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Library district supporters, one opponent address commissioners

At a recent science exhibit at the Medford library, local entomologist John Jackson brought the film "A Bug's Life" to life.

The Bugs R Us owner brought along his insect collection to show the free event's 178 attendees, who were also treated to a buffet of meal worms and dead crickets.

"Not only did we play with live insects, but I fed those patrons bugs as well," Jackson said today at a public hearing on whether to put a special tax district on the May 2014 ballot today.

Jackson was one of 11 to speak to the county's board of commissioners on whether to put the district before the voters. Supporters packed the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium.

O&C and Secure Rural Schools funds have seen significant decreases over the past several years, resulting in hits to Jackson County general fund coffers. Of the libraries' $6.2 million budget for 2013-14, about $5 million comes from the general fund.

Unable to afford continued support, county officials decided during April 2013 budget hearings that 14 of the 15 library branches — all but Medford's — would close during the 2014-15 fiscal year unless alternative funding sources could be found. The Medford library would close in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

To provide the necessary funding, library lovers proposed a special district. If the special district makes it to a ballot and is approved by a majority of voters, that district would cost property owners up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That's $120 a year on a $200,000 house. The tax revenue would generate about $9 million a year, eliminating the need for support from the county general fund and restoring hours to pre-2007 shutdown levels, supporters said. A five-person board separate from the commissioners would run the district.

"The formation of a library district is a solution," said library director Kim Wolfe, adding close to 800,000 people access the county's 15 branches each year. "Libraries are an asset.

Supporters like John Jackson spoke about the educational benefits of libraries.

"Education is a huge aspect to what I do," Jackson said at the meeting. "The library is a central place for the public to come and learn."

Library Lego building program volunteer Helga Motley agreed, saying library educational offerings go beyond books and reference materials.

"It's hands-on learning," Motley said. "It's been an amazing reception."

Other supporters touted libraries as a community asset that offers educational programs, computer classes for seniors and resume help.

"It's not just the warehouse of information you remember from our childhoods," said Maureen Swift, of the Friends of the Medford Library. "The libraries have a very crucial role to play."

Utilizing more tax dollars to support the service was a concern to public hearing attendee Richard Goble of Ruch, who lives on a fixed income.

"People out in Ruch, they don't want anymore taxes," Goble told the board of commissioners, adding he felt 15 libraries throughout the county was excessive. "Find another way to get it. We can't take anymore as taxpayers."

Another public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 12. The commissioners will then make a final decision on whether to send the issue to the voters. Results from a survey conducted by the county showed a slim majority of respondents — 52 percent of 500 likely voters surveyed — said they would vote for a countywide district.

"We've got a tough battle ahead of us, but I've got confidence we can put this forward and make this work," said Commissioner John Rachor.

— Ryan Pfeil