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Libraries start new chapter

A budget crisis in 2007 closed Jackson County’s 15 libraries for six months, unleashing a storm of protest and fueling a community effort to ensure their longterm survival.

That momentum will usher in a series of milestones in 2020 when the library system strives to open for more hours, and the ownership of most of the library buildings will pass from Jackson County and local cities to the library district.

One of the biggest changes for 2020 is the end of a contract with Library Systems and Services, a company that has managed the library system and kept it staffed as part of a cost-cutting effort on the part of Jackson County.

The district oversees library branches in every community in Jackson County, from Shady Cove to the Applegate, and from Rogue River to Ashland. Medford has the largest library in the county.

Library Systems and Services was criticized by the district board over low salaries after the company was taken over by Argosy Private Equity in 2015. The board this year pushed for a $1-an-hour wage hike for employees.

Since it formed, the library district board has wanted to directly pay salaries and benefits for the 100 full-time equivalent positions, potentially providing a better wage or benefits package. The details of the new salary schedule are still being worked out.

“Before we give any raises, we want to know what our fiscal position is going to be,” said Susan Kiefer, district board president. “First we have to figure out what the priorities are, but one of our priorities is to pay our staff well.”

Library Systems is a private company, and it won’t release the salary schedule for its workers, saying it’s proprietary information.

The library district board has been looking at other library systems in the state to get an idea of the salaries that should be paid to its workers. A personnel manual, job descriptions and creation of a human resources department are some of the topics the board has been discussing.

The future of local libraries was cloudy until voters in 2014 approved the district and the property taxes to fund it. The district collects 52 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, though it can raise it to 60 cents.

The library district’s 2018-19 revenue from property taxes is $10,200,000. The adopted budget for 2018-19 including contingencies, donations, grants, taxes and other sources is $18,721,041. The contract with Library Systems and Services is $5,337,287.

One of the reasons 2020 is a big year is that $39 million in bonds to remodel or build new libraries, passed by voters in 2000, will be paid off. This will allow the county to sign over the buildings to the library district.

However, not all the buildings are owned by the county. Some of them, such as in Ashland, are owned by the city. In some cases, the buildings are owned by the county or city, and the land is owned by someone else.

“We have a bunch of different ownership scenarios,” Kiefer said.

The county will likely continue to perform maintenance on the library buildings, she said.

Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser said details still need to be worked out before the libraries are turned over to the library district.

“As far as I know, it’s on track,” he said.

The Board of Commissioners would likely vote to turn over the libraries around the time the bonds are paid off in June 2020.

With the libraries no longer part of the county budget, it has helped improve the financial situation for the county, as well.

“I think it’s been beneficial to all concerned,” Strosser said.

With many buildings now operating for 10 years or more, the library district has set aside money for big-ticket items over the next few years, such as replacement of air conditioning systems and painting.

Cathy Shaw, district board president, said the goal is to have all the buildings under the library district’s control sometime around the end of June 2020.

Another issue is working out a contract with Library Systems and Services to continue administering the software system which handles a number of technical features used by patrons.

An online checkout system allows for downloading electronic books, audio books and other formats for adults and children.

Shaw said it’s too soon to say whether library workers will get raises, a better benefits package or both.

She said the libraries have a fairly high turnover rate, which indicates that salary packages are low and need to be raised.

While the district board doesn’t know salary schedules from Library Systems and Services, Shaw said, “Thirty cents of every dollar retained by them is for profit and overhead.”

With so many unknowns, the library district isn’t sure yet how many extra hours will be added to the schedules of the 15 branches.

“We’ll see what we can do with the hours after we get off LSS,” she said.

Shaw said the district likes to keep enough money aside in case repairs are needed on any of the branches.

“We don’t want to be caught by surprise if any renovations come up,” she said.

Maureen Swift, president of the Friends of the Medford Library and a former library district board member, said the libraries are open more hours now than five years ago, but still not enough for some patrons.

She said the current library board is heading in the right direction to get the control over the library system.

“It’s nice to see it finally happening,” she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Stella Burkett reads a book to her son Aidan Bell at the Ashland Library on Wednesday.