County looks at privatization for library

An idea to privatize Jackson County libraries is receiving serious consideration, sources said Friday.

The move would save taxpayers money by reducing the number of librarians, the wages they earn and the benefits they receive.

Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker said that privatization is just one of many options under consideration as a way to fund the county's main library and its 15 branches.

"It is always a possibility, but it's not a decision that's been made," Walker said in a telephone interview Friday.

According to documents obtained by The Daily Tidings, one outsourcing firm has contacted the county expressing interest in staffing Jackson County's library system at an estimated cost savings of 40 percent.

Also, according to sources and confirmed by county officials, the Medford city library could remain closed and its building leased to the multi-county Education Service District since the city says it is unable to contribute financially to its reopening.

County Commissioner Dave Gilmour said while the privatization could potentially save the county millions serious questions remain.

"We haven't promised anyone anything yet, and we're still looking at all the options," Gilmour said. "Nothing has been thrown off the table."

Gilmour, the three-member county executive board's lone Democrat, said one of the concerns he has with outsourcing is that library employees, laid off currently, would lose their benefits and retirements if a private contractor took over library staffing.

"I really have mixed feelings," Gilmour said. "Right now, I'd have to be convinced that this would be the right thing to do."

Whatever the county decides to do, Gilmour said he wants all of its communities treated equally, and have equal access to books.

If the City of Medford is unable to pony up and help finance its library as Ashland is theirs, he said an alternative ought to be sought by the commissioners.

Leasing the Medford library to the Education Service District""or to anyone else""would be unfair to residents, he said.

"Why would we want to do that," Gilmour asked of the lease proposal, "so people in Medford can walk by and look through the windows at what was their library?"

In what's described as the largest library closure ever in the nation, Jackson County commissioners closed the county's library on April 6, after Congress failed to reauthorize the $425 million a year Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000.

The money, which Congress began paying 700 counties in 39 states after federal logging restrictions led to diminished harvests has, in addition to libraries, been used locally to finance such things as road construction and public safety programs.

Last year, Jackson County received $23 million in timber subsidies, under the program.

Library supporters say that they question of privatization should not even be on the table, since voters in 1996 approved a countywide library levy of 62-cents per $1,000 assessed value.

The levy, which they say generated $8.2 million for libraries last year, is sufficient to have kept the county's library operational.

Community leaders, including Former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw, say instead of using the money solely for libraries as voters intended, the county has used it to bankroll public safety programs, which now that libraries are closed will account for some-90 percent of the county's general fund outlays.

"We don't have a library funding problem," Shaw said. "What we have is a public safety funding problem."

She added, "For 30 years, libraries have not been funded with OC funds, so why library funding is being discussed in the context of lost OC funding is anyone's guess."

The Service Employees International Union, which represents 104 county library workers, says commissioners should eschew privatization, and look toward a long-term funding solution since county voters this month rejected overwhelmingly an $8.2 million levy to prop up the libraries.

"For the county to spend its money enabling a contractor to make a profit doesn't seem to be the way to go," said Kathie Best, a spokeswoman for SEUI Local 503.

Library outsourcing may contribute to a company's bottom line, but Jackson County Commissioner Dennis C.W. Smith said a "substantial savings" has been realized by privatizing other county services, including kitchen and inmate health care services at the county jail.

He cautioned that the county has only just begun the privatization discussion, and concedes that it may not work.

"Our objective is to open the libraries as soon as possible and provide public service," Smith said. "We will get the libraries open; it's just a matter of time."

As for concerns that the move would not preserve prevailing wages and benefits, he said, "I don't think I took an oath of office to do that."

Former Ashland Mayor Alan DeBoer is the vice-chairman of the 13-member of Task Force on Jackson County Services, charged by the Board of Commissioners to provide long-range solutions to the county's worsening financial crisis in the absence of timber subsidies.

DeBoer said as an advocate for free markets, he feels personally that it would be "far better" for the library to be under private control, especially if it could save the county a "significant amount" of money.

"I support anything that would get the libraries open," said DeBoer, who owns Town and Country Chevrolet of Ashland.

Running the library, DeBoer said, would be a "wonderful business opportunity" for a local entrepreneur to earn a good living while providing a noble service.

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