Commissioners rebuff mayors' plea for SOHS

MEDFORD — Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker fired back at eight mayors Wednesday after they urged the county to renew its financial support for local historical societies.

"We proved it twice in court that, no, the county doesn't owe them anything," he said.

Walker said the county is working toward a solution to keep the Southern Oregon Historical Society afloat. SOHS, caretaker of a million local artifacts and hundreds of thousands of historical documents and photographs, is on the verge of closing its operation if it doesn't get an infusion of cash in the next few months.

Mayors from Medford, Ashland, Eagle Point, Phoenix, Talent, Gold Hill, Jacksonville and Rogue River wrote letters to the Board of Commissioners requesting financial support for a dozen local historical societies.

Walker said that if the mayors are so concerned they should find the money to support historical buildings in their own communities. He said cities would have an easier time finding money than the county, which he said has worked hard to recover from financial turmoil three years ago.

He said many people in rural areas don't care about the history in cities, anyway.

George Kramer, a local historian and chairman of the Oregon Heritage Commission, presented the letters and urged the commissioners to devote 5 to 10 cents of every $1,000 in assessed valuation to the historical societies, which would provide $2 million or more.

"You have not done what is fair and equitable by way of the historical societies of Jackson County," Kramer said.

The historical societies relied on a 1948 levy that set aside property taxes to preserve Jackson County's history. The county maintains that the historical society lost its entitlement to that money with the passage of measures 47 and 50, which led to the consolidation of levies in 1997. The county won court battles over the issue, but ultimately settled with the historical society to provide three years' funding that ended in 2007.

Walker said the county is getting pressed to support the historical societies, but no one mentions how SOHS has been mismanaged for years while it enjoyed annual revenues of more than $2 million and a staff in excess of 40.

"Now, all of a sudden, nobody wants to talk about how poorly it was run," he said.

When the roof was leaking on the historic Jackson County Courthouse in Medford, Walker said SOHS didn't want to pay for the repairs on the roof. Ultimately, Walker prevailed and the roof was repaired in 1997 at a cost of about $50,000.

"Nobody in the historical society could care about this building," he said.

Historical societies at the time worried that using levy money to repair buildings the county owned would set a bad precedent.

Commissioner C.W. Smith said the comments from Kramer and others come at a difficult time as the county tries to work through a solution that could help the historical societies.

If the county did provide money, it would mean cutting another service somewhere else, he said. "Which deputy would you like to get rid of?" he asked the audience, which included about a dozen historical society supporters.

Smith said he knows the feelings of local history lovers are heartfelt, but he said the county has gone through hardships in years past while the historical society has enjoyed a steady income.

He said he remembers in the 1980s when he was county sheriff being forced to cut deputies. Even today, the county still doesn't have enough money to properly fund the sheriff's department, he said.

Though rainy-day funds are being built up, Smith said the county still has to tap into its reserves to pay the bills every year. Ultimately, the county wants to build reserves to $100 million to generate enough interest income to be in a more secure financial position, he said.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour was not present at Wednesday's board meeting.

One of the key ideas to save SOHS in the short term is the sale of the U.S. Hotel in Jacksonville. If approved by the county, the proceeds would pay off a $600,000 loan and provide some operating income.

Walker did say he was encouraged by new leadership at SOHS and a new long-range business plan.

Alluding to a possible solution, he indicated that SOHS might get one more chance to use the money wisely to keep the organization going.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

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