Columbia County Commissioners Await Court Date in Asset Transfer
February 9, 2012 – The Columbia Public Health District and members of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners are awaiting a trial date to decide the fate of the district's assets, which include the public health building and the land in St. Helens where officials had hoped to build a hospital.
The public health district was formally dissolved after voters rejected its proposal to build that hospital.
Currently, a nonprofit foundation funded by the county is providing public health services, and county officials and the board of the former public health district are engaged in a legal battle over who has authority over the 8.3-acre hospital site or the public health office.
County commissioners believe that property belongs to the city of St. Helens, while the board members say the district can’t be dissolved until its assets have been taken care of.
A conference call today will determine the next steps – including the scheduling of relevant hearings, briefings and a trial date --following an injunction by the Columbia Health District which prevented the county commissioners from transferring the district's property to any other entity. That decision was upheld by Judge Ted Grove.
Board members of the dissolved district filed suit to prevent assets from being transferred from the district to the city of St. Helens. That board also wants to have the county commissioners removed as trustees of the district and the building on Gable Road (which now belongs to the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County) transferred back to the public health district.
“There is no appellate authority from Oregon Courts to assist this Court in interpreting the special district statutory plan,” wrote Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Ted Grove in a Jan. 23 letter to attorneys James Huffman – who represents the health district – and Barrett Merserau explaining his decision. “Given these concerns it is difficult to accurately determine the likelihood of the plaintiffs' success.” Grove could not be reached for further comment.
James Huffman and county commission members did not return phone calls or e-mails.
The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County, a private nonprofit organization created after the district's dissolution, is now providing health services and receives funding from the county's general fund, just as the health district did, said Pam Powell, community liaison for the foundation. The area it serves is slightly larger – including some parts of the county that were not part of the health district's boundaries – and the foundation is not legally considered a part of the county government.
Two other Oregon counties – Wheeler and Union – choose to hire independent contracting agencies for public health services, said state public health division spokesperson Christine Stone.
“This arrangement's working very well for us. I think it's working well for our clients throughout the county,” Powell said. “We're serving our clients as well as we always have.”