The Jackson County Library District board made the right call Thursday when members voted unanimously to scale back the initial tax rate from 60 cents per $1,000 assessed value to 52 cents. That move was part of a three-year plan crafted by the board that will put the district on a stable foundation going forward.
The reduction in the tax rate from the maximum allowed under the ballot measure should help restore trust with voters, many of whom had been under the impression the district would not need to levy the full rate. It's not a huge amount of money in any case — even at 60 cents per thousand, the owner of a house assessed at $200,000 would have paid $120 a year, or $10 a month. The 52-cent rate the board adopted last week drops that figure to $104 annually, or $8.67 a month.
The adjusted budget will require the district to borrow some money for the first two years, but by the third year, that will end and the library system is projected to run a small surplus.
Extended hours now in place in Ashland and other communities will be maintained, and money set aside to add hours at the main Medford branch as soon as that is feasible.
The district's financial shuffle is forced by the necessity of having to pay for 17 months of operations with 12 months of money, and the need to reimburse the county for operating expenses incurred between July 1 and November, when property tax collections come in.
It's a little hard to understand the county's attitude toward the new system, considering that the county never again needs to pay for libraries, even though it is still collecting the tax levy originally approved for library operations in the 1990s. County officials could have offered to cover the first five months — money that already had been budgeted — but insisted on being reimbursed for that expense, putting the new district in the hole from the start. Despite saving $6.5 million this year alone with the passage of the district, the Board of Commissioners and county administrator have declined to assist the libraries and instead tucked $17 million into their rainy day fund.
Any taxpayers feeling that they are paying more than they anticipated when the district passed have the commissioners to thank.
The county even expects the new district to pay for the cost of the election. It's difficult to see how the county could accurately determine the cost of one item on the ballot in a primary election that had to be paid for anyway. Demanding reimbursement for a measure the commissioners placed on the ballot in the first place seems unnecessarily picky and part of a surprising lack of cooperation on their part — especially when they apparently have $17 million more than they need to run county government this year.
The library district board members are doing their best to get a handle on a complex undertaking — creating a new governmental entity from scratch — and they deserve credit for taking that responsibility seriously and working hard to be fair and to manage their resources wisely. We all — county officials included — should rally round them and help them get this venture started on a solid footing.