Jackson County libraries, including the branch in Ashland, face closure if the county cannot come up with new funding.

Jackson County libraries, including the branch in Ashland, face closure if the county cannot come up with new funding.

County Commissioner Don Skundrick brought that message to Ashland city councilors during a special briefing Monday night.

Without additional revenues, all library branches except Medford's would close in the fiscal year that begins July 2014, Skundrick said.

The Medford branch would then close the following year, he said.

The county is suffering from a phase-out of federal payments that helped cover losses from falling federal timber sale revenues that are shared with counties.

Jackson County library supporters could try to put a levy on the ballot to fund the library system, but county voters defeated previous levy attempts in 2006 and 2007.

Libraries closed in April 2007, then re-opened late that year after federal payments were extended.

To save money, the library system operates with reduced hours and under the management of Maryland-based Library Systems and Services.

Ashland has a supplemental levy that pays for extra services and hours of operation at its branch. That levy costs the owner of a home assessed at $245,000 — the median in Ashland — an extra $46.55 per year in property taxes.

To indirectly spare the library system from closure, Skundrick is proposing a jail fee of $84 per year for each household and building in the county.

That would raise $7 million for the Jackson County Jail system, freeing up money for other county services, such as the library, he said.

"I need the library people to help me get this passed," Skundrick said.

While such fees are legal without voter approval, Jackson County Commissioners John Rachor and Doug Breidenthal opposed the idea on the grounds that it was a back-door tax, Skundrick said.

To get their support, Skundrick said he agreed to place the issue before voters in November.

The county is doing a survey to gauge whether a jail fee has any support. Results are expected at the end of next week, Skundrick said.

"It will let us know if we're just whistling Dixie," he said. "If the response is an overwhelming 'no,' we won't do it because of the expense of putting it to voters."

If the response from surveyed residents is somewhat positive, the jail fee proposal could go to voters, Skundrick said.

"We may have a chance to get this done," he said.

In addition to declining federal payments, the county was hard-hit by surprisingly high contributions it must pay into the state-run Public Employees Retirement System, Skundrick said.

The county was notified earlier this year that it must pay $3.6 million in additional unexpected PERS costs, Skundrick said.

For comparison, the library system costs about $6 million annually to run and the jail system costs $10 million to $11 million, he said.

The city of Ashland was also hit by a higher-than-expected PERS contribution for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

In a budget message to Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee members, City Administrator Dave Kanner and Administrative Services and Finance Director Lee Tunberg wrote, "Unfortunately, there remains on the horizon a looming threat to Ashland's financial stability and one that is completely beyond our control: The skyrocketing cost of Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System (PERS)."

If the Oregon Legislature does not act to rein in PERS costs, the city of Ashland, school districts and other local governments will continue to be harmed, the message said.

The PERS Money Match retirement option gives employees and retired workers a guaranteed 8 percent return on their retirement accounts, regardless of the performance of PERS investments, according to Fix PERS Now, a coalition of organizations that include school and business groups.

During earlier stock market booms, the PERS board gave retirement accounts annual returns of up to 20 percent, rather than contributing 8 percent and keeping the rest in reserves, according to Fix PERS Now.

PERS continued to pay the 8 percent guaranteed return during stock market crashes, according to Fix PERS Now.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.