No library is an island

A proposed 'South Valley' district would leave the rest of the county unserved

It's easy to understand the motivation behind a proposal to create a public library district in southern Jackson County. It's more difficult to figure out how it would actually work.

Even if a functional system could be created, and voters convinced to approve it — both very big ifs — a district including only six libraries and limited to the southern end of the county might end up dismantling a system that now serves everyone.

The country's 15 library branches were built with bond money approved by voters. Critics said 15 buildings were too many, that the county could not afford to operate that many libraries indefinitely. Backers felt the proposal needed to include something for every community to win voter approval.

In fact, the libraries were closed when operating funds ran short, then reopened, managed under contract by an out-of-state firm and offering limited hours.

Funding is tight again. The county faces a $6.7 million budget shortfall.

The county Budget Committee agreed to spend rainy-day funds and make cuts elsewhere to continue funding 14 of the libraries through the 2014-15 fiscal year and the Medford headquarters library into the 2015-16 fiscal year. New funding will have to be found to keep the doors open longer, the committee said.

Backers of the "South Valley District" idea clearly don't think a countywide levy could pass. They are probably right.

Their answer is to carve out a district of library-friendly voters that just happens to coincide with Oregon House District 5, which just happens to be represented by the only Democratic House member in the Southern Oregon legislative delegation.

District 5 voters might well approve a library levy. But at what cost? And where would that leave the rest of the county?

Without functioning libraries, certainly. But with library buildings their tax dollars are still paying for — which cannot legally be used for anything but libraries until the bonds that built them are paid off.

The books and other materials in those libraries — and in the South Valley libraries, for that matter — belong to everyone in the county. South Valley voters might tax themselves to operate "their" libraries, but would they also pay the county for the use of the books?

Would the new district negotiate a new contract with LSSI, the company that operates the libraries now?

Supporters say residents from the rest of the county would be welcome to use the South Valley libraries. Would they be asked to pay a user fee for the privilege?

Backers of the idea acknowledge that many questions remain unanswered. Still, on Monday, the Library Advisory Committee voted unanimously to endorse the idea.

We. along with some county officials, would prefer to see a countywide solution. That may be wishful thinking.

The attraction of a library district with a good chance of gaining voter approval cannot be ignored. But a system serving only the portion of the county that will vote for it smacks of elitism.

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