Voters should not have rejected the museum levy
It's not often that election results are truly viewed as shocking. Truman over Dewey for President perhaps comes to mind — who could forget the famous shot of Harry S. Truman holding up a paper incorrectly proclaiming, "Dewey Defeats Truman!" because the media was so certain of his victory that they jumped the gun on printing the results.
But in Crook County, it is absolutely reasonable and fitting to add the Bowman Museum tax levy increase failure to the list of shocking election outcomes. Nobody among the museum staff and historical society board ever imagined that the bond measure would fail by a 10% margin — even though the ballot measure asked for a tax increase for the first time in its nearly 25-year history. Nobody here at the newspaper office saw it coming either.
Since its initial approval in 1998, the levy has taxed homeowners six cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value. So, a home with an assessed value of $200,000 would pay an annual $12 tax. The tax revenue covers ongoing operating expenses, including building maintenance, upkeep, staffing and collection development.
But, due to increasing costs over the years, the museum had finally reached a breaking point, where six cents per thousand just wouldn't cover those basic expenses anymore. It was determined that an additional four cents per thousand dollars was needed to keep moving forward.
In a summary of the 2022 ballot measure, submitted as part of the Notice of Measure Election to the Crook County Clerk's Office, voting no "will force the museum to reduce hours, reduce staff or otherwise reduce its efforts to educate the public about the history of Crook County."
As many now know, the no votes outweighed the yes votes by a 55% to 45% margin. It seems that paying an additional $8 per year on an assessed value of $200,000, or an additional $12 per year at $300,000, was too much for the majority of voters to bear.
The defeat was, frankly, a slap in the face of the museum staff and leaders who have worked hard to make it one of the finest small-town museums in the nation. The Bowman Museum is a source of great pride for our community, an important showpiece for visitors and newcomers.
Celebrating local history — our agricultural, ranching and logging culture — has long been part of the soul of Crook County. Our past matters here, and our, up till now, unyielding support for the museum was testament to that fact. Its defeat at the ballot box was nothing short of a punch to the gut of Crook County pride.
The rejection of a tax increase in and of itself is not terribly shocking. There are plenty of folks who have a strong distaste for tax hikes. But this isn't your everyday tax increase rejection. For two decades, Crook County voters have overwhelmingly opened their pocketbook in support of the museum levy. In 2018, 83% of voters agreed to continue it, and that vote was right in line with previous votes along the way. So, it's understandable that museum and historical society leaders expected the tax levy to pass again — even with an increase. Sure, it might not enjoy 80% approval — maybe 65% or even 60% seemed reasonable. But nobody anticipated landing 10% on the wrong side of the ledger.
It is hard to fathom that the dollar amount was that much of a deterrent — at least it shouldn't have been enough to prompt such a substantial swing in voter support. Even with a home with a $500,000 assessed value, the tax would only increase from $30 to $50 per year. The amount is equivalent — or possibly less than — a dinner out at a local restaurant. It's just north of $2 per month. The only explanation that seems to make any sense is that people read the ballot measure and saw two words that immediately made them check the no box: tax increase.
Look, nobody wants to see their taxes go up? — but this is one time where the tax hike aversion is seriously misguided. Not only is the amount of increase relatively small, the facility that voters chose not to support provides an important service that helps preserve the community's culture and historical heritage. Without a museum, a community's past, its historical foundation and source of pride is compromised at best and at worst, it is lost.
Now, the museum is left to figure out what to do when the current levy sunsets in 2023. Do museum and county leaders try a second time to pass a levy at the next opportunity? Do they ask for another increase or try to keep the status quo? Or do they make deep and difficult cuts?
It's a shame that they face these questions. This is one time, if there ever was one, where the words "tax increase" shouldn't have resulted in rejection.
We are eager for the museum to return to the ballot as soon as possible. We are confident Crook County voters will rethink their decision and step up to give the museum what is essentially the bare minimum needed to operate a quality museum in our current day. We are fortunate to have a quality museum here in Prineville. It deserves to be cherished, not rejected to save the cost of one value meal per year at a fast-food joint.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.