Countywide library district could head to voters next year

Jackson County officials want to put a measure on the May 2014 ballot that would create a countywide special district to pay for all the 15 branch libraries.

The decision comes on the heels of a survey that polled 500 likely voters — those who have voted in at least two of the last four elections — in Jackson County. Of those surveyed, 52 percent supported creating a special district to fund libraries with a tax rate of 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, survey results show. That's $120 for a $200,000 home.

"I think it has a shot," said Commissioner John Rachor. "(But) I'd rather have a bird in the hand than two in the bush."

The "bird in the hand" was reference to a proposed library district that would only include the southern part of the county, which has typically voted in support of funding libraries.

Rachor supported the proposed South Valley District, which originated with former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw and would create the special district within House District No. 5. The cities of Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Applegate and Ruch would be included in the boundary for a start. After that, other cities could annex in or create their own district and contract for services.

Based on Shaw's research, voting results from the 2006 election — when a library levy was on the ballot, but failed — show a majority of voters in House District No. 5 supported the levy. Shaw also factored in voter turnout from the 2010 midterm elections and voter registration numbers from 2012.

"It's a known quantity, it's a known area," Shaw said.

The Library Advisory Committee board voted unanimously for the funding proposal back in July.

But Commission Chairman Don Skundrick and Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said they want the whole county to have a say instead of just a portion.

"I would hope we're not building a divide," Skundrick said.

But even with the slim margin of support for a countywide special district reflected in the survey results, Shaw isn't confident a majority of voters would favor it in an election. She said at least 60 percent of respondents would have to vote in the affirmative for the measure to hold up at the ballot box.

"I think a countywide measure has anywhere from little to no chance of winning," Shaw said. "Issues get beaten up in the process of campaigning."

The next step for creating a countywide district will consist of either the commissioners or a political action committee going to cities in Jackson County to see which ones would sign on so county officials could adjust the proposed rate, if needed, and define district boundaries.

The need to find an alternative for funding libraries came during the county's budget hearings in April, where the county was tasked with closing a $6.7 million budget gap for the fiscal year. The county's budget committee did that by cutting $1.4 million from departments like the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Development Services, marketing, the Oregon State University Extension Service, libraries and others. About $5.3 million in rainy-day funds covered the remaining shortfall.

A drive to launch a special district to pay for continued Extension Service programs is also underway.

— Ryan Pfeil

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