Jackson County commissioners struck down a fee to help fill a $6.8 million shortfall after a recent poll showed significant reluctance to pay a monthly surcharge.
Commissioners Doug Breidenthal and John Rachor voted against the fee but wanted to look for other ways to raise at least $5 million to prevent closure of 15 libraries.
Commissioner Don Skundrick, who first proposed the fee, said he couldn't imagine shutting down the libraries, which he said are an important part of local communities.
"I don't want to live in a county without libraries," said Skundrick, who voted against Rachor's motion to drop the fee.
The proposed cost of the fee, also referred to as a jail surcharge, was $7 per month, although the amount eventually could climb to as much as $10 per month.
In a phone survey of 500 likely voters, 57 percent said they opposed a surcharge to fund jail operations, while 31 percent were in favor, and 11 percent undecided. The primary reason cited by those in opposition to the surcharge was the cost, with many saying they could not afford it.
When asked to prioritize funding for county services, those polled put libraries near the bottom of the list.
The county's budget committee determined the libraries must find additional funding sources by the 2014-15 fiscal year, or all branches except Medford could close. The Medford library could close the following fiscal year.
Both Breidenthal and Rachor said they supported libraries but felt the will of the voters regarding the fee came through loud and clear.
Rachor said some people have suggested that enacting the surcharge is taking a higher ground because the public sometimes doesn't know what is in its own best interest.
Ultimately, Rachor said the survey accurately reflects what he believes is the will of the people.
Breidenthal said, "People just can't afford things right now because of the economy."
In addition, residents have often repeated that the county has too many libraries, Breidenthal said.
Commissioners debated putting an operating levy on the May 2014 ballot, or possibly asking voters whether they wanted to create a special district to support libraries.
Skundrick said he thinks any measure placed on the May ballot would face an uphill battle from voters.
"I think it has zero chance of success," he said.
However, he said he would be open to suggestions from library supporters as to what direction the county should take.
One possible idea is to create a special district that includes only those communities such as Ashland that have shown a willingness to support paying extra money for libraries.
Maureen Swift, president of Jackson County Friends of the Library, said the lack of a firm decision to find some way to fund libraries doesn't provide supporters with enough time to organize effectively.
"The fact that the county commissioners continue to dither is a problem," she said. "Time's a'wasting."
Swift said the county is heading down the same path as Josephine County, which temporarily closed libraries and still has a difficult time keeping them open.
Kim Wolfe, Jackson County library director, said supporters will get together as early as next week to discuss options they could present to the commissioners.
She said the libraries are part of the communities they serve, noting that 70,000 people last year used the community rooms in the branches.
"We know that libraries are valuable in the community," Wolfe said.
County Administrator Danny Jordan said closing several outlying libraries in the county would make only a small dent in the overall budget for libraries.
He said he doesn't look forward to the prospect of closing libraries, reminding the audience of the 2007 closure of all branches for six months.
"It was a hellacious experience," Jordan said. "I lost sleep, and I got death threats."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.