When I heard that property tax payments from Columbia County had been forwarded to Colombia, South America, I sensed trouble. Just call it a journalistic instinct. There was little choice but to hop in the car and head for St. Helens to see how the locals were taking the news.
Besides, who could pass up a chance to experience the magic that is Scappoose?
The crux of the mail problem seems to be that the Columbia County Courthouse in St. Helens doesn't have an address. Before you wonder why, I should point out that the town only became the county seat in 1903. We don't want to rush things. It hasn't even been 100 years yet.
For decades, the omission didn't matter. St. Helens mail stayed in St. Helens. The magnificent old courthouse built of gray stones in 1906 was joined by the modern brown courthouse next door, and everyone knew where the mail went.
This, it turns out, was the golden age of Columbia County mail service. Now, letters from the area go into Portland so they can be sorted automatically and sent to the wrong continent more efficiently. It was, as postal clerk Mark Gohlmann of the St. Helens post office observed, 'progress at its finest.'
Tim Harman, a local barber already was unimpressed: 'I don't trust the mail system, so I just paid in person.' I asked him how he'd like to see their taxes spent down in South America, and Tim said he wanted to see 'good common sense.' He said that up here, by the time we spend money on 'feasibility studies and so-called experts,' there wasn't enough to do the job. That's why the new jail didn't have an operating budget.
Tim thinks that too much money is wasted in this country. Take the million dollars someone gave to the St. Helens library fund. As one of Tim's customers put it, 'Why the hell would someone donate a million dollars for a library when half of these sons of bats around here don't know how to read?'
Ruth Baker, director of finance and taxation for Columbia County, is a pleasant woman with a German accent. My attempts at humor were met with the simple reminder: 'You are talking to an accountant.' I decided to press on with my questions:
Could you say that St. Helens is the Bogota of Columbia County?
How does she feel about Portland now?
'Everybody makes mistakes.'
If the Drug Enforcement Agency accidentally sent Columbia County 100 million to fight the War on Drugs, what would she do?
'We would invest it and get interest and then maybe return it when they asked us to.'
Her story checked out: Ruth's an accountant.
The most positive take on the Great Mail Snafu came from Bill Oswald, owner of the St. Helens Flea Market. He just said: 'We're paying so much for stamps, they might as well go that far.'
By now the Norman Rockwell factor of this quaint, little town was winning me over. The tiny Columbia Theater from 1928 is worth the trip by itself.
In fact, I liked the people so much that I'd love to mail them a copy of this column. But God only knows where it would end up.
Bill McDonald is a Portland writer and musician.