Leaving a trail of two failed levies behind them, library supporters say they've got a tough road ahead as they gear up to persuade voters to keep all 15 branches open into the future.

Leaving a trail of two failed levies behind them, library supporters say they've got a tough road ahead as they gear up to persuade voters to keep all 15 branches open into the future.

Pat Ashley, a member of the newly formed group Coalition for Libraries' Future, said supporters must first determine why people rejected the levies, then muster up the energy to respond to their concerns head on while looking for as many options as possible.

She said that the two levies — in November 2006 and the following May — asked for the same amount of money angered a lot of voters.

"We have a lot of bridges that need to be built," said Ashley. "There is a real chasm."

The libraries begin reopening Wednesday under an outsourcing plan that operates the system at about half the cost — and for about half the previous hours. The county has enough money to keep them open for up to three years, but beyond that there is much uncertainty about funding.

Ashley and other library supporters agree they likely won't ask voters for anything close to the 66 cents per $1,000 in assessed value proposed in the two failed levies.

"I don't think we should forget that we didn't give the voters a choice," said Jim Kelly, a member of the Library Advisory Committee, at a recent meeting.

Supporters also want to show voters they've done everything possible to bring costs down and to look for alternate ways of running the libraries.

Jim Olney, executive director of the Jackson County Library Foundation, said voters sent a clear message to library supporters and the county.

"They urged us to think outside the box," he said. "The whole outsourcing idea is thinking out of the box."

Olney said putting something before voters by 2008 will not provide enough time to build up support. With the presidential election in 2008, it's also a bad time to put something before voters, he said. In addition, voters need to see how well the outsourcing of library services works.

"It's going to take two years to get the conversation going," said Olney.

Once libraries reopen, Olney said he's hoping that residents see how important they are for the community and local schools.

A major uncertainty is whether the U.S. Congress will authorize four more years of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act. A one-year extension pumped an extra $23 million into Jackson County coffers, enabling the reopening of libraries for up to three years. However, any further extensions will likely result in a reduction in the amount of money coming to the county.

Don Rist, an Ashland Realtor who was a vocal critic of both levies, supports the direction the county has taken recently to reopen libraries.

"I think it's off to a great start," he said.

Rist said many Jackson County residents assumed he and others were against libraries, but that wasn't so. He said they were against raising taxes so much that it was going to hurt a lot of property owners.

"That 66 cents just really burned the voters out," he said.

Rist said he gave a few hundred dollars to the levy campaign in Ashland to pay for enhanced hours of operation for that branch.

While he still thinks the county could make do with fewer libraries, he's hoping that officials consider allowing other government use of some of the outlying branches.

If another levy goes before voters in two years to fund libraries, Rist said he thinks it would stand a better chance of passing at around 40 cents a $1,000 in assessed valuation or less.

Ashley said she doesn't want to push any particular idea about the future of libraries prematurely.

"It seems like we have always rushed into something because we were up against a deadline," she said.

Before anything is put to voters, she said it's important to assess how buildings will be maintained and what technological upgrades will be needed in the future. And more information is needed about the creation of special districts that would allow libraries to operate independently of the county.

"We need to ask ourselves: Can we run the libraries on 40 cents or less (per $1,000 assessed valuation)?" she said.

Showing voters why libraries are important, even if some residents don't use or don't care about them, will be part of the strategy, she said.

"I don't use the roads in the eastern part of the county, but you need them," she said.

Genie Gilliam, Library Advisory Committee member, said the entire county budget needs to be reviewed to see if savings can be achieved in other departments, either through outsourcing or by some other means.

"The county commissioners need to build credibility again with the taxpayers," she said. "We need to take a hard look at where our dollars go and stretch them."

The county's struggle to reopen libraries has been difficult but well worth the fight, she said.

"Maybe it's a blessing in disguise that has made us take a harder look at how we spend our dollars," said Gilliam.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.