Mayor vows to re-open library

and Robert Plain

Mayor John Morrison vowed to reopen his city's library even as the dust settled over the defeat of a levy Tuesday that would have reopened all 15 branches throughout Jackson County.

"We're going to open the thing up," Morrison said Wednesday. "We have the strong feeling that to have no public library in Ashland is not acceptable to the community."

Certainly the voting returns support Morrison's contention.

Ashland voters approved the library tax levy by 73 percent, with 5,842 people voting for the levy and 2,164 voting against it, according to preliminary number released today by Jackson County. Turnout was high at 8,006 Ashland residents voting, which comprised 14 percent of all countywide votes cast. Ashland saw a 62-percent turnout, compared 53 percent in the county as a whole.

The rural areas outside of the city limits, on the east side of Interstate 5 and going up towards the Greensprings voted to approve the library levy, though by a slimmer majority, with 948 voters approving of the levy and 727 voting against it. Adding the rural areas outside of Ashland drops the percentage by which the Ashland area voted to approve the levy to 70 percent in favor and 30 percent opposed.

Although the mayor would like to open the building "ASAP," Morrison said there are many details to work out and options to consider.

To reopen the library at roughly the same level of operation as before would cost about $1.2 million annually, an amount that would be difficult for the city to carve out of its budget, said Morrison.

Jackson County libraries closed April 6 because Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which provided the county with $23 million annually.

The levy failed 58 percent to 42 percent. Many voters in recent weeks expressed dissatisfaction with raising property taxes, a belief that government isn't using the money wisely and a general feeling that it costs too much to run the library system.

Morrison said he viewed any efforts to reopen the library by the city to be temporary, hoping for a long-term solution such as creation of a special district or a consortium with other cities.

Morrison said one of the options to reopen the library might be a stronger reliance on volunteers to help bring costs down.

He said reopening the library would also require strong cooperation with the county, which currently runs the facility.

Morrison said that if Ashland residents paid to reopen their library, he didn't think it would be fair to expect residents from other parts of the county to have access to the library free of charge.

"I don't think the citizens of Ashland should provide library service for the entire region," he said.

Ashland real estate agent Don Rist, a vocal opponent of the county-wide levy said he would support Ashland's efforts to open its own library.

"I think Ashland, Medford, Rogue River and maybe Eagle Point ought to open a library," he said. "I just don't think there should be 15 of them. I think every community ought to have a right to community self-determination."

But other communities indicated they wouldn't have the financial wherewithal to reopen libraries on their own.

Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler said his city doesn't have the money to reopen the library, which he said would cost $3.8 million annually at previous levels of service. "For a city our size that's a pretty good amount of money," he said.

Wheeler said he will be discussing what to do with the library at tonight's council meeting.

When the city helped persuade legislators in Salem to build the joint Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University building on Riverside, one of the selling points was the proximity to the new library, said Wheeler.

He said an empty library could be a detriment as the city tries to attract other businesses to the downtown, so he's hoping some long-term solution can be found. Wheeler said he's also hoping the library supporters behind the levy will regroup and look at other possible solutions.

"It is really important that we have a library in our city," said Wheeler. "It is really the heart of our community."

Talent City Manager Betty Wheeler said her city doesn't have the money to reopen the new library, which just had its grand opening in February.

"It's really unfortunate," she said. "Our lack of resources means we couldn't do it."

Wheeler said Talent has an agreement with the county that the library building would revert back to the city if the county no longer operated the library. She said the city isn't ready to give up on the idea of a unified library system because it would be more cost effective than running the branches independently.

The city is getting ready to move into its new City Hall this summer next to the new library. Having the building empty is not a prospect the city is looking forward to, she said.

"It certainly will be a discussion of the council," she said.

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