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Fahrenheit (541)

Jackson County locks down the books.
On April 6, 2007, the public libraries in Jackson County, Oregon, shut their doors. The fifteen county public libraries were closed after a shortfall from the federal government, after a timber subsidy was voted down by Congress. Ironically, a $38.9 million dollar bond had recently supported a library reconstruction project, which built several new libraries and made substantial additions to the others.

An effort to levy a special property tax was voted down twice by the Jackson county voters, who apparently felt dismayed that new libraries would be built from taxpayers' money, without the foresight by the county to provide for continuing operating costs.

Ashland Mayor John Morrison was quoted in the Ashland Daily Tidings as stating, "what is happening in Southwestern Oregon is the first stages of wha's going to happen in the rest of the country." This sentiment was echoed by Deputy County Administrator Harvey Bragg. In an interview August 2, Bragg stated that "the libraries are a casualty of the Iraqi War and Katrina."

Southwestern Oregon was a beneficiary of federal monies which were shared with several states, coming from timber revenues. Environmentalist efforts resulted in the cessation of logging on federal land, and the monies dried up. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self- Determination Act was enacted by Congress in 2000 to provide six years of transitional funds for rural areas which had been affected by a decline in revenue from timber harvests on federal lands. These monies were allocated for libraries and other county services in Jackson County.

According to Harvey Bragg, the county administrators fully expected the monies to be reauthorized in 2006. When Congress failed to pass a reauthorization bill, the county turned to the local taxpayers.

A special library levy, which increased property taxes by 66 cents per $1000 of assessed valuation, was proposed to the voters. The levy would have generated an estimated $8.2 million in fiscal year 2007-2008. The proposal was rejected, by a margin of 22,722 votes in support and 33,170 against, in a ballot cast on November 7, 2006, and again by a similar margin in May of 2007.

The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report reveals a surplus of available funds which could have been allocated at the discretion of the county commissioners. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2006, "the county governmental funds reported combined ending fund balances of $109,178,58. Of this amount, $71,909,571 is available for spending at the county's discretion. At the end of the year, unreserved fund balance for the general fund was $39,900,522." (CAFR 2006: Jackson County, Oregon) The general fund, explained Bragg, would be the source for potential library funding.

As Bragg explained, "The funds were adequate to fund the libraries for two more years." At that point, he stated, the discretionary fund would be gutted. "The county commissioners interpreted the vote as a thumbs down on libraries," he said. Mayor Morrison said, "the voters just don't want to pay for any services anymore." So the libraries were closed, while nearly $40 million sat in unreserved funds.

Less than two months after the Jackson county libraries closed, the Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007 was signed into law by President Bush on May 25, 2007, and provided for payments under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 for FY 2007. According to Harvey Bragg, Jackson County's general fund will receive $15.8 million through this funding, with other funds receiving specific allocations, such as $4 million earmarked for the road fund. Added to the unreserved fund balance for the general fund, there is now over $50 million dollars available to fund the Jackson county library system, which requires approximately $8.7 million to run for one year.

The county commissioners have declined to respond to phone calls from the American's Bulletin requesting input as to why the CAFR funds were not allocated for the libraries.

Morrison stated he was confident that the Ashland library would reopen soon, possibly as soon as October. The Ashland voters had voted for the levy, and a special election is planned for September 18 to specifically address a city tax which would enable reopening the Ashland library. At a citizens meeting on August 6, several attendees, including out-of-work librarians, voiced shock to discover the size of the discretionary fund that the county could have used to fund the libraries.

The accumulated wisdom of 350,000 volumes in the brand spanking new Medford library is now sequestered in darkness and silence. A recent tourist to Ashland, here for the much touted Shakespeare festival, was overheard protesting that "losing libraries is un-American. Libraries are a cornerstore of our democracy!"

And the heat is turned up another notch. The country that tortures its adversaries, invades other countries under the guise of hyped up claims of a threat which is known to be manufactured, ignores the plight of its suddenly homeless citizens as they suffer deadly thirst in the Astrodome, has now locked down the books in Southwestern Oregon.

And how about those Seahawks?