Voters in Ashland, the county's left-leaning enclave, will be asked to open their collective checkbook again and again to support local institutions until changes are made to the way property taxes are collected, local officials say.




The push for local levies began when voters in 1996 approved Measure 47 and then its rewrite, Measure 50, a year later. The ballot measures essentially forced the county to roll all of its ongoing levies into one permanent tax rate.




Jackson County Commissioner Dave Gilmour, a Democrat, summed up the situation: "The biggest problem is that we haven't been able to grow our revenues with inflation," he said, noting that the county can only increase property taxes a maximum of three percent each year.




As a result, the money voters intended to go to augment such things as local libraries and museums has dwindled and instead gone to fund unrelated programs, seen as more crucial by the three county commissioners.




Take, for instance, the continuing levy that county voters in 1948 approved to support local historical preservation efforts. It flows into the county general fund now.




Historical Societies




Faced with declining revenues and rising expenditures, county commissioners began steadily reducing budget appropriations for the Southern Oregon Historical Society and 14 smaller preservation groups, despite a dedicated levy of 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed value that's intended to fund the groups.




"For years, the historical society was supposed to come up with appropriate, long-term funding on its own, but, lo and behold, they haven't and now they have nothing," Gilmour said. "The other problem is that the county owns many of the buildings the historical society was going to maintain, so we need to look at that, too."




The last county payment went to the historical societies in April 2007, and there is no such money earmarked in the adopted Jackson County budget for 2007-08.




Now a group of local preservationists is trying to get a countywide 7-cent per $1,000 assessed value levy on the November 2008 ballot to help preserve remnants of the Rogue Valley's past.




During the 2007 session, state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, co-sponsored the legislation that allows the formation of so-called heritage districts.




"The historical society in Jackson County is between a rock and a hard place through no fault of their own," Buckley said. "Their voter-approved funding was taken away from them, and they're left with no other choice other than going back to the voters for some sort of funding."




Libraries




Then, there is the 1996 levy that voters approved to support the county library system. That levy of 62 cents per $1,000 assessed value too continues to flow into the county general fund yet library services have been outsourced and their hours have been slashed.




"Measure 47 and 50 did this to us," said Ashland City Councilor Kate Jackson said. "Now the manager of the county general fund gets to decide where that money goes."




Library supporters, including Jackson, have said that the $8.2 million that the levy generated last year was sufficient to keep the libraries open full-time.




Instead, the county commissioners shuttered the county's main library and its 15 branches on April 6 amid a $23 million revenue shortfall brought on when Congress failed to reauthorize federal timber subsidies.




The money, which Congress began paying 700 counties in 39 states after federal logging restrictions led to diminished harvests, has been used locally to finance such things as road construction and public safety programs.




"Our county commissioners decided to blame the libraries on the (timber) funds going away," Jackson said. "Libraries had their own levy already; that's why we need to set up something for the libraries and the historical society and I don't know what else."




After county voters handily rejected an $8.3 million, five-year local option levy in May, Ashland voters in September stepped up and overwhelmingly approved local levy of up to 58 cents per $1,000 assessed value to fund the local library branch fully for two years.




Then, before the Ashland vote, county leaders decided to approve $3 million annual contract to outsource operations of the county library system, opening them up for about 25 hours a week on a reduced budget.




So the Ashland library branch could operate at its pre-closure level, Ashland city councilors agreed to a levy of 20-cents in the first, partial year and 25-cents per $1,000 the second year.




As for the proposed Rogue Valley Heritage District, Jackson said the community can either support local preservation efforts through the proposed levy or through fees, which are not tax-deductable.




"Property taxes are deductable against your federal income tax, so it's better than having fees," Jackson said.




The Big Picture




What needs to be done, Buckley said, is that officials need to bring local services and how they are funded into one big picture.




To help make his point, he noted that the libraries are funded one way, local schools another, and then there are additional levy proposals being considered to fund the Rogue Valley Transportation District and county mental health services.




Take the Ashland School District's Youth Activities and Academics levy that passed on Nov. 6.




Supporters, including Buckley, argued that the $1.29 levy per $1,000 assessed value beginning July 2008 was necessary because the state falls short of adequately funding Oregon classrooms.




"We're looking at things in pieces rather than as a whole so we can look at everything that we're going to need and decide how we're going to pay for them rather than doing this piecemeal," said Buckley, chairman of the House Education Committee.




Asked if there are too many individual levies being assessed Buckley responded, "We are very close to that point."




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