ASHLAND — In the first of five town hall meetings about county funding priorities, some 200 members of the public seemed united about three things: The system is broken; we don't know how to fix it; and things don't look good for raising tax revenues in an anti-tax county.

ASHLAND — In the first of five town hall meetings about county funding priorities, some 200 members of the public seemed united about three things: The system is broken; we don't know how to fix it; and things don't look good for raising tax revenues in an anti-tax county.

While library services are being restored by contracting with a private company, Library Advisory Committee Chair Kathleen Davis cautioned that three obstacles stand in the way of creating a countywide library funding district: the short time before the 2008 elections; the recent local history of defeating library levies; and the fact that, if timber revenues were restored, they would go to the county, not to the library district.

Jackson County lost $23 million in funding when Congress failed to re-authorize legislation that replaced lost timber revenue for counties across the West. County libraries closed in April, and voters rejected library levies in November 2006 and May 2007.

"I'm not sure what would fly in Jackson County or if there is the political will to support a (library) district outside the county government," Davis said.

A library district could be created by petition or by the county commissioners, with petition being the more difficult route, said Commissioner Dave Gilmour. However, if commissioners took the politically charged step of creating a district, they would oversee it unless they handed that power over to a district board, he added.

The public forums are the result of a Task Force on Jackson County Services, which for six months has studied funding alternatives that included proposals such as a property tax surcharge, a real estate transfer tax, local fuel taxes, a 1 percent sales tax and an array of service districts with their own taxing authority.

Pam Vavra, who led the successful campaign for increased property taxes to fund Ashland's library, said that Jackson County has to get the federal government to show up with revenues that are rightly due here.

Gilmour said Oregon's congressional delegation is doing yeoman work to get funding but "so much money is being sucked out of the country now, that it's hard to get the attention of the federal government."

Gilmour also said the county's emergency fund, under these conditions, would be exhausted in seven years.

Many citizens said the problem is systemic and that revenue sources and spending priorities need to be revamped at state and federal levels, not just locally.

"The libraries are just the canary in the coal mine," said laid-off Ashland librarian John Sexton. "It disturbs me (about the emergency fund). Where is the leadership that will effect change here and at the national level? We're being squeezed from the top down and we're all feeling it."

Sexton and others suggested it's time for a "comprehensive revenue source," such as a sales tax, that would capture tourist dollars and relieve the burden of property taxes on retirees and the poor.

"Retirees are hurt most by increasing assessments, and some literally have to choose between food and medicines and paying taxes," Gilmour said.

The crowd applauded loudly when one citizen pointed out that Gilmour was frequently the only county commissioner at such public meetings. They also applauded when someone said the commission, in order to garner a responsive majority on hard questions, needs five or seven members, not just three.

Any countywide tax would face hard going at the polls, said Jim Howe of Medford, because of a widespread impression, whether true or not, that county commissioners have spent money unwisely or have funds secreted away. There's also a sense that libraries are competing against other vital services, including parks, drug prevention and law enforcement.

Town hall moderator Geoff Riley suggested zero-based budgeting, where governments don't just approve regular increases, but start from zero each time, requiring justification for each expenditure.

Diane Davidson of the Medford League of Women Voters summed up the feeling of many, saying a review of all spending and revenue gathering for "a quagmire of services" is needed and is going on all over the United States.

Participants did not sound a clarion call for any particular new direction. In a post-forum interview, Task Force member and former Ashland mayor Alan DeBoer said he saw a great many personal biases in the crowd that would have to be worked through before arriving at a solution. DeBoer said the situation is complicated by Ashland's support of levies, that are often rejected by nearly all the rest of the county.

Ashland City Councilwoman Kate Jackson, a vocal library backer, said any countywide vote "looks tough," and the Oregon Legislature must show some leadership in "the way Oregon gathers income" after the collapse of federal timber funding.

Ashland City Councilman Russ Silbiger said a library district would be "a tough sell. If nobody trusts the money is being spent wisely, then they may have to see services go into disrepair before they can change their minds."

The forums are sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.