The Woes of the Jackson County Libraries

Get your books back to the library today, those of you in Jackson County, Oregon.  Your libraries close tomorrow.

These libraries are federally funded.  Seems like a bad idea, as you never know what the federal government will do at any given moment.  If a library is funded locally, there is a buy-in – literally and figuratively – by the local citizens who actually use the library.  On a federal level, it’s hard to get excited about some group of libraries somewhere in Oregon.

First, a bit of history (emphasis mine):

Some detail of the history is that in the 1860s, the federal government gave the Oregon and California (O & C) Railroad Company a land grant. Property was to be sold, at a set price, to promote population growth and fund construction of the railroad. As Jackson County’s population grew, it became dependent on property taxes from those lands. Because of mismanagement by the railroad, the federal government confiscated the unsold and improperly sold land and returned it to public ownership, which cut taxable property value almost in half.

An agreement was negotiated in the early 1900s under which logging revenue from those lands was shared between the county and the federal government. This replaced the lost property tax to the county and provided revenue to the federal government to manage public lands. Additionally, revenue from the U.S. Forest Service went to the specific purpose of funding roads and local schools.

Revenue sharing was lucrative to the county. Between 1958 and 1963, no record of assessed property taxes exists. For perspective, in 1985, Jackson County received $850,000 in property taxes and more than $10.3 million from O & C revenue. In 1993, O & C revenues sharply declined with reduced harvests and environmental issues, and today the tables have turned. Property tax has overtaken O & C revenue as the biggest single source of revenue to the general fund. O&C revenues are in the form of safety-net funding (Public Law 106- 393), instead of harvests, and that funding is now expired.

Further explanation (again, emphasis mine):

Twenty years ago, it seemed as if every other vehicle on Oregon highways was a logging truck. Back then, a lot of trees came from vast expanses of federal land in this state. The land is public, so it can’t be taxed. To make up for that, the government shared with counties the money it earned from timber sales. The arrangement worked well for decades, but environmental concerns have all but stopped logging in federal forests. So, in 2000, Congress created a safety net. Payments based on past timber harvests in rural counties in 41 states would continue for six years. It was a $400 million-a-year federal subsidy. Oregon received the most — $150 million. The last checks were sent in December, and now the counties are facing huge budget holes. In Medford recently, a bookish crowd gathered in support of libraries. Jackson County plans to shut all 15 of its libraries on April 7.

So, now what?   The Senate has approved a sizable amount of funding (yay!) but have tacked it onto the military funding bill (WHY????) virtually guaranteeing it will be vetoed.  Thanks for nothing, guys.

If this land can’t be taxed, thereby preventing the counties from raising the monies they need to support the libraries, then the feds need to come up with a solution.  They need to pass a bill – ALL BY ITSELF – that will do this.

But the situation is a bit more complicated, as it turns out.

…some members of Congress want to change the safety net program. They say Oregon is getting too much of the money, while counties there have some of the lowest local taxes in the country. Residents are accustomed to having services they don’t pay for. “These payments were intended as transition payments for these communities,” says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). “They’ve been in transition now for 15 years, and I think the Congress has never been intending to just have a permanent federal subsidy.”

So the folks in the federal government aren’t all together on the funding issue.  The question is, why haven’t Oregon voters approved funding for these libraries?  They ARE their libraries, after all.  There’s been quite an outcry about the closing….but no one has stepped up to the plate with some dollars.

The library has done yeoman’s work trying to educate the public on what’s going on, why libraries are important, and why people should advocate on their behalf.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough.

Tomorrow the libraries close.

Hopefully, someone will come up with a solution to all this.  It’s awful to think that an entire county will lose its libraries.  There will be a levy in May, where the voters can authorize funding, and the county commissioners have pledged to earmark the funds for the library.

Get out there and vote, people of Jackson County.  Your libraries depend on it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Libraries and Librarianship

One response to “The Woes of the Jackson County Libraries

  1. It is unfortunate that you have to deal with the double majority vote as well (50% of registered voters must vote AND 50% must vote yes). I hope with all the media coverage the area is receiving there will be a chance the levy will pass. Local budgetary control is a good thing and I think most of the public there understand the library’s value. I think the children’s sit-in was the most moving.

    I often find it frustrating to not have a library champion who is a library user alone, and not necessarily a board member or a library staff member. That is one of my goals, to cultivate a group to do that.

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