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Library funding in jeopardy

Voters could be asked to approve a special Jackson County library district that would provide stable funding for local libraries through increased property taxes.

Jackson County stands to lose nearly $17 million in federal OC funding, according to county library officials.

When the West was being settled, the federal government gave land to the Oregon California Railroad, but later took back that land. Congress agreed to pay rural counties 25 percent of timber sale revenues from the land to make up for property taxes the counties could not collect because of the federal ownership.

After timber harvest levels on federal land plummeted, Congress agreed to continue providing funding to the counties.

That funding is now in jeopardy in the wake of a ballooning federal budget deficit.

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It is unlikely the federal government, with the current debt, will be willing to allocate those funds in the way they have done in the past,&

Jackson County Library Advisory Committee member Kathleen Davis told the Ashland City Council during a meeting earlier this month.

Individual city councils in Jackson County are being asked to adopt resolutions by May 17 if they wish to have their cities included in the proposed library district, according to library advisory committee members and Jackson County Library Director Ronnie Budge.

Budge said she will provide additional information, including a 25-page feasibility report, to the Ashland City Council in the next few weeks before she formally asks them to adopt the resolution.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners will decide what type of library district to put on the ballot, Budge said.

The library district likely would have the same boundaries as Jackson County and would be governed by a board of directors, according to library advisory committee members and Budge.

The library advisory committee has not yet decided what property tax rate to recommend.

The committee could recommend a bare bones amount, increasing the proposal's chances of passing, or recommend a higher amount to allow libraries to increase their hours of operation.

Shortened operating hours have generated complaints from users of Jackson County libraries, according to Davis and Budge.

About four years ago, the Ashland Public Library opened at 10 a.m. six days a week and was closed on Sundays, according to staff at the reference desk.

Now, the library opens at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, at noon on four other days of the week, and remains closed on Sundays. Evening hours also were reduced by two hours a week, reference desk staff said.

Total hours were reduced from 50 hours per week to 40 hours per week.

Cities can opt out of the library district, but then would have to find alternative methods for funding their libraries if voters approved the district.

Cities that funded their own libraries could not enjoy the benefits of being part of the system, such as borrowing books and other items from other libraries, Davis said.

Voters approved a county-wide $39 million bond in 2000 to build and expand libraries. Those funds cannot be used for library operations, according to Budge.

The Jackson County library system has 15 branches and an approximately $8 million operating budget this fiscal year. More than 125,000 adults and children in the county use their local libraries each year &

borrowing 1.45 million items, asking 220,000 reference questions and booking more than 220,000 sessions on library computers, according to Budge and the library advisory committee.

The last federal payment to Jackson County is due in October unless Congress reauthorizes the funding, Budge and committee members said.

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We simply can't envision our community without the library,&

Mayor John Morrison said.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.