Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

When government breaks down

A survivor's guide to the Columbia Health District dissolution
by: Graphic by Darryl Swan

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners entertained a full chamber room of Columbia Health District critics at its June 1 meeting. Most wanted to know why the county commissioners hadn't done more to regulate the health district's pursuit of the Columbia River Community Hospital and its use of tax money to that end.

Where has all the money gone? Who is going to run public health? What happens to the hospital property? Many were uncertain about what role the county could take in the controversy.

It's an increasingly common scene since voters signaled their displeasure with the health district in November by voting to halt the district's collection of a 38-cent per $1,000 of assessed property value tax.

Since then, the district, having once approved maintaining a portion of the tax - 7.7 cents per $1,000 - under the auspices that money was necessary to continue with public health services, passed a resolution in April to dissolve and liquefy its assets. Though the board had indicated it wanted to dissolve the district prior to July 1, the start of a new fiscal year, Oregon law required the dissolution vote to be put out to district residents, which could happen at the earliest in September.

In May, however, residents living within the health district voted to bring new faces onto the CHD board. Three of the five candidates - Tammy Maygra, Georgia Keiper and Carrie Cason - ran unopposed. The remaining two - Peggy Crisp and Madalene Anderson - won their respective races. Each of the five elected members had indicated a desire to conduct a deep audit of CHD tax collections and spending since the health district had come into existence in 2004. None of the current CHD board members opted to run.

Taken together, the presence of the new board, dissolution of the district, unsettled status of public health and questions about the millions of dollars collected for a hospital that was never built have raised many new questions.

The Spotlight has assembled this informational guide to address some of those questions.

I voted in November to shut down the hospital and have remaining tax collections returned to Columbia Health District residents. Will I get any money back?

Not likely, and certainly not directly.

The current Columbia Health District board anticipates a carryover balance of $5,000, once existing liabilities are settled, headed into the 2011-12 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Residents within the Columbia Health District's borders won't see a refund on their taxes as a result of the dissolution of the CHD. But that doesn't mean they might not see some form of tax relief.

Any excess money the district has upon dissolution will go into what's known as the county's un-segregated tax fund, to be used as an offset for other taxing districts, according to an Oregon administrative rule so rarely used that even state taxation experts say they only discovered it recently.

'It wouldn't surprise me a bit if people didn't know about this,' said Lee Peterson, a finance and taxation analyst for the Oregon Department of Revenue, who said he first came across the rule last week. 'Districts just don't dissolve very often.'

The rule would call for any surplus money to be apportioned to other taxing districts within the dissolved district's boundaries. The money could then be used to decrease, for one year only, the tax rate for those districts, resulting in a lowered tax bill for district residents.

Though the administrative rule may act as a one-time tax decrease for health district residents, it won't make up for millions of dollars of money already spent, Peterson said.

'The millions they spent on the property are still lost,' he said.

Can I expect a state audit of Columbia Health District spending?

The newly elected board directors for the Columbia Health District say they want to perform a comprehensive audit of the district's finances after they take office on July 1. And if they can't do it, because of a lack of financial resources, somebody else should.

After all, why not the state?

For one thing, there's little recourse for that sort of action.

The Oregon Department of Revenue has limited supervision over municipal corporations, says Tom Linhares, executive director of the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission and a St. Helens resident.

The department of revenue's oversight into municipal corporations extends to whether the corporations are adhering to Oregon's budget laws.

Special districts are required to undergo annual audits of their budgeting and accounting practices, however.

'The audit will tell the story of how much they took in, how much they spent and how much they ended the year with,' Linhares wrote in an email to the Spotlight. 'But that kind of review takes time.'

State law requires a final review of the district's accounting books be completed by the end of the year, Linhares said. That state-mandated audit may not become public until the beginning of 2012.

I think the Columbia Health District Board or public health staff have done something criminal. Will the Columbia County District Attorney or the county commissioners investigate?

The Columbia County District Attorney receives investigations conducted by police agencies and, based on the merit of those investigations, can decide to prosecute charges or take the allegations before a grand jury. The district attorney's office is not an investigative agency.

The same holds true for the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.

That said, however, if the Columbia County commissioners or the District Attorney's Office believed a crime had occurred, each has the option to request a state Attorney General's Office investigation.

'If allegations were of a criminal nature, the district attorney or local law enforcement could ask us to investigate,' said Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice.

Why does the Columbia Health District control public health?

The state of Oregon mandates that Columbia County provide public health services to its residents. Instead of providing those services directly, the county has contracted with the Columbia Health District instead.

The county has the option to terminate the contract. Currently, it has directed its legal counsel to explore forging a one-year agreement with the nonprofit Public Health Foundation of Columbia County to provide administrative oversight of public health. That agreement would have conditions, however.

For instance, though the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County is currently a five-member board, the final agreement would likely require the foundation to adopt a nine-member board and re-write its bylaws to the satisfaction of the county. The foundation would have representation from all of Columbia County's cities, would have at least two health care professionals and would include one of the newly elected CHD board members.

Also, controversial members - Jay Tappan, chair of the current CHD board, for instance - who currently serve on the foundation's board are likely to step down, we've learned.

What happens to the Millard Road and Gable Road properties?

Upon dissolution, the likely scenario as outlined in state law is that the city of St. Helens would inherit the Millard Road property. Another possibility is that the CHD board could try to transfer the property to the county, though county officials have indicated it is not something they want.

As for Gable Road, the property was initially deeded to the public health agency - Columbia County - prior to the creation of the Columbia Health District. The CHD board last month passed a resolution that would transfer ownership of the Gable Road property back to Columbia County.

Public health services are expected to be provided at the Gable Road property into the foreseeable future.

Is a tax necessary to provide public health services?

No. Though the current Columbia Health District board had voted to reduce the current 38 cents per $1,000 tax to 7.7 cents starting in July 1 - an action occurring prior to the resolution to dissolve - on the premise a tax is necessary to maintain public health, analyses completed at Columbia County's request by agencies such as the Oregon Health and Sciences University have shown the county's public health program is self-sustaining. No tax is necessary, county officials have said.

Will the CHD board elect have a meeting place?

Though oversight of the Public Health Authority will likely transfer to the Health Foundation of Columbia County, County Commissioners have extended an invitation to the incoming board: The public health building on Gable Road is available for meetings and the storage of records.

If the current board leaves no money for the incoming board, can the new board impose taxes to pay for an audit?

Our understanding is that the incoming board, left with a carryover balance of $5,000, can amend the budget and raise the tax rate from the proposed 0 cents per $1,000 up to the voter-approved 38 cents per $1,000. Georgia Keiper, an incoming board member, said the board would have to consider that action if it was left with no money to conduct the audit on the outgoing board's actions. To do so, however, has political consequences. Health district residents had voted to do away with the tax, and any tax increase would counter the absence of a tax proposed for the 2011-12 fiscal year, or until voters approve the dissolution.

Can the incoming board choose not to dissolve?

Yes, according to information provided by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners. Also, should the incoming board opt to remain in existence, at least one county commissioner, Tony Hyde, said he would not fight their decision to do so.