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History supporters face a high hurdle

Historical preservation advocates have found out the hard way that, when it comes to tax levies, no matter how small, there is a big difference between general support and full-throated enthusiasm.

Supporters of a Rogue Valley Heritage District announced last week they had fallen far short of enough signatures to place a 7-cent property tax levy on the November ballot. They now plan to continue gathering signatures until Sept. 19, which would place the measure on the ballot in the 2010 May primary.

The initiative petition would create the special taxing district and authorize a levy of 7 cents per $1,000 assessed value, generating approximately $1 million annually. The money would support the Southern Oregon Historical Society and several other local societies operating 16 museums and research libraries.

Supporters say they have found widespread support among voters they have contacted, but translating that into more than 16,000 signatures is easier said than done. That figure represents 15 percent of registered voters living within the proposed taxing district — a much higher threshold than the number of signatures required to qualify a statewide initiative to the ballot. Statewide measures require 4, 6 or 8 percent of the number of votes cast for governor in the previous general election, depending on the type of measure.

Because of that high threshold, most special districts are created by the county government, not the voters. In this case, Jackson County commissioners declined to do that.

It's worth noting that Jackson County voters approved a permanent levy of 25 cents per $1,000 to support historical preservation back in 1948. That money is still being collected, but it became part of the county general fund when voters approved Ballot Measures 47 and 50 a decade ago.

Jackson County stopped funding historical preservation last year. Since then, the Southern Oregon Historical Society has been self-supporting, and has slashed its staff and hours of operation as a result.

The society has in its possession a tremendous collection of artifacts, documents and photographs that are an irreplaceable record of this county's history. It maintains historic buildings, including the old county courthouse and jail, the U.S. Hotel and Beekman House in Jacksonville.

Seven cents per $1,000 is a small price to pay to continue to preserve this legacy — and to offer public exhibits and tours that contribute to the county's tourism industry.

Organizers of the petition drive are confident they can reach their goal of 20,000 signatures over the summer, giving them enough cushion to yield the 16,632 valid signatures they need to put the measure on the ballot.

County voters should sign the petition if asked, and allow historical preservation supporters the chance to make their case to the electorate in 2010.