The Southern Oregon Historical Society has had a rough time staying afloat over the past several years. A series of savvy moves by a succession of executive directors and board members has left the organization lean but stable. Now, supporters want to ensure the society's long-term survival by asking voters to create a heritage district and chip in a nickel per $1,000 assessed value. The request is extremely modest and deserves support.
Jackson County voters took the Historical Society for granted for decades, because a continuing levy approved in 1948 kept the district solvent — even affluent, compared with its shoestring operation today. The income from that levy of 25 cents per thousand grew along with the county's population and property value.
But in 1996, voters approved Ballot Measure 50, limiting property taxes, which gave the county government complete control of all separate levies — including the Historical Society levy. Those levies were rolled into the county's overall tax base, and the county commissioners were under no obligation to continue supporting the original beneficiaries of those taxes.
The Historical Society levy was generating $2.2 million a year at that point; the society's budget was $2.6 million in 1996-97 and it had 44 employees. The county gradually reduced its support for the Historical Society over the next several years, eventually ending its contribution entirely.
Today, SOHS survives on an annual budget of $450,000, with three full-time staff and eight part-timers. The society turned over four historic buildings to the city of Jacksonville, relieving it of responsibility for maintaining them. SOHS also sold from its collection a number of valuable artifacts that had no connection to local history, raising much-needed cash.
The society intends to continue developing Hanley Farm into a year-round operation and a working farm, generating some income.
Now SOHS plans to ask voters for the second time to create a heritage district and a small levy. An earlier attempt in 2008 failed to gather enough signatures to make the ballot.
The 5 cents per thousand tax rate would raise approximately $850,000 a year, at a cost of $10 to the owner of a house assessed at $200,000. The amount is far less than the society received in its heyday, but more than it survives on now.
Once the district's boundaries are determined, supporters will need to collect the signatures of 15 percent of registered voters to put the proposal on the 2014 ballot.
Jackson County has a rich history, and the Historical Society has done a good job of preserving it, amassing a collection of more than 1 million artifacts, photographs and documents.
The Southern Oregon Historical Society has weathered setbacks that could have destroyed it. It is reasonable to ask county residents to help support it into the future.