Thursday, August 27, 2009
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
In 1948 the voters of Jackson County, Oregon passed a “Historic Levy,” to support the restoration of the Jacksonville Courthouse and fund the operations of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, SOHS, that would operate it. Twenty-five cents of every $1000 in assessed value would go to support the Society, a huge amount of money then and now. For decades SOHS enjoyed stable funding from this tax base and built what at one time was the largest local historical society west of the Mississippi River. In addition to the Courthouse, the County allowed SOHS to take over, manage, and maintain for its own or interpretative uses, an entire series of County-owned properties in Jacksonville, most of which it had acquired for back taxes during the Great Depression. From this Jacksonville built a strong tourism/history based economy, ultimately becoming one of the highest value community's in the region, raising property values, raising the County's receipts, and generally showing that a small investment in history pays.
As Jackson County’s property values rose, SOHS began to take only a portion of its .25 mil rate, usually about a dime. Over the years the County itself, in an effort to fund its own operations without having to go to the voters for more money, began to take a greater and greater portion of the remaining fifteen cents of the historical levy. In 1995 Jack Walker was elected to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and for whatever reason embarked upon what can only be characterized as a vendetta against SOHS. At some point he decided that since the Jackson County Courthouse (the current Courthouse, in Medford) was a historic building (it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), and that SOHS should, out its portion of the levy, help to maintain it. Specifically, he wanted SOHS to pay for a new roof. SOHS, with its own building projects in mind, said no. Jack has never forgiven them. SOHS, like many historical societies, has traditionally been run by well-meaning historians who among many skills do not count political savvy or brinksmanship. Walker and the Board of Commissioners, which collected the levy for SOHS and so controlled its dispersal essentially took the position that THEY, and they alone could determine how SOHS would spend the funds that were levied for their support.
Long story short, Jack concocted a “split” whereby SOHS got 75% of the .10 cents it levied, the Jackson County Historical Fund got 12.5% and, you guessed it the County got the other 12.5% to “maintain” the courthouse. For a realm of scale, the total 10 cent levy toward the end amounted to about $1.5million annually. (And, of course, Jackson County still kept the other .15 cents per thousand for its own purposes). SOHS, nice SOHS, befuddled SOHS, said nothing.
Then, in 1996 and 1997, came Bill Sizemore’s Ballot Measures 47 and 50 which, among other things, made all existing special levies permanent and melded them into the County’s general tax rate. Jack and the Commissioners now had ALL the .25 cents (along with the existing levy at that time intended to fund library operations, but that’s another story). Guess what they did? They announced their intention to retain the entire proceeds of the now permanent .25 per $1000 historical levy, ending all payments to SOHS and the Jackson County Historical Fund. One can assume they still use some of the levy proceeds to maintain the Courthouse. There was a painful transition period, lawsuits, and ultimately a shotgun wedding of sorts phase out of support to SOHS but, as of a few years ago, Jackson County keeps all the money, even denying any payments to take care of the Jacksonville buildings that it still owns. SOHS made valiant efforts toward self-sufficiency but, with the recent downturn in the economy and shrinking donations, they have faced a harder and harder road.
SOHS announced earlier this week that they are going to close their operations for six months in an effort to develop a sustainable funding model. Jack Walker and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners continue to benefit from the .25 per $1000 of assessed value, a sizable portion of the County’s general fund income worth millions of dollars annually. I think that stinks. I don't think I'm the only one that does.