tax as well.

But that's not a solution for most communities. Ashland Mayor John Morrison stresses that the two-year levy request is intended as a temporary measure to allow time to reopen a centralized system.

Carving up the county library system would destroy the economies of scale that come with centralization. Many Jackson County residents would end up paying more for less library service than they had before.

Sometimes, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

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