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Since its formation in 2017, it has been a common occurrence for landowners residing outside of the Josephine Community Library District to voluntarily have their property annexed into the district in order to pay taxes to support the library system, which has to be signed off on by the Board of Josephine County Commissioners.
However, Dec. 6 marked the first time the commissioners granted a request by a landowner living within the library district to opt out of paying their taxes. The tax is $0.39 per $1,000 assessed property value.
At the Dec. 6 weekly business session, held at Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass, the board considered a petition by Mike and Winnie Pelfry to secede their property from the library district, arguing that they do not utilize library services. Mike Pelfry launched an unsuccessful bid for the library district board earlier this year.
He testified at the meeting, “I do pay taxes to fire, and I do pay taxes for law enforcement. And I do expect that if somebody breaks into my house, they’re gonna come over and they’re gonna make sure that I get the services that I paid for,” Pelfry said. “I doubt very seriously that if I’m not sleeping well at night, I don’t think anybody from the library is gonna come over and read to me.”
JoCo Library attorney Mike Mayerle argued against the Pelfrys’ petition, saying that according to statute, their property’s inclusion in the district is not based on whether or not they actually receive benefits from the library, but whether or not it is feasible for the property to receive them.
“One could argue that the library has various internet services,” said Mayerle. “I’m going to make the assumption that he does have internet, therefore he can receive services that the library offers. That’s the standard – can he receive services, yes. Yes, that property can receive services. If we’re intellectually honest that is enough to deny the petition.”
Mayerle also pointed out that studies have shown that the presence of libraries in communities increase property values. “If you grant this petition, you’re allowing the owners to benefit from the increase in property value while passing on the burden to their neighbors. That doesn’t seem correct in my opinion.”
Approximately 20 citizens spoke on the matter, with an even mix being opposed to or in favor of the petition. Some of the comments delved into the culture war aspect surrounding libraries, including “woke” material or books in the children’s sections not being age appropriate. Some argued that landowners within the library district should be able to opt out because the library no longer represents “traditional conservative values.”
JoCo Library Director Kate Lasky and Library Board President Michelle Selvig also spoke.
Lasky listed a multitude of services the JoCo library offers through internet access, which she referred to as a “fifth branch” of the library, including 104,384 electronic materials, millions of peer-reviewed research articles and live chat services with librarians who can assist patrons with research. She also noted that if the precedent is set of allowing landowners to opt out of paying library taxes, the Josephine Community Library Foundation may cease granting library cards to those who are not part of the district.
Selvig read an excerpt from Mike Pelfry’s voters pamphlet statement where he acknowledges his property can benefit from library services, and cited comments he made on a radio show earlier in the week where he said he would not have filed the petition if he had children. Selvig called the petition “disingenuous” and asked the board to deny it.
Commissioner Dan DeYoung said he was concerned about “establishing a precedent” for landowners in other taxing districts to opt out of taxes if they feel they aren’t receiving any services from it. He added that the library board of directors should make the final decision about opt-outs since they were elected by the voters to make decisions related to the library.
Commissioner John West said he did not believe the argument about libraries increasing property values was valid. “I really struggle with trying to figure out, except for that piece of property being charged more property tax, I’m really struggling with how does this piece of property feasibly benefit?”
Board Chair Herman Baertschiger, while noting that he sees value in the library system, agreed with West’s sentiment, remarking, “As I went through these statutes and I went through the lists of opting out and everything I got to, ‘How about a cemetery district?’ If you live in a cemetery district and you’re paying taxes to a cemetery district and you don’t have any intention on being buried in the cemetery, does it benefit you and does a cemetery district benefit the property? Property’s not going to be buried in the cemetery.”
Baertschiger added, “If we give the ability and the freedom and the choice to opt in, why wouldn’t we give the freedom and choice to opt out?”
When the vote came, it was 2-1 in favor of approving the Pelfrys’ request to withdraw their property from the Josephine Community Library District, with Baertschiger and West voting in the affirmative, while DeYoung was the lone dissenting vote.