Just who is to blame?

While the sheriff's department remains under staffed, spending millions on opening all of Jackson County's libraries isn't prudent, said Sheriff Mike Winters.

"I have a hard time with the fact that we have 15 libraries in one county," Winters said in an interview. "Do we need libraries? Absolutely. Are libraries important? Absolutely. But do we need 15? Absolutely not."

Instead of opening all of the branches, he suggested that the main library in Medford and "fewer, but larger" branches be set up to serve the four corners of the county. Fewer operating hours than those used before libraries were closed on April 6 could also help, Winters said, in the absence of disappearing federal timber subsidies.

The timber payments, which Congress begun paying 700 counties in 39 states after federal logging restrictions led to diminished harvests, have been used locally to bankroll such things as road construction and public safety programs.

Agreeing that the county has too many library branches, state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said at least the closures have forced officials to explore cost-cutting alternatives, including outsourcing library operations.

"The libraries might not be open as much but it could cut costs in half," said Esquivel, who announced he plans to run for county commissioner sometime in the future. "At least people are thinking outside the box."

Still, library supporters say that the county's libraries should have never been shuttered in the first place since they have a dedicated funding source: a countywide property levy of 62-cents per $1,000 assessed value that voters approved in 1996.

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

Local community leaders, including former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw, have complained that 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 expenditures.

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

Winters said, "a very small group that is making a lot of noise," insisting that the County Board of Commissioners swing open the library doors immediately and paying little regard to the county's overall safety and financial wellbeing is hampering an effort to find a compromise.

"I just can't get on board with that kind of thinking," he said, noting that as some are clamoring for library services, the county sheriff's office needs 30 additional deputies to become adequately staffed.

"If people are willing to meet in the middle then solutions can be made," said Winters, who warned Tuesday that his office lacks the resources to respond effectively to a major emergency such as a large-scale flood or catastrophic fire.

Asked if new taxes are going to have to be part of the county's funding solution, Winters said not so long as agencies continue to tighten their belts, just as his department has scrimped and saved over the last four and a half years, returning $5.2 million back to county coffers.

"There are huge wastes in government systems," he said. "My personal view is the taxes that Americans pay currently is enough to take care of America."

He said rather than sending billions of dollars overseas in foreign aid Congress ought to reauthorize the timber subsidy program, officially known as the Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act of 2000, and give the counties the help they need.

"We need to take care of Americans first," he said.

covers government for the Daily Tidings. He can be reached at csrizo@hotmail.com.

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