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With levy secured, now show us responsible, transparent governance

Wow. What a primary.

And now we turn our attention to Nov. 4, when it seems likely, at least as of press time, incumbent Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller will face off against his challenger, Scappoose contractor Wayne Mayo, in a runoff race for rights to the Position 2 seat on the commission.

We are not surprised by the razor-thin margins seen in this election. Despite passage of the jail levy, time and again we have heard from taxpayers — both residents and business owners alike — who are disillusioned with county governance. A scant 51.3 percent of voters approved the jail levy, effectively avoiding collapse of a county-issued social service deemed critical for public safety.

And though we are fully aware of many of the economic circumstances contributing to the county’s weak financial position — severely diminished federal payments from timber sales, the exodus of legacy industrial residents, declining property values and unfunded mandates, among others — there were boondoggles that, when taken together, have cultivated an air of mistrust in local government.

In one example, the Columbia Health District spent millions on a hospital project that resulted in no hospital. We can surmise that a considerable portion of the money gathered between 2004 and 2010, when the project was finally scuttled, helped line the pockets of consultants, attorneys and resulted in a land purchase, but, all the same, let’s have a final reckoning on that project. Instead of the county’s rote response that it has boxes of records in the basement and anyone is welcome to come look through them — in other words, putting the burden on non-accountant citizens to unravel the mystery of a multi-million dollar fiasco of public spending — how about taking it upon yourselves, county leaders, to provide a detailed accounting of where the money went and a full venting of what went wrong? That might restore some confidence in local government, as Mayo has suggested.

Despite some officials’ efforts to write this off as a past event of little consequence today, it is an issue our readers continue to raise as a source of genuine anger and frustration.

It wasn’t too long ago we were discussing the Rainier Economic Development Company, or REDCO, and the payments the county, Port of St. Helens and city of Rainier were required to make to pay down a mismanaged property purchase made to incentivize wallboard manufacturing giant U.S. Gypsum to build in Rainier. Nobody wanted to talk about that one, either.

There is a pattern here.

The payment schedule for Port Westward improvements, too, warrants some discussion. The county, as the urban renewal agency for Port Westward, is obligated to a minimum payment on infrastructure loans at the industrial park. Tax revenue, or increment, received above the minimum loan rate could be directed to the county’s general fund, or it could be spent on further paying down the loan principal and, hence, move the county out from under that debt at a quicker pace. So far, we are not aware of a plan to manage any of the new tax revenue from new development. What is the plan for tax increment at Port Westward? And when will it move the county into the black? We want to hear it.

The jail, too, will remain an albatross around the county’s neck. Yes, the taxpayers have bailed out jail operations, but at what cost and for how long? And at what expense to other agencies that might need to seek levy funds for new facilities?

The county’s courthouse employees spend every other Friday on furlough, and every Friday the courthouse is closed to both reduce save on expenses and allow county workers an opportunity to catch-up on mounting work assignments.

We agree with assertions from county commissioners that new development and an expanded tax base are the ultimate solutions to the county’s current inability to fund some of its public services — we don’t even want to go into a discussion about county roads at this point — but there is substantial work to be done to restore trust in governance so that local residents and businesses are confident each and every tax dollar is wisely spent.

Three years from now, we do not foresee the county having advanced to a place where funding for jail operations is secure without renewal of the recently passed jail-operating levy.

Between now and then, we expect county officials to go above and beyond the call of duty to demonstrate a fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers, to show smart decisions behind each and every dollar spent.

The voters who just bailed out the 255-bed jail deserve no less.

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