This historical society, located on Portland's South Park Blocks, isn't just a bunch of old books gathering dust. This is the state history museum, and if it closes its doors the entire collection of Oregon's films, photos, trail diaries, propaganda posters and maps will become inaccessible to the public. "They even have the penny!" exclaims Liz Kaufman, a political consultant who is working on the new levy campaign. "You know how Lovejoy and Pettygrove flipped a penny to decide Portland's name? They have the penny!"
But why should county taxpayers shoulder the financial burden for running the STATE historical museum? Because the state has fallen through on keeping the museum and library afloat. Oregon's legislature paid about a third of the operating cost of the museum all the way from 1899 through 2003. Then from 2003-2007, the state gave the museum zero dollars. Though the state tossed $1.7 million to the society since 2007, the museum and library have been running almost entirely on its own cash reserves. They'll run out of cash in spring of next year. "We are dead last out of all 50 states for how much the state gives to its historical society and library," says Kaufman.
More on the finances of the state history museum—and the museum's chances at the ballot—below the cut.
The historical museum has been in dire financial straights for a while: The announcement in March 2009 that the society would shut its library sparked an impassioned librarian protest.
The proposed property tax, which the county commission will vote on sending to the ballot Thursday morning, would come to $10 a year for a $200,000 home. In exchange for approving the tax, the historical society would make its museum and library free to Multnomah County residents. Since the normal entry fee is $10, says historical society executive director George Vogt, "One visit to the museum and you'd get your money back."
But this is the second tax increase pitched for the November ballot just this week. Between the fire bond and TriMet's bond, saving the history museum might not stand a chance. "Voters will decide each measure on its own merits," says Kaufman... but winning this will definitely require a serious campaign on the part of the historical society. Though 40,000 visitors check out the museum or library each year, the society isn't beloved or well-known locally, in my experience.
The museum and library's budget expenses costs came to $5.1 million in 2009, while its income amounted to $4.8 million. Only $470,000 of that came from admissions and sales of historical photos and other products, while memberships made the society $259,000, state and local government funding came to $683,000. Private grants and contributions made up the largest slice of the income pie, bringing in $1.33 million.
"We went back to the state to see if there was any chance of throwing us a lifeline in the upcoming [2011 legislative] session. They said they're expecting even bigger cuts," says executive director Vogt. "The belief is the voters do need to weigh in on this."
Other ideas for raising cash: What about selling the building? The land and building the historical society occupies is worth $10.4 million. Kaufman says that's not a good option. "This isn't the best time to be selling a building," says Kaufman. And moving all the fragile historical documents would make moving a costly measure.
For now, it looks like Multnomah County voters will be deciding whether saving their history is worth $10 a year.