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Before dissolution, a final accounting is due

by: Tyler Graf Other known spending includes the land purchase at Millard Road, a property valued at $736,000 — about one year’s worth of collections, though the health district got a slamming deal via a three-way land swap and ultimately paid less than half the land’s value. There is a very real likelihood that land will revert to the city of St. Helens as the health district dissolves, although the finality of that prospect has not been set.

They shouldn't be hard questions to answer: Since Columbia Health District tax collections started in 2005, where has all the money gone and how much is left?

Those seem to be the core questions incoming health district board members want to address as they assume their new responsibilities July 1. They're good questions, too.

Annual tax collections since 2005 were in the neighborhood of $1 million. We could expect anywhere from $5 million to $6 million total to have been collected since the 2004 vote.

The Spotlight learned that several staff positions were being compensated from a portion of tax dollars, presumably because an equal portion of their workload dealt specifically with work on the hospital. The total dollar amount allocated to staff last fiscal year was $98,249. We also know that consultants and attorneys working on the hospital project were paid directly from the tax collections. In budget year 2009-10, for instance, $891,499 had been collected in tax revenue. In 2010-11, the health district had anticipated spending $447,338 in legal and consulting fees, 50 percent of the total tax income from the prior year. But, as we've seen, that was a banner year for legal and consultant activity.

Other known spending includes the land purchase at Millard Road, a property valued at $736,000 - about one year's worth of collections, though the health district got a slamming deal via a three-way land swap and ultimately paid less than half the land's value. There is a very real likelihood that land will revert to the city of St. Helens as the health district dissolves, although the finality of that prospect has not been set.

Health district board members also received a stipend totalling $8,000, according to the figure that had been approved in the 2010-11 budget. And, of course, there are many, many ancillary fees, such as loan fees, membership dues, facility fees, etc. Interestingly, in addition to the attorney and consultant fees, the certificate of need expense approved in the 2010-11 budget is a whopping $180,879, and another line item entitled 'Hospital Project Development' has attached to it a $46,744 expense.

Altogether, however, it doesn't seem feasible these goods and services - land, relatively modest staff salaries, attorney and consultant fees - would equal the total of all tax collections, especially in light of the very simple fact not one brick had been laid toward the construction of the hospital itself.

We learned Tuesday, from documents provided to The Spotlight from health district staff, the agency had $502,513 remaining in two separate accounts as of April 30. The health district's proposed budget for 2011-2012 anticipates prepaying its liabilities, which include a fiscal year 2011 audit ($10,000), the Columbia County intergovernmental agreement ($100,000), a final payment to the Oregon Department of Human Services ($60,000), May election costs ($5,000), legal fees for the district dissolution ($75,000), and liability for employee sick and vacation time ($198,662). The total of these prepaid liabilities is $448,666.

And that is, presumably, a wrap.

But the incoming board wants to know more, though it is unclear if it will be left with the resources to do so. The proposed health district ending fund balance for budget year 2010-11 is $5,000. Of the millions collected, only $5,000 will initially be left behind for the incoming board to conduct its research into the fiasco that has been the proposed hospital. Over the year, an additional $60,000 is expected to be collected. The current board, with apparent adherence to the voters option to eliminate the hospital tax of 38 cents per $1,000, intends to set the tax rate for the next budget year at zero dollars.

It is in the best interest of the current board members and the taxpayers who have supported their efforts over the last five years to provide as transparent a final accounting on hospital spending as possible prior to leaving office. Also, though there are, of course, many lingering questions about spending, we do not believe the incoming board should attempt to exercise the district's levy authority, if possible.

Use what resources remain available, do as much digging into the documents as possible, and then shut down the hospital project once and for all.