Library funding options discussed at public hearing

Supporters determined to find a solution to keep Jackson County's 15 branch libraries open in spite of diminishing funds packed the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium Wednesday, offering up several suggestions to the Board of Commissioners.

While the crowd a public hearing brought up levies, special districts and taxes, officials said they haven't settled on a funding mechanism.

"We're still reviewing options," said Kim Wolfe, Jackson County Libraries director. "We want to get all the options on the table."

More than a dozen concerned library employees, volunteers, and parents spoke out at the meeting, with all speakers urging county officials to not close the doors on the libraries' 89 employees, 200 plus volunteers and thousands of library card holders.

"I think literacy is something that is so important for our community," said Michelle Blum Atkinson of the Library Advisory Committee. "No one wants to shut the libraries down."

Such a closure could be on the horizon. During the county's budget hearings in April, the board passed a motion to close 14 branch libraries by the start of the 2014-15 fiscal year if alternative funding sources have not been found. If that trend continues in 2015-16, the Medford branch would close, too. County officials said money just isn't there and the county would have to dip into its rainy day fund reserves to make up the difference.

"This isn't something that just happened. This is something that's been an issue for the last five years," Commissioner Chairman Don Skundrick said.

During this spring's budget process, the county faced a $6.7 million budget gap. The shortfall was due to a drop in federal O&C funds, and declines in property taxes and interest income.

Officials proposed filling the gap with about $5.3 million from the county's rainy day fund and making $1.4 million in cuts to several departments, including the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Development Services, marketing, the Extension Service and others. Later, a majority of those departments received six months of funding back to give them time to look for alternative funding methods.

Skundrick proposed an annual $84 surcharge — $7 a month — to support Jackson County Jail operations, freeing up its portion of the general fund to pay for libraries and other departments on the chopping block.

A survey of 500 Jackson County's likely voters — those who have voted in at least two of the last four elections — showed 57 percent opposed the idea because they considered it too expensive, so the county dropped the idea.

At today's hearing, the search for money continued, with library supporters and the board trying to find a solution. Library officials also urged the commissioners for adequate time to develop one.

"We have to develop a way to spread out the burden, and right now the burden is on Jackson County," said Shelley Austin of the Jackson County Library Foundation.

Michael Morgan of Medford attended the meeting with his 11-month-old daughter. He told the board the libraries are an invaluable resource for children like his because of the programs and educational materials that can better-prepare them for school.

"To eliminate the library system here in the valley, which, realistically, is one of the crown jewels of the valley...we're just going to do a disservice," Morgan said.

— Ryan Pfeil

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