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Court ruling forces county to repay Comcast up to $180,000

An Oregon Tax Court ruling earlier in the month puts Columbia County on the hook to repay more than $100,000 in collected property taxes to Comcast, the country's largest cable television and Internet provider, for its county holdings.

The Aug. 10 decision comes as an unfortunately timed blow for the county, which is currently in the midst of a contentious contract negotiation with the Courthouse Employees Union AFSCME.

With the tax court's decision in place, Columbia County could owe as much as $180,000, according to county projections.

'We definitely don't have money to spare,' said County Commissioner Henry Heimuller. 'But the law is the law, and we plan to comply with it.'

Nonetheless, county officials could dip into the county's reserves as a way to cover the refund costs. Controversy has surrounded that pool of money, though, as the county workers' union believes county officials should dip into those reserves to make up the county's deficit.

The tax court's decision is the result of a 2009 lawsuit Comcast filed against the state, alleging Oregon unfairly quadrupled the company's property taxes.

In his written opinion, Judge Henry C. Breithaupt of the Oregon Tax Court invalidated the state's property tax assessment method used to increase Comcast's tax rate in 2009.

Jennifer Cueller-Smith, the county's finance director, said the county plans to pay Comcast quickly and use a new state law to side-step high interest payments, something that affected the county when NW Natural won its five-year tax battle with 16 Oregon counties, including Columbia County, in 2010.

In that decision, the Oregon State Supreme Court ruled that the county was overcharging NW Natural for the natural gas it stored in the Mist gas fields.

That ruling required the county to refund $2 million in tax revenue to the region's largest provider of natural gas and an additional $1 million in tacked-on interest.

The new law, set to take effect on Sept. 29, will allow Columbia County to return the collected property taxes using deferred billing credits, which are interest-free.

Cuellar-Smith said compared to the nine other counties affected by the tax court decision, Columbia County's expected payback is small.

'Honestly, Columbia County, relative to other counties, has very little skin in this game,' she said.

The county will know how much it owes Comcast in November, the month property taxes are tabulated and sent to property owners.