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Josephine County will vote on library district

If Measure 17-62 passes, Nov. 4 will be Independence Day for Josephine County libraries.

In 2007, the county closed its libraries in Grants Pass, Cave Junction, Wolf Creek and Williams to save money. The next year, a nonprofit organization called Josephine Community Libraries reopened the libraries on a thin diet of donations, grants and volunteer labor.

Measure 17-62 would create a countywide, independent library district, run by its own elected board of five and supported by its own property tax. The county would still own the library buildings, but would have no control over the money or the management of the new district.

The tax rate would be capped at 39 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or about $59 a year on a property assessed at $150,000. Because of voter-approved property tax limits, assessed values are generally lower than market values.

A similar library district measure passed in Jackson County in May. The district board there initially decided to start at the maximum tax rate of 60 cents per $1,000 assessed value, then lowered it to 52 cents per $1,000 after getting an earful from the public.

Although Measure 17-62 proposes a more conservative cap of 39 cents per $1,000, the new district would have to charge the full rate from the start, according to Harry Mackin, co-chairman of the Keep Our Libraries Open committee.

If Measure 17-62 is approved, Mackin estimated, the district's annual budget would be about $2.2 million — $1.7 million more than the current budget, he said.

The district would need continuing help from volunteers, but the tax would enable the four libraries to significantly increase their hours. Currently, the Grants Pass library is open 24 hours a week. Branches in Wolf Creek, Williams and Cave Junction are open for 13 hours a week or less. Also, book collections could be updated, computers for the public added and literacy programs restored.

"I think people who are not around the library very much would be very surprised at the number of people who use this, and, really, the importance of the library to them," said Laurel Samson, co-chairwoman of Keep Our Libraries Open.

Despite the reduced hours and services, last year library cardholders checked out more than 300,000 books and other items, and about 2,000 used the library's computers each month to access the Internet, use the online reference resources or pick up high-speed Internet wireless service.

"I think we often think the library sort of froze in time back when we were kids," Samson said. "They have kept up with the times."

The proposal certainly has its share of critics.

Former Josephine County Commissioner Sandi Cassanelli said the county gave money to JCL after a sheriff's levy failed in 2008. "It was kind of shocking that Commissioners Dave Toler and Dwight Ellis would take — I guess it was $300,000 — and give it to this non-governmental, not-for-profit organization."

According to Cassanelli, about $70,000 of that money legitimately came from a library trust fund, but the other $230,000 was from the general fund and should have been used to bolster sheriff's patrols.

She said JCL also has received about $130,000 in county economic development funds over a four-year period. "Realistically, how much economic development is coming out the library system?" The money could have been used to spur construction by reducing permit fees, Cassanelli argued.

For district supporters, one of the biggest concerns has been making sure distrustful voters understand the district and its money would be completely walled off from county government and from JCL.

Mackin blamed any lingering confusion on critics who claim a private group like JCL would rule. "The publicly elected board is going to run it, with taxpayer funds, just like a fire district or a school district," he said.

JCL might become a library auxiliary group, similar to Friends of the Library. Or it could bid on the contract if the elected library board decides to seek bids from private contractors to run the library.

Five people are running in November for the five seats on the Community Library District Board: Sherry Crossno, Pat Fahey, Susan Cohen, William Kohn and Jim Polk.