Historical society seeks new funding

Hoping to preserve pieces of the Rogue Valley's past, a political action committee launched an effort Monday to pass a $1 million levy to fund the Southern Oregon Historical Society and 14 smaller preservation groups.

But before the Our Heritage PAC can ask Jackson County voters to approve a property tax levy of up to 7 cents per $1,000 assessed value, the county's 11 cities will be asked if they wish to be a part of the proposed Rogue Valley Heritage District.

If approved, the levy would tack on another $15 onto the property tax bill of the average Ashland house with a tax assessed value of $207,000. Tax assessments are generally about half of the price of a home in Ashland.

Tam Moore, a former county commissioner and a member of the PAC's steering committee, said creating the countywide heritage society through a newly minted state law co-sponsored by Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, will not be easy given county voters' reluctance to approve additional property levies.

"This is a strange political process, and we are operating in a political climate in which a lot of people don't like taxes," Moore said in a telephone interview Monday from his Medford home.

Once individual cities approve the idea, supporters may collect signatures there. Should a city decide not to participate, the city would neither be a part of the special district nor be eligible for levy funds should the measure be approved.

To get on the November 2008 ballot, supporters would have to collect valid signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters living within the proposed district, or about 17,000 signatures countywide if all of the city councils get on board.

If approved by voters, the levy would generate about $1 million for the heritage district after being collected for the first time in 2009.

"It's just seven cents and that is very small in terms of your overall property tax load," Moore said of the levy. "This is a great investment for tourism and public schools."

The money would be used for "operating and maintaining heritage sites and structures, acquiring and preserving historical objects and materials, and maintaining programs of heritage societies operating within the district," the petition reads.

The levy, Moore said, would allow the Southern Oregon Historical Society and smaller groups in the region to fulfill their "fiduciary responsibility" to donors who have left them such things as Civil War-era memorabilia, prehistoric arrowheads and Native American artifacts.

In all, the area's historical societies have roughly — million artifacts and photographs, most of which are kept at a depository in White City, except for pieces on display at any one of the county's 17 historical museums, including those in the Applegate Valley, at Butte Falls, at Camp White and in Gold Hill.

"Right now, they are being cared for in one way or another," Moore said of the artifact collection. "To those of us that care a lot about history and worry about the loss of these institutions this is very important; this is not lots of money."

The levy would also help pay for maintenance on several county-owned buildings in the hands of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, including covered-bridges, the 124-year-old former county courthouse and adjoining jail in Jacksonville as well as the U.S. Hotel, Beekman Bank, Beekman House and Catholic Rectory, also in Jacksonville.

In 1948, a continuing levy was passed that provided 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed value to support local preservation efforts, but that money was folded into the county's general fund after Measure 47 and 50 passed in the late 1990s, essentially capping the amount of local property taxes that can be collected.

A last county payment of $740,772, he said, went to the county's historical societies in April 2007, adding that there is no such money in the adopted Jackson County budget for 2007-08.

"Over the years, as things got tighter for local government, and as the county payment funds from the federal government dwindled, the county began reducing the amount of money that went to the historical activities in Jackson County," Moore said. "And now it's over."

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.

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