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County budget includes library funding

The Jackson County Budget Committee on Thursday approved a $306.3 million county budget that includes one year of funding for the county library system and significantly expands mental health services.

The budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1, is up from the current fiscal year's adopted budget of $301.9 million.

The budget includes approximately $15 million in increased Health and Human Services Department spending as the county radically expands mental health services in response to the federal Affordable Care Act.

The Oregon Health Authority and coordinated care organizations, which provide health care, are providing funding for the county to deliver more mental health services, County Administrator Danny Jordan said.

The county has been racing to hire the equivalent of 50.8 full-time employees, including psychiatric nurse practitioners, to meet that demand, he said.

Before the Affordable Health Care Act, about 19,000 of the county's 203,000 residents were covered by the Oregon Health Plan.

The county was responsible for providing mental health care to about 2,000 of those OHP patients who needed such care, Jordan said.

The number of residents covered by OHP has surged to more than 50,000, creating an increase in patients eligible for mental health services, he said.

Jordan said the overall county budget has been kept under control by savings from the Public Employee Retirement System and the county's self-insurance health plan, as well as one-time or unpredictable windfalls, such as an extension of federal payments to counties hurt by reduced timber harvests. Many county employees are also going without cost-of-living increases.

He said money is included in the current fiscal year budget to fund current operations for the library system, but there is no guarantee of future funding.

In May, county voters will choose whether to approve a taxing district that would provide money just for library operations. The library district would be separate from the county government.

Homeowners would be taxed up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to pay for the district, or about $92.53 annually on a house assessed at $154,210, the average for Jackson County.

Jordan said he can't advocate for or against the measure under state elections laws, but a library district would provide reliable operating revenue.

"Libraries could set a standard of service. Right now, it's unstable," he said.

Jackson County Library Advisory Committee member Michelle Blum Atkinson said the district would provide permanent, predictable funding, without the instability of year-to-year county funding.

"It's the only thing we can do to make sure libraries stay open," she said.

Last year, before receiving updated budget news, county officials predicted smaller library branches would have to close this year and the main Medford branch would close the following year. That prompted library supporters to put the library district proposal before voters on the May 20 ballot.

In 2007, Jackson County's 15 branches closed for six months because of cuts in federal payments to counties that once relied on shared revenues from timber sales.

The branches reopened with reduced hours and services.

In other county budget developments, the county's planning department plans to hire two new employees because of the improving economy and increased revenues from building permits.

With funding from a grant, the county will add an employee to the District Attorney's Victims' Assistance Program.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.