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Library district board, county at odds over proposal

A newly formed Jackson County Library District board found itself stumbling over a multi-million dollar agreement with the county Thursday while fending off criticism over its decision to assess the maximum tax rate possible.

The board expressed dismay at a draft agreement with Jackson County over the management of the library system at a cost of about $6.5 million. Under the contract, the county would continue to pay LSSI, a private company that now operates the library branches. It would also provide administrative and finance office support and maintain the buildings.

The library district was created in a countywide vote in May after the county had given notice that it was running out of money for library operations. When voters approved the library district, the county agreed to continue to run the libraries for the time being, with funding for the operations coming from the new district.

Board Vice President Monica Weyhe said Thursday she worried the county was getting the better of the deal because revenues collected by the district would be deposited in the county's interest-bearing account.

Weyhe said she would like to see a monthly accounting of expenses from the county to provide greater clarity.

"It is a lot of obfuscation, in my humble opinion," she said.

The board expressed concern about how much the county would charge for administrative costs, how the county's expenses on behalf of the district would be accounted for, and that the board couldn't determine what services they would be getting for the $6.5 million payment.

"I've seen instances where they've thrown over the wall certain costs," board member Maureen Swift said. She said while the county put the library measure on the ballot, it has suggested the district now pay for the cost of the election. At first the county calculated the costs at $30,000, but now say it's $5,000, Swift said.

"I get very concerned about the lack of specificity," she said.

Commissioner John Rachor later told the Mail Tribune the question of who would pay for the election costs came up a long time ago.

"If the measure passes, then we determined the cost of the election is paid back from the income from the taxes," he said. If the special district didn't pass, the county would have to pay the expenses, Rachor said.

"That's why we don't put too many of these things out to vote," he said.

Rachor said he hadn't looked at the agreement with the library district yet, but said those sorts of agreements often result in strained relations.

"We get beat up all the time if we approve a contract or set a fee," he said.

The county is trying to cover its expenses and wants to help the library district get through this difficult start-up period, he said.

"We're not trying to make a profit off of anyone," Rachor said.

But library board members also worried that book fines and other fees and revenues would flow into the county coffers rather than into a separate fund for the district.

"I think it should all be put in our pot," Kiefer said. "I'm afraid it will get lost." She said she wanted to be able to see a list of expenses the county has paid on behalf of the district.

"We need clarity," she said.

In addition, the board said it was faced with about $75,000 in expenses associated with forming the district, including the cost of the election, insurance, attorney's fees and other costs.

Board member Carol Doty said she wants an agreement with the county that reflects extra hours at some of the branches as well as picking up the more than $500,000 previously paid for by other communities for added hours and services at various branches. She said she doesn't see these items in the county's budget for the libraries.

"They keep saying they're not going to do more than what's in the budget," she said.

The budget and specifically the decision to levy the full tax of 60 cents per $1,000 of property value, drew criticism from some members of the audience.

"You have created furor in the community because you agreed to OK 60 cents per $1,000," said Medford resident Joel Marks.

He said that decision will likely doom a Rogue Valley Transportation District measure in November asking for 13 cents per $1,000. There were suggestions during the campaign that the district would not seek the full amount.

Marks said the board's action to take the maximum rate was "irresponsible" and would particularly affect seniors and others who rely on the bus system.

Board member Susan Kiefer said the library district supporters had not campaigned on a promise of a lower levy and were very careful not to say exactly how much the district would charge once it formed.

Ruch resident Wright Kieran, however, said she believed voters were assured that they wouldn't be charged the full 60 cents.

"We have cognitive dissonance here," he said. "I and a great many other people in this county have been victims of a bait-and-switch scheme." Board President Jill Turner said the district found it had no choice but to levy the full amount when it learned it would have to pay for the operations of the libraries for 17 months rather than just 12. The district won't collect taxes until November, which means the county will foot the bill in the interim but will be repaid when the tax revenues arrive.

The additional up-front costs to run the district were unexpected, Turner said.

"It took us by surprise, as well," she said.

However, she said, a suggestion that 42 cents per $1,000 would be enough to run the libraries was a "misrepresentation." She said it would cost 52 cents per $1,000 to continue operating existing hours.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.