Jackson County officials sent out an appeal last week to local cities for help to reopen libraries.
Addressed to the mayors and council members and interested parties of each community, the July 10 letter states the county has made a $38.9 million investment in the libraries after voters approved bonds in 2000. By law, the money can only be used for library construction.
"I know you likely agree that it is unacceptable for our public libraries to be closed," stated County Administrator Danny Jordan. "We need to find a long-term solution for operating the libraries when we do open again, and it is clear we are not going to be able to do that without the help from each of the local communities and jurisdictions."
The letter explains how the county lost $23 million annually from the federal government, forcing the closure of all 15 libraries on April 6.
Jordan said he is often asked why the county can't reopen libraries after receiving an emergency one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act.
He said if the county decided to use the money for libraries, it would take two months to reopen them. Once reopened, the county would be looking at shutting them down again in five to six months, resulting in additional costs to close them down.
Voters have twice rejected a property tax increase to keep all libraries open, so Jordan said the communities and the county will have to find a different solution.
One possibility is outsourcing the operation of the libraries to a private company. The county has sent out a request for proposals recently that should elicit a response by next month. In particular, the county is expecting a bid from Library Systems and Services LLC (known by the acronym LSSI), a Maryland firm that specializes in running public libraries.
"A private company may be able to operate the libraries at a lower cost," stated Jordan.
The letter asks cities to respond within 30 days.
"Does the city have an interest in opening/funding the library in the community?" the letter asks. "What alternative uses, options and/or methods of operations might you propose to the Board of Commissioners for consideration?"
Ashland has been the only city so far that has decided to place a property tax levy on the September ballot to raise $1 million annually to operate the second-biggest library in the county.
Phoenix Mayor Carlos DeBritto said the residents of his city don't appear to want to pass a levy to run the library and the city doesn't have the money.
After the residents of Phoenix rejected the past two levies, he doesn't think it would fly because people are tired of paying high taxes.
"I get the sense they could care less about the library," he said. "As long as there is a library in the area, Phoenix doesn't need one."
He's hoping that both the Medford and Ashland libraries reopen, which he said should satisfy much of the need for a library for residents of his city. "We certainly need one," he said. "I don't question that at all."
He suggested a bookmobile as one relatively inexpensive alternative to having a library locally, or having the local schools offer some kind of library service.
DeBritto said the Phoenix City Council will discuss the county's letter Monday night.
Central Point Mayor Hank Williams said he wants to see a better plan for running the libraries before his city would commit to anything.
"There is no question that libraries could be operated for less money than they have been done," he said.
He didn't rule out the possibility of his city helping pay for library services once the county finds out if it can be done more cheaply.
"We'd look at it," he said.
However, he said his city is concerned that it didn't receive the same level of service as other branches previously.
Williams said it would take several weeks to more than a month to respond to the county's letter because many city officials will be on vacation this month.
Shady Cove Mayor Ruth Keith, who said the county's letter is a topic of discussion on the council's agenda next week, didn't think her city would have the money to help fund the library.
"I find that rather amusing — poor little Shady Cove," she said, adding that her opinions don't reflect those of the council.
She said residents are dismayed at the prospect of having a new library built that might never be opened. At the same time, she said, "Most people can't imagine there are no libraries."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.