Council keeps options open for library

The Ashland City Council voted on Monday night to keep its options open in regards to the fate of the local library.

With a tax levy to support the Ashland Library on a September ballot, and Jackson County working toward opening all 15 area libraries by hiring a private company to operate them, councilors and residents are worried that news of privatized libraries and partial openings might deter voters from supporting the tax levy.

"We need to take a position on why citizens of Ashland should support this levy," Councilor Kate Jackson said. "We don't have all the answers to the questions we have before we take the next step, which is voting."

At a special meeting on Monday, the council debated how best to proceed with a September ballot measure that would increase property taxes to re-open the Ashland Library. The council said it would only use what is needed from a proposed tax of $.58 per thousand dollars of assessed real estate value. The ballot language prevents the city from using the new tax to fund anything else.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said the tax levy could be used to augment service provided by LSSI, the private company from Maryland in negotiations with the county, or create a "hybrid option" using county books and buildings but city staff.

Councilors were receptive to the hybrid option, because it retains public employees in libraries rather than replacing them from the private sector. The down side is that the complication of the plan could further delay re-opening the library.

"I know this is the option that probably suits everyone the best," Bennett said, "but if the county won't play ball it's really not an option. It looks good on paper but the county won't agree to it."

She said it is legally difficult to transfer employees from one public agency to another.

augmenting the county's plan with local tax dollars, the city could add hours of operation, and perhaps some additional services, to the 24 operating hours per week the county is budgeting for Ashland's branch.

Taxing property owners $.15 per thousand dollars of assessed real estate value, roughly $32 a year for a $207,000 home, would add 16 additional operating hours &

40 total &

each week. A $.22 property tax would increase hours of operation to a total of 48.

Library supporters crowded into council chambers during Monday's meeting. Some urged the council to resist efforts to privatize Ashland's library. Others spoke out to reopen the library as soon as possible by working with the county.

"I believe in library service," said former Ashland librarian Amy Blossom. "In this county the only way that is going to happen is through the option given to us, and augment that."

But quicker was not better for those who disagreed with Blossom.

"Their profits are going to come out of the pockets of library employees," said Walt Marsh, who said he would be burning his library card the day they open under a private company.

County Commissioner Dave Gilmour attended the meeting, and encouraged Ashland and other communities to start their own library district. Gilmour, and others at the meeting, said a separate tax district to fund south valley libraries would likely be a better long-term solution than relying on the 15 branch Jackson County model now struggling to provide adequate financing.

"There is no question county funding is very restrictive," he said. "They are probably better off in a separate district."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or .

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