Library bailout defeated in rural Oregon

by Meredith May, SF Chronicle

Property owners in southern Oregon will not be coming to the rescue of their shuttered public library system, voting down a tax Tuesday to reverse what's considered the largest library closure in the nation.

By a vote of 58.3 percent to 41.7 percent, Jackson County voters shot down a proposal to add an average $9 a month to their property tax bill to prop up the county's 15 public libraries.

"We were amazed the vote wasn't closer," said Kathleen Davis, who led the library campaign. "I think people are still imagining that the feds are going to come through with some money."

Federal timber subsidies that once paid to operate the $9 million library system dried up last fall, forcing Jackson County to close its main library in Medford and 14 other branches in April.

The timing was awful -- library leaders had just finished a three-year renovation of all the branches, using a voter-approved construction bond.

The library system's Internet home page, which once hosted a blog and allowed online checkout, was replaced with a picture of a red circle with a line through it over a pile of books.

Oregon is among 41 states that lost federal funding when Congress failed to reauthorize a $400 million annual subsidy to help rural areas prop up their economies. Oregon took the biggest hit -- $150 million.

Jackson County lost $23 million and had to slash services across the board, from reducing jail beds to cutting search-and-rescue teams.

"We don't object to libraries, books are a wonderful thing, but at this juncture we need to save our roads and fire and police," said retiree Martin Heitkamp, 70, who voted no in Jacksonville.

The library system took the brunt of the county's federal funding shortfall -- $7 million, or 80 percent of its budget. More than 100 people lost their jobs.

Library supporters said they lost a lifeline. The libraries provide books, movies and the Internet but also have served as civic hubs -- residents used their libraries for community meetings, movie nights and baby reading circles. Librarians also delivered books to homebound adults.

The levy was a hard sell in a state without a sales tax and where the libraries have become the biggest political issue since the fight over saving the northern spotted owl nearly two decades ago.

Opponents of the tax included people who value libraries but believe that self-taxation would let the federal government out of a promise to compensate Oregon for timber lands -- and property tax base -- that it took from the state in the early 1900s.

Back then, the federal government agreed to split timber revenues with Oregon on the 2.4 million acres it reclaimed. Over the next 50 years, it was a lucrative arrangement -- timber money was used to build courthouses and jails, pave roads and free Oregonians from having to pay sales taxes.

The good times petered out in the early 1990s, when the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, all but shutting down large-scale logging. Today, just one large sawmill remains in Jackson County, compared with 91 in 1954.

"We can't count on the federal government for anything anymore," said Jackson County Commissioner C. W. Smith.

Unless sustainable-yield logging comes back, Smith said, Oregonians will have to come up with creative ways to pay for library service. Smith is talking to school superintendents and city mayors about pooling resources with the county to keep the libraries open.

"Four or five school districts are interested in partnering, so we have options," Smith said. "I envision the libraries opening in some capacity this year."

Oregon lawmakers tried in March to attach a trailer bill to an emergency spending bill for the Iraq war that would have continued the rural county payments for one more year.

President Bush vetoed the bill.

Davis said library supporters will meet Monday to discuss the next step.

Tuesday's election was the second time library lovers tried, and failed, to get a levy passed.

Heitkamp says it didn't help the library's cause that voters were faced with an identical tax proposal that they voted down less than a year ago.

Also, Jackson County has a large population of retirees who are struggling to keep up with ever increasing property taxes. He would like to see Oregon law changed so the public libraries could charge user fees.

"There are a lot of people out here who retired 15 or 20 years ago on what they thought was going to be enough money," he said. "They can't afford another tax."

article originally published at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2007/05/17/MNG....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey