A proposed special district to fund Jackson County's libraries would generate an estimated $9 million a year, enough to eliminate the need for county general fund support and bring library hours back to pre-shutdown levels, library officials said.
Proponents of the district plan to visit city councils throughout the county over the next few months to glean their support for getting a measure on the ballot in May 2014.
"We're going to try to make sure all the city councils are visited between now and the end of the year," said Bruce McGregor, chairman for the Library Advisory Committee.
Ultimately, how the revenue is spent would be up to a five-person board of directors, separate from the county, though the county still would own the buildings and materials.
The money generated represents about $3 million more than the libraries' current annual budget, which supporters say would bolster operating hours to the same level they were before all branches were shut down for six months in 2007.
The district would tax Jackson County homeowners up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on their homes if passed. That's $120 a year on a $200,000 home. But that rate could be adjusted, depending on how many cities approve of putting the issue before their voters.
"In theory, we don't know how big a campaign we need to run until we see which cities want to be involved," said Maureen Swift of Friends of the Medford Library. "We're still analyzing the best ones to go forward in certain communities."
After cities weigh in on the proposed district, Jackson County commissioners will set dates for two public hearings before formally referring the measure to a ballot.
Libraries suffered more cuts this year as commissioners worked to close a $6.7 million budget gap. The county decided that 14 of the 15 branches — all but Medford — would close by the 2014-15 fiscal year unless alternative funding sources were found. The Medford library would close during the 2015-16 fiscal year if the trend continued.
The county conducted a survey to gauge the popularity of using a special district to fund libraries. The results showed a slim majority of respondents — 52 percent — were in favor of the 60 cents per $1,000 rate. In Ashland, however, 75 percent of respondents said they would vote in favor of the rate.
Former Ashland mayor and political analyst Cathy Shaw thinks the high rate of support in Ashland is why a special district localized to House District 5 has a better chance of passing than a countywide measure. The district includes Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Applegate and Ruch. Additional Jackson County cities could opt in to the district later.
"This is a first step to uniting all libraries with each other," Shaw said of the resolution. "We would step off the plate first, and then we would invite others to join."
Shaw's research shows the failed 2006 levy that led to the shutdown of the libraries had generous support within House District 5. Combine that with voter turnout from the 2010 midterm elections and 2012 voter registration numbers, and she thinks the voter turnout would pass in such a district.
Survey results also showed 62 percent of respondents preferred an independently elected board to govern the district, with 25 percent preferring governance by the county's Board of Commissioners. Additionally, respondents voiced majority support for making cuts to the least-used branches, branch hours and days of operation if the library system had to make cuts.
Commissioner John Rachor had originally supported the "South County District" idea, saying the slim majority of support for a countywide district revealed in the survey concerned him.
"I wouldn't invest in a business that had a 52 percent approval rating," Rachor said at a board meeting Tuesday, adding he will support the countywide option, too. "I want to see it work. I really hope it does."
Shaw agreed the slim margin is troubling. She said poll numbers would need to show at least 60 percent of respondents were in favor for the issue to be viable during an election.
"Any pollster will tell you that," Shaw said.
Commission Chairman Don Skundrick and Commissioner Doug Breidenthal supported the countywide option, saying they wanted all voters to be included.
"I would really like to give the county a chance," Skundrick said Tuesday.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.