The Southern Oregon Historical Society announced Monday it will lay off its remaining paid staff following voters' rejection of a funding levy.
The layoffs of a half-dozen staff members will be effective Dec. 31, according to the SOHS board.
On Nov. 8, 65.7 percent of voters in Jackson County voted against a heritage district levy that would have cost the owner of a house assessed at $200,000 an extra $10 per year. Only 34.3 percent of voters favored the levy, which would have provided stable funding for the Southern Oregon Historical Society and other historical societies and museums around the county.
Board members said they avoided talking about drastic consequences of a failed levy — such as staff layoffs — because they didn't want to appear to be threatening voters. They also had not yet made an official decision about what to do in case the levy failed.
"We really did not want to get out there and be talking about drastic consequences if the levy didn't pass. There are so many idle threats out there. We thought if we were a part of that, it would turn off voters," said SOHS board President Douglas McGeary. "When the campaign was over, we truly started assessing what we had to do."
McGeary said the staff layoffs will not spell the end of the historical society, although it will have to cut back many of its operations, reorganize and forge plans to move forward in a different way.
"There is a future. It's just going to be different than the past we had," he said. "So many people have volunteered. This area has such a rich and interesting history. The Southern Oregon Historical Society had developed such a bank of information and knowledge. This is a jewel."
The society will work to maintain its storage facility in White City that houses historical artifacts, he said.
Its research library in downtown Medford may remain open if it can be run by volunteers, McGeary said. The society already rents out much of its downtown building to Kid Time, a learning and play space for children.
Hanley Farm, between Central Point and Jacksonville, likely will remain open because of its revenue-generating potential, McGeary said.
The popular Windows in Time history lecture series that takes place in the Medford and Ashland libraries will continue, as it is volunteer-driven. (Corrected online.)
In the 1990s, SOHS had its own taxing district and an annual budget of approximately $2 million. Oregon voters passed property tax restrictions that decade that eliminated many independent districts, and Jackson County absorbed the historical society funding into its general fund.
Since then, the society has received some financial support from Jackson County.
McGeary said the board will explore all options, but said it has no plans to return to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners with a request for more money. He said the society's board is grateful commissioners placed the funding levy on the ballot and gave voters a choice to provide stable funding for local historical societies and museums.
"At this point, we're not approaching the commissioners," McGeary said. "We have work to do. They gave us the privilege of having an election. They gave us this opportunity. We're very grateful to the commissioners, (County Administrator) Danny Jordan and the administration to get this on the ballot for us."
The society's members — many of whom are senior citizens — would not have been able to gather the thousands of signatures needed to place the issue before voters, he said.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Rick Dyer said the historical society lost its own independent funding because of a vote by Oregonians as a whole. The levy on the November ballot was an opportunity for local voters to voice their opinion about whether they wanted to fund the historical society.
"There was never a definitive vote to repeal the district. That question needed to be asked of voters," Dyer said. "The voters voiced their opinion loud and clear that they don't want public resources used to fund that."
Dyer said the results of the vote don't mean residents don't value history.
"It's not that they don't support the historical society or the preservation of history. But they are not willing to pay for the proposed levy," he said.
McGeary said the historical society's staff had dwindled over the years until a skeleton crew was left. He said it was an agonizing decision for the board to lay off the remaining staff members.
“This is a very hard decision. We’re proud of how our staff has endured these past several hard years. The staff has been so professional, understanding and positive. They have continued to provide high-quality service and support to our community and have stepped up in so many ways. We owe them a debt of gratitude. We wish them well,” McGeary said.
He said there are many ways for people to help the society move forward, including by becoming members of the society.
For more information, see www.sohs.org and click on the "Get Involved" tab.