This circa-1909 photograph of Medford, Oregon shows Main Street from the Southern Pacific Depot at the railroad tracks. Roxy Ann Peak is in the background. The Medford Commercial Club Exhibits building is on the left.
- Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon Historical Society
The Southern Oregon Historical Society had humble beginnings, forming in 1946, in response to a proposal to tear down the old courthouse in Jacksonville, Oregon. In 1966, they led a successful effort to make the entire town of Jacksonville one of the first officially designated National Historic Districts. For decades Jacksonville (and neighboring Medford) were popular destinations for travelers taking in a play at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespearean Festival, sampling southern Oregon wines, and hearing nationally recognized artists at the Peter Britt outdoor music festival.
Since its inception, the SOHS has collected, preserved and
shared photographs and documents that reflect the lives and stories of those
that resided int he Rogue River Valley and the surrounding Siskiyou Mountains
The Archives include many pioneer stories, including the oldest urban Chinese
community in Cascadia, as well as those of later settlers, and of people born
and raised in the Valley, including the native Takilma people, a tribe that
went extinct soon after gold miners arrived in the 1850s.
However, in September of 2009, the SOHS Executive Director
was forced to shut down most of the organization piece by piece. Their showcase
Jacksonville Museum of Southern Oregon History, in the county’s original 1883
courthouse, closed its doors, soon followed by five more historic structures
operated by the society in Jacksonville’s National Historic District. The
historic US Hotel downtown would no longer host weddings, and the children’s
museum and a living history farm that plows its fields with draft horses both
slashed their hours.
The shutdown was the climax of a ten-year fall, marked by a
change to the state constitution, new state laws, a failed local citizens
initiative, a county budget squeeze, and finally, the loss over the summer of a
major tenant (an auto dealership caught in the Great Recession) leasing space
in the SOHS research library building. Without that monthly revenue, SOHS had
to lay off four of its six paid staff or risk putting its $600,000 annual
operating budget in the red.
But the most important factor driving the crisis was a
decision by Jackson County commissioners in 2007 to halt a half-century-long
tradition of funding the society’s operations. As a result, the 200,000
residents of Jackson County, including the cities of Medford and Ashland, have
lost nearly all access to SOHS’s collection of 1 million artifacts and 800,000
documents and photos. Not even professional researchers can view the
collections. In other words, local people, not to mention all Oregonians, were
barred from a broad swath of their state and local history, including the
second largest collection of artifacts in Oregon.
Today they are a shadow of their former selves, at serious
risk of becoming a historical footnote. But how did all of this happen? As it
turns out Southern Oregon Historical Society’s world started to unravel in
1997, when Oregon voters approved a statewide measure that consolidated special
levies into a single county tax base. A decision which would have lasting and
damaging consequences for the state…
BALLOT MEASURE 5
A landmark piece of direct legislation in Oregon history,
Ballot Measure 5 was narrowly passed in the November 6, 1990 general election,
with 574,833 votes in favor, 522,022 votes against, leading to an amendment to
the Oregon Constitution (Article XI, Section 11), established limits on
Oregon’s property taxes on real estate. Although measure numbers are reused,
the effect of this measure on the state was significant enough that when
Oregonians speak of Measure 5, they are usually referring to this specific
measure, as it remains today one of the most contentious measures in Oregon
Ballot Measure 5 fundamentally changed Oregon’s property tax
and public-school funding systems. Voter approval of Measure 5, and of the
related Measure 47 in 1996 and Measure 50 in 1997, demonstrated the great force
of anti-tax fervor in that decade. The resulting restrictions in local school
district revenues transformed the funding of Oregon’s public-school system to
make it primarily dependent on state general revenues controlled by the
legislature rather than on local school boards.
One might wonder, if the measure was so contentious and so
radical, how was it ever voted into being? Measure 5’s passage reflected three
factors of the time: firstly, the rise of ultra-right-wing insurgency in the
state that was not above disseminating dishonest and misleading information;
secondly, it illuminated the great inconsistencies and disparities among local
schools districts and general voter ignorance of the school funding system; and
thirdly, the acceleration of housing values and property taxes in the Portland
Crafted by Don McIntire (1938-2012) and Thomas P. Dennehy
(1928-1998), anti-tax activists and the measure’s chief petitioners, Measure 5
initially focused on property taxes. On the surface it seemingly protected
local school funding by requiring state government to compensate school
districts for the property tax losses during the phase-in period, during which
property tax limits were gradually reduced to one-half percent of real market
value for local school districts and one percent for all other local government
by the 1995-1996 budget period.
A rise in real estate value in the 1980’s, caused by an
economic boom and the continued influx of new homeowners in the bounded
Portland metropolitan area, caused a rapid rise in taxes for some residents in
Clackamas and Washington Counties. By November 1990, voters could not ignore
the accelerating property taxes and the instability of the public-school
funding system, highlighted by temporary school closures in towns like
Estacada. In some parts of the Portland metropolitan area, property taxes were
as high as $33 per $1,000 value. While there was much disagreement over exactly
what should be done, across the political spectrum and throughout the state
there was a sense that some sort of reform was inevitable and necessary. Even
the liberal weekly newspaper Willamette Week endorsed Measure 5.
Despite vigorous opposition by those who rightfully feared
either the budget consequences of or the uncertainty related to the
measure—including gubernatorial candidate Barbara Roberts, the Oregon Education
Association, and the Associated Oregon Industries—it won 52%of the vote,
primarily from Portland-area voters.
Measure 5 constitutionally limited total non-school property
taxes to 1% ($10 per $1,000 real market value), which significantly limited
local revenue options. The most visible effects of the measure, however, are
the limitation of basic local school property taxes to one-half percent ($5 per
$1,000 assessed value) and the state’s obligation to replace lost school
revenues during the phase-in period. Technically, the state was not responsible
for replacement costs after 1996, but the legislature’s increased commitment to
local school funding has become both a practical and a political reality.
The policy effects of Measure 5 are inextricable from those
of Measure 50, which Oregon voters passed in 1997 to respond to perceived or
real shortcomings in Measure 5. Measure 5 required all counties to more
frequently reassess property values. Almost immediately it was clear that the
upward revisions of assessed values would offset the impact of lower tax rates
for many homeowners, particularly in the Portland metropolitan area.
Consequently, some homeowner tax bills actually increased following the passage
of Measure 5. Further, industrial and commercial property owners enjoyed much
greater savings due to the accuracy of their assessments.
According to the October 2006 issue of Oregon Business, the first sixteen years of Measure 5 and Measure 50 reduced local revenues by $41 billion. The proportion of K-12 operating expenses funded by the state’s Basic School Support Fund (primarily the state’s general fund) went from 28.6% in 1990-1991 to a high of 70.6% in 1998-1999. School district dependency on state general funds remained above 66% until the recession starting in 2009 brought the number down to 63 percent. Increased state funding promoted school district equalization, stabilizing and increasing spending in poorer districts while making relative cuts in per capita spending in the state’s wealthier areas.
In response to Measures 5 and 50, the share of the state
general fund going to the Basic School Fund rose from 25% in 1989-1991 to 42%
in 1999-2001. This increase squeezed other elements of the general fund, with
higher education’s share declining from 14% to 7%. Even with the boom times of
the 1990s and cuts in other general fund programs by 2011, a state legislative
panel found that Measures 5 and 50 were the foremost explanation of why funding
for K-12 schools fell more than $3 billion short of the amount needed to meet
TENDRILS OF A SHADOWY CABAL
Don McIntire, commonly known as the father of Measure 5 as
well as many other anti-tax activities going back several decades would go on
to join Jason Williams, who is best known for working with Oregonians In
Action, an anti-Environmental organization which funds politicians which
actively denied climate change, promote the hunting of endangered species, seek
to remove environmental protection from sensitive land areas, and at one point
sought to strip veterans and disable veterans of their civil service preference
upon ten years of being discharged from the military.
Together these two founded the Taxpayer Association of Oregon (TAO) in 2000, an organization allegedly aimed at monitoring and reporting government spending excesses, even though their metrics are notably skewed, and curiously absent regarding certain political figures potentially friendly to their cause.
The TAO’s website, OregonWatchdog.com, is now ranked at the
top of web searches involving ‘Oregon political news’ keywords. However, the
very same website platforms a wide number of openly fascist, corporatist, and
white-supremist entities, such as Victoria Taft and Oregon Report, as well as
regionally recognized terrorist organizations, such as the Proud Boys and the
Today TAO also has partner organizations and Political
Action Committees to funnel money to various fronts, including ballot measures,
candidates, lobbyists, and propaganda. In addition to pushing an agenda of
income inequality and destruction of the commons, they lobby for voter
suppression, greater corporate control, and actively seek to take money from
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE AND LASTING EFFECTS
Ballot Measure 5 passed, but its impact was not immediate
and wasn’t uniform across Oregon. What’s more is that it didn’t actually force
the change in funding that the anti-tax advocates envisioned; one effect of the
measure was that funding for local schools was shifted from primarily local
property tax funds to state funds. With this, it led to a general equalization
of funding between districts as funds are now given to districts based on the
number of students in each district. Schools with higher value property
in their districts previously could fund local schools at a higher rate than
more economically depressed areas. Passage of the measure and the limits led to
some discussion of eliminating county services in Multnomah County by combining
them with Portland city services or Metro, as well as talks of combining
Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties into one large urban county for
the Portland metro area.
Today Measure 5 is blamed for cuts in school programs, the
budget crises of 2002 and 2003 and cuts to government services and statewide
public safety programs, including deep cuts to the Oregon State Police which
never fully recovered from 50% staffing reductions. Advocates for public
programs point out that Measures 5 and 50 have crippled important public
services, while McIntire and his cronies remain heroes to corporatists for
changing the trajectory of Oregon’s spending, even at the price of greater
state control over local school budgets and increased dependence on the more
volatile income tax.
Low-income, rural districts continued to struggle with their budget, and that often meant under-paying teachers. Year after year, legislators continued to fund schools through income taxes at amounts that rose and fell with what the economy, and year after year, the Quality Education Commission published reports showing how inadequate the spending was. In 2006, school districts were fed up, and the Pendleton School District led a multi-district lawsuit against the state over school funding, with the case going all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, where school advocates won a Pyrrhic victory; The ruling required adequate funding of schools – but it gave lawmakers an out — a loophole. If funding levels fell short of the mandated amount, legislators could write a report, instead of adequately funding education. In the years since, scores of reports have been written, but not once have lawmakers fully funded Oregon schools.
As for the Southern Oregon Historical Society, they now had
to make an annual case for funding to Jackson County commissioners. Eying the
revenue during a time of falling timber tax receipts and shrinking budgets,
commissioners declared that SOHS should become self-sufficient and cut funding.
SOHS sued, got a three-year reprieve, and increased its earned revenue from
nearly zero in 2003 to $500,000 a year in 2007. But it wasn’t enough to
maintain operations, and they asked the commissioners for more money. The
commissioners refused, claiming the historical society’s request for an
additional $750,000 over two years somehow demonstrated mismanagement.
SOHS then gambled that voters would again approve a special
levy as they had in 1948. But organizers failed to get the 16,632 signatures
needed to put a measure on the 2008 ballot. The society survived with a line of
credit against its property in Medford. But when the auto dealership pulled out
in August of 2009, SOHS couldn’t service the debt. So began the painful
shutdown and re-organization.
THE BIGGER (REGIONAL) PICTURE
The precarious funding of Southern Oregon Historical Society
is not a unique situation. In 2008, King County’s revenue from the
state-sanctioned lodging tax, which is dedicated to arts and heritage
activities, funded $1.1 million in heritage and historic preservation projects,
and a good portion of the money went to subsidize the operations of non-profit
historical societies and similar groups. The millions being funneled into the
renovations for KeyArena in Seattle prove a dangerous presidency. Typically museums
and historical societies earn only about half their revenue through ticket
sales, memberships, donations, and private grants, with local governments
provide the rest. Having funding reduced for heritage projects and
organizations, threaten the existence of these financially weak groups. The
loss of support in Washington for heritage and preservation could have
devastating effects on local economies. A 2006 study by the Washington State
Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation found that heritage
tourists spent $307 million in King County alone, with 8,472 jobs tied to the
industry. If small museums die because government subsidies disappeared, so
would thousands of jobs and millions in economic activity.
The situation with SOHS illustrates the importance of local
funding for heritage activities, and the vulnerability of cultural
organizations when elected officials lose faith in not-for-profits entrusted
with history’s care. It also illustrates the importance of history to many
small Cascadian communities
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The sad part of this tale is that the damage has been done.
But hope is not lost. Despite the gloomy situation, SOHS is trying to stay
upbeat, and continues to fight for southern Oregon’s past and future.
It might sound clichéd, but every little bit helps. If you are a visiting tourist, offer a monetary donation. If you a local to the area, considering offering volunteer time at the Research Library or at Hanley Farm.
Network with others in the region, especially if you are a
similar historical society or museum. If you or a friend have legal
backgrounds, see if you can offer assistance, especially come election season. Teach
yourself about local politics, and make sure you know the actors and the
But perhaps the most important thing you can do is to vote while you still can. Those forces which stripped funding from the museums, that stole from hospitals and schools, that robbed from poor families will without a doubt one day soon set their sights on smothering your voice. Thomas P. Dennehy and Don McIntire may thankfully be gone, but their ilk are still out there, looking for a chance to worm their way into power so they can make themselves and their cronies rich at the expense of all others while leaving our corner of the Earth an impoverished husk.
Do what you can, as much as you can, to make sure evil men like this do not win.
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