• Jackson County library supporters cautiously optimistic about vote

    Library supporters express cautious optimism over library district vote
  • Michelle Blum Atkinson can say she has lived through the largest library closure in U.S. history.
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    • Library Q&A
      Q: How does a library district differ from a tax levy?
      A: A levy is a tax that is set for a fixed period of time and has an expiration date. The county's Board of Commissioners would decide what...
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      Library Q&A
      Q: How does a library district differ from a tax levy?

      A: A levy is a tax that is set for a fixed period of time and has an expiration date. The county's Board of Commissioners would decide what to do with funds from a levy. A district is permanent and funds would be managed by a five-person board whose only concerns would be library functions and operations.

      Q: How much would this measure cost me?

      A: Property owners would pay 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. At that rate, a homeowner living in a house valued at $154,210 — the 2013 Jackson County average — would pay $92.53 per year.

      Q: Who would be in charge of distributing the money this district generates?

      A: An elected five-person board, separate from Jackson County commissioners. A slate of six possible candidates will appear on the May ballot.

      Q: Would passing a library district mean expanded hours and services at all libraries?

      A: Spending would be up to the elected board, but hours and services would at least be maintained and possibly expanded, according to district supporters.

      Q: Would the district's tax rate ever go up?

      A: The initial rate would be set by the five-person board if the measure passes. Any increases beyond the 60-cent ceiling would have to be approved by Jackson County voters.

      Q: What happens if the measure fails?

      A: The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has said 14 of the county's 15 libraries — all but Medford — will close this year. If funding hasn't been found by the start of fiscal year 2015, the Medford library would close also.
  • Michelle Blum Atkinson can say she has lived through the largest library closure in U.S. history.
    The six-month shuttering of Jackson County's 15 branches in 2007 because of cuts in federal funding is still fresh in her mind. The story garnered headlines across the country.
    "That was a time that shocked a lot of people here in Jackson County," says Blum Atkinson, of Jackson County's Library Advisory Committee. "It got a lot of attention. It felt like the world was talking about Jackson County."
    Now a group called Libraries For All is trying to prevent a widespread closure from happening again. It's promoting Ballot Measure 15-122, which if passed would create a taxing district just for libraries managed by a five-person board separate from Jackson County's Board of Commissioners.
    Homeowners would be taxed up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to pay for the district, or about $92.53 annually on a house assessed at $154,210, the average for Jackson County. At its cap, the district would generate around $9 million annually, eliminating the need for support from the county general fund and potentially restoring facility hours to pre-2007 levels, supporters say.
    "I would like to see more hours," says Jackson County libraries Director Kim Wolfe. "More hours means we can provide more services, and there's definitely a need."
    Formed in March, the Libraries for All political action committee has raised close to $30,000 to support Measure 15-122, according to the Oregon Secretary of State's website.
    "Every single corner of the county has its own little independent campaign running," says campaign manager Cathy Shaw. "It's really a campaign with a lot of heart and soul. I've just been really impressed."
    Volunteer Maureen Swift, of Friends of the Medford Library, says a lot of the effort so far has involved door-to-door campaigning and phone calls explaining the district. Supporters also have created an informational website, www.librariesforalljacksoncounty.org.
    So far, Swift says, the campaign is having the intended effect.
    "People are understanding that the campaign is really, essentially, about taking the control of the libraries away from the county commissioners and stopping the drama of every year, 'Are we going to have library funding? Are we not going to have library funding?' " Swift says. "That seems to be appealing to a lot of people, that we'll be able to have stable funding."
    Bruce McGregor, chairman for the Library Advisory Committee, says another aspect to the campaign has been educating voters about library services beyond checking out books. Among these are children's recreation and literacy programs, adult education classes and delivery of books to the disabled, among others.
    "It's another educational source for a lot of people," McGregor says. "There are all kinds of programs out there like that."
    Shaw says about 65,000 people utilize the community rooms in libraries every year. Libraries in outlying communities are often viewed as a town meeting place, she says. Home-schoolers also are frequent patrons of the facilities.
    "It's a place to meet. They serve many functions," Shaw says.
    Rosemary Pease, a reader for children's storytime sessions at the Phoenix library, says the program and others like it make contemporary libraries more like community hubs.
    "I see older people coming to get books, to work on the computers," Pease says. "I think it's just important that we have that to offer."
    Phoenix resident Kevin George, who regularly takes his three grandchildren to the storytime events, agrees.
    "It's invaluable," he says. "I mean, it's really a gift."
    Jackson County paid for a survey of 500 likely voters to see whether a majority would approve a library district at the ballot box. Survey results showed 52 percent voted in the affirmative, a slim margin, but enough to instill confidence in many supporters.
    Libraries For All officials say those who indicated they wouldn't vote for the measure cite finances and an objection to new taxes.
    "It is a concern," says Commissioner John Rachor, library liaison.
    Others are skeptical that funds collected would actually go directly to support libraries, even though the district would be required to under state law.
    "One thing that keeps coming up over and over is people want to know that their money is going to the library," Blum Atkinson says.
    Measure 15-122 arose last year after the county commissioners said they would have to close the libraries again to help shore up a $6.7 million shortfall unless more revenue was found. Commissioners said the smaller libraries might have to close this year, and the Medford library would be closed the following year. The county has since made up the shortfall with rainy-day reserves, lower expenses and boosts in revenue from several sources, including property taxes and state funding.
    Commissioner Chair Don Skundrick proposed a surcharge for the Jackson County Sheriff's Department to free up additional general funds for other departments such as libraries. After that failed, Shaw proposed creating a special district that would keep libraries open in House District No. 5, or the cities of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Ruch, Jacksonville and the Applegate. Other communities could later opt into the district.
    The commissioners opted to support a district that would cover the whole county instead and be decided by all voters.
    Campaign volunteers say they will work right up until the last votes are counted.
    "Cautiously optimistic is the best way I can put it," Swift says of her confidence the ballot measure will pass. "All we can do is our part in this campaign and hope for the best. Our view is that this is going to be a campaign right up until 8 o'clock May 20."
    Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.
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