Democratic strategists in the Rogue Valley say voter dissatisfaction over decline in county services could be a boon politically for progressives in the coming election.

The turning point, they say, came when the Republican-led Jackson County Board of Commissioners ordered the largest library closure in the nation to help plug the county's $23 million budget shortfall brought on by Congress' failure to reauthorize federal timber subsidies.

Paulie Brading of Medford, the chairwoman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, said local voters undoubtedly got a "wake-up call" on April 6, the day the three-member board shuttered the county's main library and its 15 branches.

"There is a real sense of dissatisfaction," Brading said. "I am sure that in hindsight there are some things that the commissioners wish they'd done very differently. It sets up a tough race for whoever's running."

Commissioner Dennis C.W. Smith, who is next up for re-election in 2008, could be in store for a voter backlash because of the library closure, Brading said.

"Yes, he's respected, well-liked and has been around for quite some time," Brading said, "but, I think that he is going to be in for a tougher campaign than he is perhaps anticipating."

Smith, county sheriff from 1983 to 1995, has been a county commissioner since January 2005, after narrowly defeating public relations strategist Sue Densmore of Medford, the Democratic candidate, with 52.76 percent of the vote. Smith ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

Bill Maentz, a Medford-based Republican campaign strategist, has worked in the past on behalf of Commissioner Jack Walker. He also managed the unsuccessful library campaign earlier this year that would have opened the libraries by raising property taxes.

Democrats, he said, might try to make the library closure a campaign issue, but warned the tactic would likely backfire since the lone Democrat on the county board, Dave Gilmour, sided with Smith and Walker to order the libraries closed and county departments to tighten their belts.

"Closing the libraries certainly was not a decision made solely by the Republican leadership at the county level," Maentz said. "It just wasn't a partisan issue."

What are their chances Democrats can unseat Republicans in a county where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a wide margin? Very likely, Brading said.

"The public has been awakened by the library controversy," she said. "There is a real, genuine concern over what kind of county we're going to have."

Former longtime Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw, now a leading Democratic campaign strategist, said the challenge for the candidate who takes on Smith is not to make the temporary library closure an issue, but to question why an ever increasing share of the county budget is going to law enforcement.

" outsourcing library services and committing only enough funds for 25 hours per week, the commissioners were able to remove the heat of a sustained closure," Shaw said. "We don't have a library funding problem. What we have is a public safety funding problem."

Shaw said she still wonders why management of the county libraries have been outsourced since voters in 1996 approved a countywide library levy of 62-cents per $1,000 assessed value. The levy, which generated $8.2 million for libraries last year, she said, was sufficient to have kept the county's library operational.

" pushing any additional library operational hours for communities to fund, they freed up even more of the new timber dollars for public safety. Mark my words: the next item will be a new jail," she said.

Although Congress granted a one-year extension to the timber payments, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters has said that the county's lingering cash problems have forced his department to operate with 30 fewer deputies than it needs.

In an earlier interview, Winters told the Tidings that his department lacks the resources to respond effectively to a major disaster like the floods of 1997 or the Silver fire complex that 20 years ago charred 150,000 acres of the Klamath-Siskiyou forests.

"On a day-to-day basis, we've restructured shifts and made it work, but if we have a major disaster like a fire, earthquake or flood, the county is going to experience what real problems are," Winters said.

At the time the libraries were closed, Winters suggested that the main library in Medford and "fewer, but larger" branches be set up to serve the four corners of the county.

"I have a hard time with the fact that we have 15 libraries in one county," Winters told the Tidings. "Do we need libraries? Absolutely. Are libraries important? Absolutely. But do we need 15? Absolutely not."

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.