County's priority: Reopen libraries

The plan to reopen Ashland's library is basically in place. But the future of the library, and indeed the entire library system in Jackson County remains very much an uncertainty.

Measure 15-79 will be put to a vote in Ashland on Sept. 18. If passed, the tax of 58 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value would provide interim funding for two years, generating just over $1 million each year. City officials have said previously the library would reopen in October if the measure passes.

Although it requires a double majority, with more than 50 percent of voter turnout, Mayor John Morrison said he expects the measure to pass based on the May election returns. The countywide tax to fund libraries failed in May, but it had the support of more than 70 percent of Ashland voters.

"What I'm really more concerned with is what happens after two years," Morrison said. "Our long-term strategy is to work with the county to resurrect the county system and do it in a way that is acceptable to all parties concerned."

To find a long-term solution, federal, state, county and city governments all come into play.

On the federal level, Congress is expected to vote on extending the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act in September. The bill, meant to help with loss of timber revenues, affects 39 different states and funds a range of services, including libraries.

April Thomas, a local author, is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to unite people across the nation who would benefit from the bill's extension.

"The leadership in Washington has said that if you write once and you don't ever follow up, nothing is ever going to get done," she said. "They need to hear repeatedly from their constituents."

She encourages people to write monthly to their congressional leaders and to persuade friends and relatives to do the same.

In the meantime, Jackson County still has a small amount of federal money in a rainy day fund, said Dan Thorndike, a co-chair for the citizen task force on Jackson County services, aka the Blue Ribbon Committee.

"The decision is how to use the rainy day fund to reach something sustainable," Thorndike said.

Because the task force must deal with all of Jackson County services, which include public safety, roads and maintenance, and health and human services in addition to libraries, a major concern is the prioritization of available funds.

The task force is waiting on subcommittees to finish their work before making recommendations to the Jackson County Commissioners.

"There are some priorities that unfortunately are ahead of libraries," co-Chair Alan DeBoer said. "We hear a lot of people upset, but I think anybody with a reasonable mind would make the same decision."

County Commissioner Dave Gilmour said some decisions would be made in the next two to four weeks, once the proposals and task force recommendations were in.

"After that, we'll try to get as many (libraries) open as we can with as many resources as we've got," he said.

The goal is to reopen selected libraries on a restricted schedule by early fall. Gilmour does not anticipate opening all 15 branches.

"It's going to take awhile to get a plan that's sustainable," he said. "That's the key. We want to make sure the libraries that we open stay open."

The county also sent letters out to cities asking for additional support. School districts and cities such as Ashland that show willingness to provide additional support to libraries are more likely to get their branches open or to have longer hours, he said.

While waiting for recommendations and feedback from the various entities involved, the commissioners have sent out requests for proposals to outsource library services. No proposals have been received yet, but officials said they expect to receive at least two by the Aug. 6 deadline.

Ashland is already entering negotiations for an intergovernmental contract with Jackson County to operate the libraries, Mayor Morrison said.

"Our first priority is to work still with the regional system," he said.

He does not see state and federal aid as a long-term solution, and because the county outsourcing option will take time to implement, Measure 15-79 can provide necessary interim funding.

"Our policy will be one of maintaining our flexibility to discuss all options, and we'll see if the outsourcing even comes to pass," he said.

So far, the City Council has mixed opinions about outsourcing.

Councilor Eric Navickas said he is strongly opposed.

"The term public library has meaning in a fundamentally democratic society that we provide equal opportunity for information," he said.

If the county decides to outsource operations, Navickas wants to work out an agreement to allow Ashland to hire librarians and buy books while maintaining access to the main library's collection.

Councilor Russ Silbiger said outsourcing was sure to be a contentious issue, but might be a necessary option.

"It doesn't sound good, but everything that's done by government at some point is done by private and vice versa," he said. "I still believe the best solution is going to be a countywide."

Another option that has received some consideration is creating a separate library district, similar to school districts or the Rogue Valley Transportation District.

"They would obviously have to get their own funding source which is the crux of the problem," he said.

For residents who would like to get involved, the city of Ashland is accepting applications for the newly created Citizen Library Advisory Committee.

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