Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Price History?

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.


  1. This kind of petty mindedness is unbelievable to me. If SOHS had actually done something illegal, immoral, or unethical, there might (I say, might)be justification for disciplining the guilty players. But to attempt to destroy such an important, essentially volunteer, community agency by depriving it of funds, is reprehensible. What can be done? I am a Rotary member and HARC Commissioner in Jacksonville, and have already noted SOHS intention to close "our" museum, for the cited reason of the economic downturn and lack of funds. I did not know of the history of county funding.

    This is a kind of minor tragedy for Jackson County, but especially for Jacksonville as the museum, whatever its financial woes, is a tourist venue here, and a local attraction.

  2. George,
    Hate to say it, but you have your facts wrong on how the continuing levy works. Read the ORS and you will see it never was an entitlenment to be levied at the MAXIMUM rate,
    Tam Moore

  3. Tam, My understanding is that the original levy was for .25 per thousand and, in the early years after its passage, that is what the Society levied. At some point, certainly by the 1970s, they stopped taking the entire .25 and took less, as I recall .10 per thousand. My understanding was that the county took the remainder but you would be in a better position to know that than I. Certainly after 50 & 47, when in the County's view all previous levies ceased to exist, the entire .25 was added to the County's general fund. Are you suggesting that they are leaving some portion of that .25 1948 levy on the table or that it has been voided?

  4. Mr. Kramer:

    I understand that you have been approached to become Jacksonville's Historic Preservation Officer on a consulting basis, to provide your services for perhaps 6 to 8 hours per month. I am a HARC commissioner here, and frankly depend on someone in that capacity to provide professional guidance regarding hisoricity, code compliance, and applicable precedent with respect to applications for a range of proposed projects in both scale and type. I wonder if you are inclined to work with us, and are sympathetic to the need for continuation of the office in an authentically historic town such as ours. We are, after all, a "one-trick pony", no more than a comfortable suburb of Medford without our historic assets. My own conviction is that the office of a specialist historic preservation planner needs to be maintained not only for technical reasons, but for defacto "ceremonial" and educational reasons as well. It is inconceivable to me that we can develop a concensus on the scope of preservation beyond the fundamental ethos without the assistance of such an officer as a permanent fixture in this city. I am an architect, and have been trying to garner support among the commissioners and staff for a fundamental revamping of woefully inadequate - and inconsistent - standards for application submittals, but without the support and cooperation of a core professional in the preservation field, it is and will be slow going at best. So far, the town regards the uniqueness of its legacy as a local fiefdom and lifestyle amenity rather than a responsibility to the rest of the state and even nation, National Historic Register aside. I'd like to know your thoughts.

  5. Yes, I have been approached and assume that I will be in negotiation with the City as to how that relationship works. I am not, of course, unfamiliar with Jacksonville, having worked on several projects for and in the City, including the Context Statement and survey update in 1993 as well as providing design consultation on more recent projects including the public library, the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church and the Bigham Knoll (Jacksonville Elementary School) project. I am not sure I understand your concerns but would be happy to discuss them if I do indeed end up working in this capacity.

  6. I think the office of historic preservation specialist (cum "planner")MUST by definition be of importance in a town like Jacksonville, unless we are to turn away from local historic resources in favor of a kind of laissez faire ethos welcoming any and all development proposals for their commercial value alone rather than protecting the integrity of our "campus". It is in my view a partly ceremonial position especially appropriate to a one-trick pony town like Jville, where historic preservation is the sine qua non of its reason for being. Otherwise, it is just another suburb of Medford, cozied up against the forest, but of no other significance. Furthermore, the city council has acted shortsightedly in that the lull in development that has accompanied the economic downturn offers an opportunity to get our act together before interest in our little bit of heaven again becomes intense. There are a variety of other issues lingering in the shadows which should be addressed to insure the future economic and environmental health of this city, which the ministerial authority of a bona fide historic high-priest could help bring into the light. I imagine you have some insights in this regard, and would appreciate your sharing them.

  7. George,
    Great blog, glad you're doing this, a little context in the world is a much needed thing...and history gives us that context (fail to learn the lessons, doomed to repeat them, etc.)

    Of course, maintaining evidence of history is a huge challenge, because man (through changing priorities and economic shortsightedness) and nature (through time and weather) tear away and tear down that evidence at every opportunity.

    Yours is important work, and I think your work is a great resource to the valley. I'm hitting the subscribe button AND adding you to my blogroll. Good luck with your projects, and I hope for their sakes that the city of Jacksonville gains the benefit of your services.


    P.S. What's the story about the pictures in your right column of Jackson Elementary?