Mayors push for money to save SOHS

At least five local mayors will urge Jackson County commissioners to support the Southern Oregon Historical Society before it runs out of money and ceases to exist.

"I think history is worth saving," Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler said. "It doesn't do the public any good to keep them in a storage facility."

Wheeler said the county may not legally be required to give SOHS money, but ethically it has an obligation to ensure the preservation of the county's history.

Wheeler and the mayors from Phoenix, Ashland, Jacksonville and Rogue River have indicated they will sign a letter urging the county to provide a financial base to maintain SOHS and other historical societies.

The letter was drafted by George Kramer, a local historian and chairman of the Oregon Heritage Commission.

The historical society relied on a 1948 levy that set aside property taxes to preserve Jackson County's history. The county maintains 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.

"It's the county's money, but it was voted into existence by a vote of the people," Wheeler said. "Maybe it's time to give a little bit of it back."

The county receives 25 cents per $1,000 in property tax valuation from the levy. Wheeler believes roughly a nickel of that 25 cents would help fund all the historical societies locally.

SOHS has proposed pulling out of Jacksonville and selling some of the historical buildings to raise money to survive. It would consolidate operations in a building it owns at Sixth Street and Central Avenue, Medford.

Commissioner Jack Walker said if the cities are interested in preserving historical buildings, they should be willing to help with the finances of SOHS. He noted some of the buildings the society owns or maintains fall within the boundaries of Medford and Jacksonville.

He said the original 1947 levy never specified that the county had to give the money to the historical society. Walker said that every January, the county could review the financial health of the organization to determine whether it was appropriate to allocate the money.

"All of these mayors should read the old levy in 1947," he said.

Walker said the historical society didn't use the money it received wisely over the years, employing too many people and spending $2.2 million annually without putting any aside for the future.

He said he could never get a clear picture of why SOHS needed more than 40 people to operate the organization.

In recent years, SOHS has failed to properly maintain the historical buildings, Walker said.

"They haven't made the obligations they've promised," he said. "They've mismanaged the money."

Walker said the historical society needed to cut back on the number of artifacts at a White City storage building to cut costs, but has failed to do so.

"They need to find a way to maintain the past in a way that doesn't cost a fortune instead of storing all the old clothes out in White City," he said. "What in the heck are we saving all that junk out there for?"

Walker said he does believe that many of the items are worth saving, but the historical society has spent years failing to come up with a plan to properly fund the preservation.

Despite his reservations, Walker said he's been hearing some good ideas coming out of the new leaders of the historical society that give him hope for a new direction.

He anticipates the county will come up with some level of support, but said he didn't want to reveal any details about ongoing negotiations.

"I want to maintain the history of the county," he said.

Kramer said Walker is misstating the reason why the funding was withdrawn in the first place. "Jack didn't pull the plug because the books weren't in order," he said. "He pulled the plug after ballot measures 47 and 50."

However, Kramer said that with the money still collected from the consolidation of levies, the county is able to put $9 million a year in its rainy-day fund.

By setting aside just $1 million of that money, the dozen or so historical societies could continue to operate with a base level of funding to build on, he said.

"Whether they are obligated to do the thing legally is beside the point," Kramer said. "It is morally and ethically the right thing to do."

Kramer said he did agree with Walker that the historical society didn't plan for the future and may have taken on artifacts that weren't pertinent to the history of Southern Oregon.

He said SOHS officials previously didn't make the right decisions in its dealings with the county after the passage of measures 47 and 50, spawning a lawsuit and finally a settlement.

"In my opinion, they misplayed their hand with the county and the public," he said.

At this point, there is too much at stake to allow the historical society to shut down while there are so many important artifacts in storage and so many important buildings that need care, Kramer said.

"They still sit on the second largest collection of artifacts in Oregon outside of the Portland metropolitan area," Kramer said.

But pushing the historical society to the verge of extinction is something he blames on the county.

"On this particular issue Jack has been wrong," he said.

Jacksonville Mayor Bruce Garrett said he will sign the letter, but isn't sure whether it will have much effect on the commissioners.

His city is concerned about maintenance problems on some of the historic buildings. The U.S. Hotel needs a new balcony, the Beekman House has dry rot problems and the Children's Museum needs the roof repaired or replaced, he said.

"We don't want any harm to come to the buildings through neglect," Garrett said.

Phoenix Mayor Carlos DeBritto said the county should provide some kind of funding to keep the historical society going.

"They are stripped down to the bare bone as far as operating expenses," he said.

Damian Mann is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 776-4476, or e-mail

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