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Historic buildings belong to public

From the public's perspective, we're not sure it matters much which public entity operates and maintains four historic buildings in Jacksonville.

What's important is that they remain public buildings.

That appears to be in question after last week's dustup between the county's budget committee and the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Renewed antagonism between the two emerged after a meeting during which the budget committee, a group that includes county commissioners, denied the historical society's request for $750,000 over two years, most of it to maintain the buildings.

Maintenance of the U.S. Hotel, the Beekman House, the Beekman Bank and the Catholic Rectory, all in Jacksonville, requires funding the financially strapped historical society doesn't have, director John Enders said in his request for the money.

But the budget committee, after taking a couple swipes at Enders' leadership of the organization, not only denied the money but suggested it might lease the buildings or even sell them to private parties.

The county has plenty of financial worry of its own, of course. It faces the loss of millions annually in federal timber money and this year slashed budgets for libraries, roads and sheriff's services to cope. It's not a surprise that the idea of making money off the Jacksonville buildings would cross someone's mind.

Actually giving up the buildings, however, would be a mistake. Much of the county's historic base is in Jacksonville, and the buildings in question are significant.

All date to the 1800s, among the first buildings constructed in this area. Businessman C.C. Beekman opened the Beekman Bank in 1863 and had the house built 13 years later. The rectory was constructed as a private home in the 1860s but then converted to church use. The hotel, built in 1880, had as its first guest President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Heirs donated both the Beekman properties to the county specifically so they would be preserved. But beyond that responsibility, the county has an obligation not to squander any public asset, even in times of financial stress.

That's not to say it should give money it doesn't have to the historical society. As strapped as the historical society is, the county as a whole is, too.

Instead, maybe the city of Jacksonville's offer last week to take over the buildings is the one that makes the most sense. Or maybe another public solution will emerge.

Either way, this shouldn't be about politics or how well organizations are or are not run. It's about the buildings, which belong to the public.

County leaders should make every effort to see that they remain public assets.