ASHLAND — Only 18 percent of voters have turned in their ballots on a library levy as of Wednesday afternoon, and backers say they are redoubling their efforts to overcome confusion over how much the levy would cost and how the money would be used.
Because it is a money measure in a nongeneral election, the levy must draw 50 percent of registered voters and a majority of yes votes to pass.
"A lot needs to be done between now and the 18th for the city to meet the 'double majority' law," said Jackson County Clerk Kathy Beckett. "Ballots are slow coming in. There seems to be a lot of confusion, judging by the phone calls I'm getting. The measure says one thing and the stories in the paper say another."
She remained optimistic that voter turnout could reach the 50 percent mark by 8 p.m. Tuesday, the ballot deadline.
If passed, the levy would allow the city to collect up to 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to operate the Ashland Library. The measure was written, however, before Jackson County vowed to reopen all 15 branches under a private company.
The City Council voted earlier this month that if libraries reopen, the city would collect only 20 cents the first year and 25 cents the second to boost hours, wages and services at the Ashland branch.
The Committee to Open Ashland Library is redoubling its efforts with phone banks, mailers, speeches to clubs, radio talks and tables in front of markets, said committee member Ann Magill.
Among obstacles to a high turnout, she said, is that Southern Oregon University students, many of whom vote here, won't be back by election time — and that the Jackson County Board of Commissioners won't vote on a contract privatizing libraries (and firming up the county's contribution to Ashland Library) until after the election.
However, COAL co-chairwoman Pam Vavra said turnout at this time is on par with May's library levy election, in which 62 percent of Ashland voters turned in ballots — with a solid majority in favor. The measure to reopen all branches failed countywide.
"Based on returns so far, there's no reason to be concerned about reaching 50 percent," Vavra said.
She said voter confusion over the levy amount is understandable because of the council's resolution, which is based on the condition that the county follow through on the proposed agreement with Library Systems and Services LLC (known by the acronym LSSI), a Maryland-based library management company.
Under LSSI's proposal, the Ashland Library would be open 24 hours a week. The levy would increase its hours to 40.
"The council's resolution definitely means the city is authorized to levy the full 58 cents, but will only use what's needed if the county keeps their end of the bargain," said Vavra. "The council's promise to use 20 and 25 cents of the levy was very clearly contingent on that."
With several variables still in play on library funding, Vavra said, "there is some confusion, but my only hope is that voters take advantage of the information and are able to satisfy any confusion."
Beckett said, "Some people say they don't want to approve the full amount but would go for the changed amount, but they don't trust elected officials to do what they say.
"Believe me, they can do it. It's not a problem. It will take a big grassroots effort, but I've seen them do it," Beckett said.
Magill acknowledged that among voters there is a certain level of mistrust of the council, but added, "I'm very hopeful. Ashland has a history of leading and I think we can do it again."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.