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Friday, February 23, 2007

Warning shot fired

PERS to shut down Jackson County Libraries

Jackson County is one of the nation's top retirement locations. It has the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Britt Music Festival, Rogue River National Forest, a half-dozen good golf courses and skiing at Mount Ashland. But come April 7, Jackson County's 15-branch public library system will be shut down by our government unions. That's right. No libraries.

Bring your own books but you'll have to be a scab and cross picket lines. We may not have basic public services, but we'll have plenty of Public Employees Retirement System costs and expensive county workers' health insurance premiums.

How we got here is a long story. More than half of Oregon is federal land. In the 1860s, the government granted about 4 million acres of Western Oregon forestland to what soon became the Oregon & California Rail Road Co. to promote construction of a rail line from Portland to California. The company managed the land so corruptly that President Theodore Roosevelt - leader of the new Progressive movement - intervened, and much of the land was put back in federal ownership. The result was that taxable property at the county level was cut nearly in half.

Part of a century-old deal was that logging revenue from this land would be shared by the federal government with local counties. For almost 90 years, timber revenue far outpaced local property taxes in much of rural Oregon. But in the 1990s, the war against natural resource industries in Oregon kicked in and timber revenue declined by about 70 percent. Today property taxes are the main source of local revenue. Until this year, however, timber payments continued as federal safety-net funding for counties under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

Seven years ago Congress warned us that it would be phased out and has now finally chosen not to reauthorize it. Of course, it's not just one county in Oregon that will be affected. Altogether, 700 counties in 39 states are facing crises because of the act's demise. But Oregon will be the hardest hit: Last year Oregon counties received more than $149 million; California was second with about $66 million. In my county, we'll see a $23 million budget gap; only $8 million of that supported libraries, so there will be other casualties as well, including public health and priorities All the while, we are paying more and more for less and less government union labor.

Thanks to the 800-lb. gorilla of Oregon politics - the government union lobby that calls itself "Our Oregon" - there are two hands-off items that consume nearly half of our total budget: runaway health care insurance costs and PERS, Oregon's gold-plated Public Employees Retirement System that is the most generous in the nation. We can only keep the County going with the government unions' approval on reining in our costs. The New Jersey government unions just agreed to pay a share of their health insurance premiums. But Our Oregon said, "No. We're shutting your libraries down instead."

Perhaps the county commission will propose a poll tax, since at just $40 per capita, libraries are a bargain. But with the failure of a local tax levy in the last election, immediate options are limited. As citizens have searched for solutions, there has been irony (Jackson County voters passed a construction bond in 2000, so new libraries are being built even as they close. But Portland did that with the Wapato jail, so we have no monopoly on that kind of irony). And there has been misunderstanding, misinformation, exaggeration and brinksmanship by all the politicians involved, as well as by The Oregonian.

Some have argued that our government retirees worked hard and we should pay for them. Or that there's plenty of logging revenue if we could just get rid of environmental regulations. Or that closing the libraries is censorship and the moral equivalent of book-burning. There have been appeals for glitz & glamor magazine publishers to save us (paging Si Newhouse?). We've heard that county PERS obligations that are impossible to meet should be sold, rented, run as self-support operations or simply taken over by the unions that want them. We've heard that library administrators are knuckling under to the unions and cynically extorting more from taxpayers.

No one has pointed the finger at Gov. Ted Kulongoski yet, but now that he's supposedly rushing to our rescue, it's only a matter of time.

Once we get past the scapegoating, who's really at fault? Well, all of us who, for 7 years, assumed that the safety net would be renewed because it always had been in the past, are mostly to blame. Had we acted earlier, we could have asked the federal government to sell the land and put it back on the property rolls, to include transferable Measure 37 rights for new buyers. Or we could have asked the state to absorb the entire underlying timber county revenue obligation, like how the Legislature started paying for local education after Measure 5. All of us who thought that libraries would never be used by government unions as political hostages are to blame for being naive. All of us who failed to act before it became a crisis are to blame.

One of the things that libraries should symbolize is the importance of learning about our civic institutions - before a crisis. I know that I failed in this, and many others did too. What's the plural of mea culpa? You can call a reference librarian to find out. But if you're in Jackson County, you'd better do it soon or you'll be doing it as a scab.

Edwin Battistella teaches in the English and Writing Department at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. His most recent book is "Bad Language."


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