OUTLOOK ENDORSEMENT: Voters should continue honoring history
Among the infuriating acts of violence and vandalism in downtown Portland over the past 12 months was a baffling message scrawled across the Oregon Historical Society building: "NO MORE HISTORY."
If anything, recent events make a case for rewriting that graffiti to: "YES, MORE HISTORY."
And, we'd add: Yes to Measure 26-221
When future generations look back at 2020 and the start of 2021, we want them to understand what happened — both the good and the bad. Health care workers and communities rallying to fight a disease despite a disjointed response from the federal government. A powerful grassroots movement for racial justice fueled by the murder of George Floyd. The senseless riots that devolved from peaceful demonstrations.
We're proud that our profession plays a role in chronicling current events, but as it's often been noted, journalism is but the first, rough draft of history. With time, reflection and research, historians provide context and a standard set of facts that can help create a shared — and evolving — understanding of the forces that shaped the present.
Measure 26-221 would support that valuable mission by extending a Multnomah County property tax levy of 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to support five historical societies for five more years.
For the owner of a home assessed at $240,000, it comes to $1 per month. For the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1, the levy would raise $3.35 million — a figure that would grow to $3.87 million in 2026.
This measure is a legacy of the Great Recession, which dramatically decreased state support for the Oregon Historical Society. While many states, including Idaho and Washington, have established historical societies as state agencies, the Oregon Historical Society remains a private nonprofit organization that has received significant but fluctuating financial support from the state over the years.
When lawmakers slashed the funding during the recession, officials at the state historical society, which also serves as Multnomah County's historical society, turned to county voters who narrowly passed the measure.
Five years later, support for the measure grew, and it's easy to see why.
The biggest beneficiary of the levy is the Oregon Historical Society, which would get, on average, an estimated $3.4 million per year over the five years to operate its museum, library and other operations.
In exchange for those property tax dollars, OHS offers free admission to all Multnomah County residents (it's $10 for adults outside the county). It also provides free admission to school groups from any part of the state and, during the past year, has dramatically expanded its outreach efforts. As a result, museum attendance has more than doubled during the "levy era" from 31,768 in 2010, to 71,126 in 2019 (the museum was closed most of 2020 due to COVID-19). Similarly, historical society events nearly tripled, from just 58 in 2010 to more than 300 in 2019.
Those patrons have been treated to a museum that has modernized to reflect changing times. Serving one of the whitest states in the nation, the Oregon Historical Society has embraced its mission of showcasing not only the state's history that is worthy of celebration, but the exploitation of Oregon's indigenous populations and the racism shown against them, as well as Chinese, African American, and other non-white settlers.
Outside of Portland, four historical societies in East Multnomah County have come to rely heavily on the funds they each get from the levy every year, which for the past five years has been set at $40,000 a year and could go up if the levy passes.
In Gresham, the money pays for an executive director at the Gresham Historical Society, freeing up funds to renovate the century-old Carnegie Library Museum.
Troutdale has used its levy funds to maintain its three museums: Fred E. Harlow House, the Depot Rail Museum, and the Barn Exhibit Hall — Byway of the People exhibit.
The Crown Point Historical Society is pouring its money into a building fund.
And levy money was used by the East County Historical Organization for a variety of projects, including the clean up its "Buttery" building, which was damaged by a 2016 tree fall.
In its most recent report to the levy's oversight committee, ECHO treasurer Twila Mysinger wrote: "It has been such a relief to be able to focus on our mission and not worry if we could pay the utility bills! And the funding has been extra helpful this year as our museums remain closed due to COVID-19. While it's been over nine years since the levy began, we remain extremely grateful."
So are we. And we urge voters to approve Measure 26-221.
Once this measure receives voter approval, the Oregon Historical Society may want to consider changing its allocation of funds to the East Multnomah County historical societies, by giving each an additional $5,000 a year.
Alternatively, the allocation to East County's organizations could be based on a fixed percentage — perhaps 5% — of the overall revenue. In each case it would mean a bit more funding for the East County organizations, while OHA would give up very little.
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