Property tax increase a possible solution for libraries

Library supporters may have to place a levy on the May 2014 ballot if they hope to keep Jackson County's 15 branches open after this year.

Commissioner John Rachor told the Jackson County Library Advisory Committee Monday afternoon that a property tax may be the next recourse after a phone survey showed 57 percent of respondents opposed a proposed $7 surcharge on monthly utility bills to stave off cuts in libraries, the Oregon State University Extension Service, public health and other programs.

"That's the rumblings and suggestions I hear," Rachor said. "The public doesn't favor the surcharge, so we'll probably ask for a levy."

Rachor said a levy of 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation would provide the nearly $5 million needed to keep all branches open. On a house assessed at $189,000, the median price of single-family homes in the county, the tax would amount to $51 a year.

Commissioners at their 9:30 a.m. meeting today will discuss options for keeping libraries going, including referring a levy to the May primary ballot.

Rachor cautioned that it's a difficult sell when a proposed levy goes above 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

"People would really have to appreciate it," he said.

Rachor suggested the possibility of saving some, but not all branches.

"The more we have, the harder it is to fight for them," he said, adding that Jackson County has the most branches in Oregon after Multnomah County.

Marjorie Showalter of Jackson County Friends of the Library said because levies must be renewed every one to five years, a special taxing district is needed to ensure stable funding.

A levy would only be a thumb in the dike, said member Carolyn Stieber.

As a marketing strategy, Stieber suggested a campaign that's been successful in Michigan that urged voters to vote no "if you want to close libraries" and hold a book-burning party.

Libraries are working hard to market their services and raise awareness of their importance in the county, said Jackson County Library Director Kim Wolfe.

County commissioners in May agreed to provide six months' worth of funding for libraries and other services in the hope a solution could be found to shore up a $6.7 million shortfall in the budget. Commissioner Don Skundrick proposed the $7 monthly surcharge, but a majority of those surveyed by phone said they could not afford it.

The county has said if no solution is found, it may be able to fund only Medford's branch in 2014-15, and possibly provide no funding at all for libraries in 2015-16.

Rachor said that if libraries closed, they would still require $600,000 to $900,000 a year to maintain.

Ashland has approached county leaders about ways to keep its branch open and had a work session three weeks ago, said branch manager Amy Blossom. She said Ashland has a history of taxing itself for special issues when funding up the pipeline fails.

"The citizens of Ashland are already paying a tax dedicated to keeping the library open an extra 16 hours a week, so what happens to that money" if the system closes? Blossom asked.

If a library levy is joined on the ballot by taxing proposals from several other entities — such as the Southern Oregon Historical Society and the Extension Service — its chances of passing will go down, said Rachor.

Committee member Janet Anderson said the levy would amount to going without coffee or wine for one day a month.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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