Teri Koerners five-year tenure ends with unpaid tax issues

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: JOHN SCHRAG - Teri Koerner was dismissed last week after five years as the Forest Grove Chamber of Commerce's executive director.The Forest Grove Chamber of Commerce board abruptly fired Teri Koerner last week for financial mismanagement, ending her five years as executive director.

The board got its first hint of a problem in August, said vice president Mike Hundley, when Koerner failed to present a financial report at the board’s monthly meeting. A board member with accounting expertise began an in-depth two-month review of the chamber’s finances and found tax returns had gone unfiled and taxes unpaid.

Hundley, who was designated as the board’s spokesman, said he and other board members were shocked. “She’s been five years with the chamber for God’s sakes,” he said, adding that Koerner apologized to the board and took responsibility for her lapses but failed to explain them.

The roughly 300-member Forest Grove chamber is a nonprofit organization that helps local businesses communicate with each other and public officials. It aims to improve the city’s image and economic climate while trying to attract tourists and new businesses. It sponsors several popular community events each year.

The chamber is funded by member dues as well as a few large fundraisers and relies heavily on the time and energy of dedicated volunteers. At the time of her firing, Koerner was the board’s only paid employee.

There is no evidence Koerner misappropriated any chamber funds, Hundley said, but the board is still combing through the financial records. “It’s happened so fast that we’re literally opening envelopes to see what’s in them,” he said.

The board also moved quickly to get some seasoned help, hiring former chamber director Ray Giansante to serve as interim director.

And the chamber board announced last week it is working to establish and implement a plan “to take a more active management role” in the financial operations of the business advocacy group in the future, according to Hundley.

Previous problems fall

through cracks

This is not Koerner’s first job-related financial problem. For 22 years, she and her husband, Henry Koerner, co-owned the Southern Oregon Reservation Center in Ashland — then moved to Texas in 2004 after racking up at least $15,000 in unpaid bills, according to news reports in southern Oregon at the time. In 2005, while Koerner was serving as the executive director of the Uvaldi, Texas, Chamber of Commerce, the couple filed for bankruptcy.

Responding by email, Koerner told the News-Times she finds the two financial issues “very separate” and that her Ashland troubles stemmed from a steep drop in post-9/11 tourism, along with her husband’s health problems.

“Members of my board of directors [in Uvaldi) were well aware of the situation and felt that it had no impact or correlation to my job performance at the time,” she wrote. 

The Forest Grove chamber board didn’t know about Koerner’s unpaid Ashland debts when it hired her in 2007, said Brian Wilbur, who was on the search committee at the time. The committee made numerous calls and got positive comments from references in both Ashland and Texas, Wilbur said.

In July 2009, an anonymous source sent a four-year-old newspaper article on Koerner’s Ashland problems to a former Forest Grove chamber board member, who passed it on to the News-Times, said Publisher John Schrag. The News-Times investigated the report but found no ongoing developments and decided the potential fallout from its disclosure outweighed its news value, Schrag said. Nonetheless, Schrag, a chamber board member at the time, passed the article on to executive committee member T. J. Buehler, who said Tuesday he couldn’t remember what he did with the information, although he might have passed it on to then-president Lisa Duncan.

Duncan would not say whether she knew of Koerner’s Ashland problems — or whether she confronted Koerner about them, referring all questions to Hundley.

Several current and former board members, including Hundley, expressed surprise to hear Koerner had any problems in Ashland.

July 2009 was also the beginning of the fiscal year in which Koerner stopped filing the chamber’s tax forms with the Internal Revenue Service, Hundley said.

The IRS 990 form is required for tax-exempt organizations and includes an expense line to record an organization’s yearly payroll taxes.

Taxes in arrears

County records show that twice in the past two years, the Oregon Employment Department has issued a lien-like warrant against the chamber’s property, indicating the chamber owed the department money for payroll tax deductions to fund federal and state unemployment insurance programs.

A $1,122 warrant was placed on the property in April 2011 and removed three months later. An $833 warrant was placed last February and removed in July.

In addition, Washington County property tax records for the chamber building at 2417 Pacific Ave. show that the chamber’s 2011-12 tax bill of $2,303 went unpaid and, due to monthly interest charges on the balance, now totals $2,610.

Added to the current tax bill of $2,376, nearly $5,000 in property taxes was due Nov. 15, none of which has been paid back yet, Hundley said.

“The executive committee is going to be meeting weekly now, trying to tackle those issues,” Hundley noted.

Koerner, who told friends she planned to return to Texas, said the chamber board asked her not to talk to the media about her dismissal or what led up to it

In a brief message on Facebook, she wrote: “I thank everyone for their support and friendship during the time I was here.”

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