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Library tax district will be on May ballot

A proposal intended to create a special tax district to fund Jackson County libraries will go on the May 2014 ballot.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners gave the measure a green light at its weekly public meeting Wednesday. District proponents packed the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium, with 16 speakers taking to the microphone during a final public hearing on the measure. Fifteen of them spoke in favor of creating the district.

Several supporters talked about the personal value libraries had to them.

"We go to the library every single day and read (my son) books," Ashland resident Juliana Neufeld said of her 2-month-old son Jayden Cook. "The library is just really important to me and our family."

Grace Thieme of Medford echoed that sentiment. In a semi-autobiographical statement she prepared, Thieme recalled fond memories of coming to the library as a child.

"It was a big deal back then to check out a book," Thieme told the board. "I still use the same library card back when I signed my name with a little heart at the end."

Otto Kahnert of Medford was the lone speaker against the proposal, suggesting a user fee in lieu of a district, saying he believed more taxes would be a burden.

"This is freeloading," Kahnert told the board. "People on Medicare, they won't be able to afford all these taxes with new ones coming up all the time."

If approved by voters, the district would create a property tax up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That's an average of $92.53 annually for the average Jackson County homeowner, based on 2013 data.

"You're going to have a lot of work in front of you," commission Chairman Don Skundrick said to library supporters.

At the maximum rate, the tax would bring in $9.97 million in the first year, an amount that exceeds the libraries' $6.2 million budget. A board of directors separate from the county commissioners would run the district.

Most of the $6.2 million comes from the county's general fund, which has taken several hits in recent years from declining timber revenues. Library supporters have noted, however, that more than 30 percent of the county's general fund tax rate comes from a library levy that was rolled into the larger budget by passage of a statewide measure.

During April 2013 budget hearings, county officials said 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 2015-16 if that continued. Library supporters came up with the district as a possibility. The board said they could have imposed a fee to fund the libraries, but wanted to let Jackson County voters decide instead.

"I've been a strong supporter of the district from the beginning," Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said. "But the community decides."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.