Library goes to court over tax opt-outs

Siege Schatza
IVN Contributing Writer

After the Board of Josephine County Commissioners’ unprecedented decision Dec. 6 to grant a local couple’s petition to withdraw their property from the Josephine Community Library District, and the associated taxes, four more families submitted petitions to follow suit, which the board considered at their Dec. 13 weekly business session, held at Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass.
This hearing led to a new round of divisive commentary over the legality of letting individuals opt out of a voter-approved taxing district, as well as the culture war issues surrounding libraries. One participant referred to the heated debate as “vitriol.”
The day before the meeting, it was said that the library district sought to file an injunction to prevent other withdrawals from occurring until the Josephine County Circuit Court could weigh in on their legality.
“Regarding the petitions to withdraw from the library district, the commissioners are tasked with interpreting Oregon Revised Statute 198.870-4, which states, ‘The petition shall be approved if it is not been or is not, or would not be feasible for the territory described in the petition to receive service from the district,’” explained Josephine Community Library Board Director Rachele Selvig during testimony at the Dec. 13 county meeting.
“The petition shall be denied if it appears that it is or would be feasible for the territory described in the petition to receive service from the district,” Selvig continued. “I stand before you, on behalf of the library district, to voice our objection to all the petitions based on the feasibility of service. We firmly believe that each territory in question has viable avenues to access library services. This accessibility encompasses traditional means through our facilities in Grants Pass, Illinois Valley, Williams and Wolf Creek, as well as modern options such as in-home internet access, personal devices, and telephone lines.”
All four of last Wednesday’s petitioners – the Bertsch, MacDonald, Millard and Marshall families – reside in the city of Grants Pass and each family has at least one representative to stand before the board and verbally affirm that they believe their property receives no benefit from the library district.

Several of the petitioners acknowledged that they as individuals can feasibly receive library services, but the land their homes sit on are not benefited. This argument – that the state statute refers to the need for the physical property to receive benefits, as opposed to residents of said property – is how Commissioner John West interpreted it at the Dec. 6 meeting.
One commentator at the Dec. 13 hearing opined that the notion that the statute is referring to the literal soil that constitutes the property receiving benefits and not the owners of said property is “convoluted.”

It is the stance of the library that these petitions should be denied even when looking exclusively at what benefits the property receives, as Selvig noted, “Public libraries, as essential community institutions, have a direct impact on property values. The absence of a library can deter skilled professionals, including physicians, from relocating to a community… Approving these withdrawals would unjustly allow petitioners to benefit from increased property values while shifting the tax burden onto their neighbors who continue to pay taxes for vital community services.”

Selvig emphasized that the burden of proof is on the petitioners to show that their property cannot feasibly receive library services. She urged the commissioners to provide “clarification regarding the criteria used by the commissioners to evaluate this proof, both in individual cases and as a general standard going forward. Transparency in these criteria is vital to enable the electorate to comprehend the basis of your decision.

“In conclusion, we urge you to deny these withdrawal petitions bearing in mind the evident procedural errors, misinterpretation of the law by the commissioners, and the far-reaching consequences on both our library district and the county.”

Board Chair Herman Baertschiger took issue with Selvig’s framing of the commissioners not providing a criteria for approving the opt-outs as a transparency issue. “That’s not a transparency issue, that’s just an issue of you not understanding,” said Baertschiger.

Selvig retorted, “Maybe not transparency, but maybe an issue of lack of communication and, you know, building of substance behind explaining the decision.”

During public testimony, an individual who did not provide their name remarked that his reading of a relevant statute yielded that the board was “breaking the law” by holding a hearing on the withdrawal petitions less than 30 days after they were filed.

Not long after, the board took a brief pause to consult legal counsel. By the time they resumed, it had been determined that they would postpone a decision on the petitions for one week while legal counsel looks into whether or not their actions fully comply with state law. All three commissioners voted to continue the hearing until this morning.

As of press deadline, the Josephine County Circuit Court had not issued a statement regarding the special district withdrawal statute.