All 15 Jackson County (Oregon) Library branches closed down on Saturday, April 7, due to a lack of funding. This is exactly the opposite of the trend in the U.S.: most communities are investing to improve and expand libraries. The 15 libraries serving this rural area of Oregon lost $7 million in federal funding this year, nearly 80 percent of the system's budget. Library experts are calling the action the largest library shutdown ever in the United States.
Last fall, Congress failed to reauthorize a $400 million annual subsidy to 41 states to help rural counties prop up their local economies. Oregon took the biggest hit -- $150 million. Jackson County lost $23 million and had to slash everywhere, from reducing jail beds to cutting search and rescue teams.
That meant some hard choices, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan. He says that Congress broke a promise when it cut off the funds -- the money was supposed to be in exchange for land taken away from Oregon by President Theodore Roosevelt.
In the early 1900s, Roosevelt took 2.4 million acres away from the Oregon-California Railroad, which was accused of swindling land deals in exchange for building the railroad. When the federal government reclaimed the land, Oregon lost half its property tax base.
To make up for it, the federal government agreed to split timber revenues on the acreage with Oregon. Over the next 50 years it was a lucrative arrangement, and 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. This turn of events all but shut down large-scale logging. Today, just one large sawmill remains in Jackson County, compared with 91 in 1954.
While promising to come up with rules for a more ecologically friendly logging method, Congress agreed in 2000 to continue "safety net" payments to rural counties for six more years. But the checks stopped in December 2006.
In November, Jackson County residents voted down a property tax levy that would have generated $9 million a year to keep the libraries open. It was the third time since 1984 that voters were asked to bolster the library budget, but this was the first time they said no.
"Back in November, the feds had not cut us off yet, and the possibility they'd continue to fund us was still there, so people didn't think the libraries were really going to close," said Margaret Jakubcin, a regional manager for the Jackson County Libraries.
You can read more about this sad story at http://www.jcls.org/infoblog.
My thanks to Kathryn Bassett for telling me about this story.