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Accusations follow failed request for SOHS funds

After faulting the Southern Oregon Historical Society for not becoming self-sufficient, Jackson County's Budget Committee rejected SOHS's bid for $750,000 to keep going for the next two years. Most of the money requested was to maintain county-owned properties.

"It would be throwing money down the well," said County Commissioner Jack Walker, a member of the budget committee. The society, he added, has failed on its pledge to become self-sufficient with fees, grants and donations and "I don't know how long they expect us to keep funding them."

County commissioners and other budget committee members instead studied taking back the buildings, leased to SOHS for $1 a year — and leasing them for nonhistoric purposes.

SOHS Executive Director John Enders accused the county of planning to sell the historic properties.

County funding of SOHS stopped after passage of a state property tax limitation, but a society lawsuit forced it to continue for three more years, until last April. SOHS is seeking a ballot measure in November 2008 to levy a property tax of 7 cents per $1,000 in property value a Heritage District for itself and many local historic societies.

Enders said most of the requested funding — $250,000 a year — was needed to maintain four county-owned properties: the U.S. Hotel, Beekman House, Beekman Bank and Catholic Rectory, all in Jacksonville.

However, budget committee member Shayne Maxwell said she is "really troubled" that 85 percent of SOHS resources go to Jacksonville and little to outlying historical societies.

"It should be called the Jacksonville Historical Society," Maxwell said, adding "we don't want to see it fail "¦ but the county has worked very hard with them and they're still faced with a serious financial crisis. I heard a couple years ago from John Enders that things were going to turn around, but I haven't seen it happen."

County Administrator Danny Jordan said if SOHS is unable to maintain the buildings, they would revert to the county. SOHS earlier this year asked the county to transfer ownership to the society, but Jordan said state law prohibits such transfer to a nonprofit organization.

"We distributed $2.5 million to them from the (lawsuit) settlement and during that time (the final three years of payments) and they were supposed to find a way to pay for their upkeep," said Budget Committee Chairman Dick Rudisile. "We're ready, willing and able to take the buildings back." Walker said, "I hope someday, someone steps up and manages the Historical Society in a manner that it can (maintain the properties) but that hasn't happened and I don't think we should go beyond what we've done."

County Commissioner Dave Gilmour, a member of the Budget Committee, said SOHS should work with the county administrator to downsize its operations and have the county assume control of the properties so the county could cover maintenance and lease them out. The SOHS library, he added, could be incorporated into the county library.

Enders, who did not speak at the meeting, said in an interview that SOHS has increased its non-county income from almost nothing three years ago to $500,000 now and that, if the county tries to take back its buildings, "we will fight them. They want to sell the buildings and if that happens it would be the death knell of the Historical Society and the end of those buildings."

Jordan told the committee that Enders reported in October that SOHS was struggling and would "close down operations" at the end of that month. Enders said yesterday that SOHS's finances are "very tight and we're just barely making payroll, with staff reduced by three in the past two months."

About the budget committee meeting, Enders said he was "set up," in that a budget committee member had told him the county should help with maintenance costs and invited him to request funding, but instead, "they didn't talk about what we spend on the buildings and instead publicly ridiculed me — and the misinformation in that room was absolutely amazing."

Enders also charged that Walker is "the enemy of the historical society and has a personal vendetta" stemming back to a time when Walker wanted to use society funds to fix the county courthouse roof and was refused by SOHS.

Maxwell criticized SOHS for storing numerous artifacts in its White City building — saying they should be loaned to the county's smaller historic societies. Jordan responded that the society doesn't have the employees to create interpretive displays.

Gilmour, in an interview, said the county's lawyers are studying what the county can legally do with the buildings and "I wouldn't say this means an end to the Historical Society by any means" and that a possible four-year extension of timber funding by Congress "still may happen" and would change the county's financial picture considerably.

SOHS Board of Trustees Vice President Terrie Claflin Martin said in an interview that the county can't legally take the buildings back and that her board will study whether it can use privately-raised money to maintain them.

She added, "They acted on misinformation and they don't understand what the Historical Society is or what it does and I think that's really sad. We're going to have to find a way to survive."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.