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Lawsuits settled; major employer announces business closure; proposed taxes prompt outcry

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The St. Helens City Council chambers were filled in October when residents expressed concern about the citys consideration of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in city limits as a revenue-generating option and a way to promote a healthy community. After the proposal was quashed, petitioners seized the initiative to collect signatures on a ballot measure that would ban any future tax on groceries.Outcry over St. Helens soda tax proposal

St. Helens residents expressed frustration and outcry against a proposal to tax sugar-sweetened beverages, a move that ultimately drew the attention of grocery industry lobbyists.

Earlier this year, Finance Director Matt Brown approached the St. Helens City Council with the idea of passing a per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages as a revenue generator for the city. The purpose of the tax would be twofold — promote healthier drink choices and bring in money for the city to fund areas that may lack money to achieve long-term goals, like park upgrades and maintenance.

The proposal was met with fiery opposition by numerous St. Helens residents, including Mayor Rick Scholl who protested a public forum on the tax held in October.

At the forum, dozens of people packed the council chambers to speak against the tax proposal. Some argued the tax would drive customers to neighboring Scappoose grocery stores, while other business owners said the tax would negatively affect sales in restaurants and local shops. The council voted to no longer pursue the tax.

In the weeks following, paid contractors and volunteers working with the Northwest Grocery Association began collecting signatures on two initiatives that would ban taxes on consumable goods in St. Helens. The initiative, titled "Yes! Keep St. Helens Groceries Tax Free!," proposes to add a section to the city charter that would prohibit the imposition or addition of taxes or fees on groceries for licensed grocers, farm stand operators or food banks.

The initiative was filed with the county Elections Office in early December and will appear on the May 2018 ballot as Measure 5-266. Similarly, an initiative called "Yes! Keep Our Groceries Tax Free!" is in the works to ban taxes on consumable goods statewide. The campaign will need to collect 117,578 signatures by July to win a place on the general election ballot the following November.

County again approves Port Westward expansion

This year saw the Port Westward saga up for review again by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.

Growth at Port Westward Industrial Park has been stifled, Port of St. Helens officials say, because Portland General Electric, which leases a large chunk of the site, has refused to allow new development on a large swath of land at the industrial site.

Because of PGE's rights of refusal, Port officials have been attempting for years to expand the industrial park by rezoning nearly 840 acres of quality farmland nearby for industrial use, in conjunction with the existing site.

After the Port got approval from the county in 2014, an appeal stopped the project. In mid-2017, the Port returned to the county with a revised application, calling out specific uses for the site if it were expanded. Following several months, meetings and new revelations about infrastructure access and rights, county commissioners approved the rezone again on Nov. 29 with a 2-1 vote. Earlier this month the Port allocated an additional $40,000 in anticipation of fighting yet another appeal of the rezone likely to be filed in early 2018.

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Members of St. Helens Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1440 and St. Helens city staff work to reinstall a 105-mm Howitzer cannon in McCormick Park. The cannon was stolen last year and returned to the park this year after the theft case was settled.World War II cannon returned to McCormick Park

A World War II cannon stolen from McCormick Park in 2016 was returned to the park this year just before Veterans Day, after a court case regarding the theft was settled.

In June, a court case involving the St. Helens Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1440 and Charles Hegele of Terrebonne, who was accused of stealing the cannon, was dismissed after Hegele agreed to pay $38,000 in a civil compromise.

The VFW immediately began discussions with city of St. Helens staff about upgrading the veterans plaza in the park where the cannon is displayed. The city had received a $46,770 matching grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation's State Historic Preservation Office to upgrade the plaza and has been collaborating with the VFW on designs. Construction on the expanded plaza is set to begin next year.

The 105-mm Howitzer cannon spent several months undergoing further decommissioning procedures at Heller Enterprises to ensure it was not operable before it was returned to the park.

The cannon was reinstalled in McCormick Park and bolted to the ground to prevent future thefts in early November.

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Brad Swift operates an unwinding machine at a newly opened Cascades Tissue plant in Scappoose.Cascades Tissue plant expands; Armstrong plant to close

As Columbia County celebrated the grand opening of a new Cascades Tissue plant in Scappoose this past July, a few months later in November, longtime St. Helens manufacturer Armstrong World Industries announced plans to close its plant in mid-2018.

Armstrong, a ceiling tile manufacturing company with locations across the globe, has operated out of the St. Helens site on Railroad Avenue since 1987. Company officials say 130 employees will be affected by the plant's closure, with some being offered relocation opportunities to work for another plant within the company.

News of the closure sent a chill through the county, but it's not all doom and gloom.

In Scappoose, the new Cascades plant employs 60 people with family-wage jobs— a condition required for the company to receive tax benefits.

NguyenPUD settles lawsuit; appoints GM, new director

Columbia River People's Utility District customers noticed a slight increase in rates in 2017, but PUD directors and top management had a much more eventful year.

In January, PUD directors appointed Scappoose resident Debbie Reed to fill a vacant seat on the board for Subdivision 1. The appointment came after an election in which Nancy Ward won the seat, but was later disqualified after the PUD's legal counsel determined Ward lived just outside the district's political boundary. The Scappoose area of floating homes in which Ward lives was later annexed into the political territory via an election vote in May.

In spring, a lawsuit filed by four former employees who were all terminated in 2015 was finally settled. The plaintiffs — Valarie Koss, Steve Hursh, Sheila Duehring and Serena Brooks — settled for $1.3 million in April. They jointly sued the PUD after they were all fired on the same day, shortly after invoking contract agreements that promised payouts if each employee stayed with the district through a certain date. The contracts were put in place by a former general manager who left the district and was replaced by current GM John Nguyen.

That same month, the PUD's board of directors officially named Nguyen the district's permanent general manager, after he had been working on an interim basis since 2015. Nguyen's appointment was questioned by some ratepayers who encouraged directors to do a public recruitment for the position and consider a pool of qualified candidates, rather than just appointing Nguyen. Along with Nguyen's official appointment to the GM position came a $52,000 salary bump, making him the county's highest paid public official at $207,000.

April also saw a former PUD director, Dave Baker, and his son, Riley Baker, in court for elections violations after the two were found to have falsely certified signatures they collected on a petition circulated to recall PUD Director Craig Melton in 2015 and early 2016. The father and son pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

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