Jackson County panel backs library district plan

The special district would include Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Applegate, Ruch, which all have voted for levies before

Jackson County's Library Advisory Committee is backing a library funding proposal that would create a special tax district on the Rogue Valley's southern region and keep a half-dozen of the 15 branches open.

The South Valley District, an idea that originated with former Ashland mayor Cathy Shaw, would create a special district within Housing District No. 5. The boundary would include the cities of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Applegate and Ruch. The LAC board voted unanimously for the funding proposal at its special meeting this week.

"Now we have a direction to move forward with," said committee member Michelle Blum-Atkinson. "I really think this can work."

The desired endgame is that voters in other cities will see the value of the district and move to join, keeping their respective branches open, too. Even if they don't join, the county's costs of operating the remaining libraries would go down.

"Basically the idea is to form a district that hopefully will take enough demand off of the commissioners' ledger, that they might be able to keep open the other smaller libraries," Cathy Shaw said. "Our goal, our mission, is to keep as many libraries open as communities want them. We don't want to force-feed people."

Shaw formulated the idea after looking over voting results from past county elections. They included voter turnout from the 2010 midterm elections, voter registration numbers from 2012 and the percentage of supporting votes on a failed 2006 library levy within the housing district. The data showed a majority of House District 5 voted in support of the levy.

The need to find a new method of funding the county's 15 branches arose following the county's budget hearings in April.

The Jackson County Budget Committee was tasked with closing a $6.7 million gap for the fiscal year. Budget committee members cut $1.4 million from several departments, including the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Development Services, marketing, the Oregon State University Extension Service, libraries and others. About $5.3 million in rainy-day funds covered the rest.

Budget committee members said the county could not continue to dip into reserves to that extent and voted to close the county's 14 satellite branch libraries by the start of the 2014-15 fiscal year if new funding methods had not been found. The Medford branch would remain open, but its doors also would close by the 2015-16 fiscal year if funds still were not found.

"I do believe it'll work," said Commissioner John Rachor of the special district idea. "I've analyzed the numbers, and I have confidence it will pass."

County officials plan to survey a portion of likely voters about the idea, with questions addressing whether they would support such a funding option along with the best way to run such a district.

Shaw said the proposal remains in its infancy, as many details — most of all the cost — still need to be ironed out.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.


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