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We shouldn't turn our back on history

Jackson County's Board of Commissioners probably has heard the adage, "Those who forget history are bound to repeat it."

That's particularly ironic in the case of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, whose current financial hardships are primarily the result of actions taken by past commissioners. And yet, in the wake of the Nov. 8 defeat of a historical society levy, Commissioner Rick Dyer opined: "The voters voiced their opinions loud and clear that they don't want public resources used to fund that." In the same story he said the society lost its own independent funding because of a statewide vote.

What he didn't say is that county taxpayers are already paying taxes that were approved for historical preservation. But those taxes are no longer being used for that purpose and instead have been siphoned off into a variety of other county expenses, including the commissioners' greatly increased salaries. 

A little history is in order: In 1948, Jackson County voters approved a continuing levy of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to support the historical society. In time, that grew to be nearly $2 million annually, an amount that funded multiple museums, a historical working farm and a vast archive of historical treasures.

In 1997, state voters approved Measure 50, which included a little-understood clause that rolled all existing levies for any jurisdiction into the jurisdiction's general fund. In Jackson County, that meant voter-approved funding for libraries and the historical society were directed into the county's general fund. In short order, the county's library system and historical society were pushed into dire straits by the commissioners' budget decisions.

After suffering a full closure and then greatly reduced hours, the libraries were given new life by voters' funding of a library district. But the original library tax rate, along with the original historical society tax, is still on the county's books and still being collected.

As to the funding shift being a result of a state vote, that's only part of the story. The vote did indeed shift the funds into the county pot, but nothing in that vote prohibited the county from continuing to support the libraries and historical society. (To be fair, the county did support them to a degree, but nowhere near the level the levies would have provided.)

Dyer is accurate in saying the voters have spoken on whether to restore public funding to the historical society. It might, however, be interesting to ask them what they think about covering other specific county expenses — the commissioners' salaries, for instance. Perhaps the county should let the public vote on building and planning fees?

The point is, a government serves many functions, and certainly not all of them are popular. But it is the sum of those parts that provides the full value to its community.

The historical society, which will lay off its half-dozen paid employees, must now seek out funding from many sources in the community to continue its mission: to preserve Southern Oregon history, its artifacts and its archives. County officials would do well to consider history recent and past and find a way to contribute to that effort.