Waterless water district challenged

SHADY COVE — A water district board that charges residents $6 a month for a service it cannot deliver could not say during a recent meeting why such a fee would be legal under Oregon law.

Tempers flared at Thursday's Shady Cove Water District meeting when Norman Fincher, a senior financial planner and Shady Cove property owner, demanded the board prove it was operating legally and provide operational details of its future plans. He read 28 questions to the board.

"We will take this under advisement and we will get back to you when we can," said board President Jim Collier.

Fincher wasn't satisfied. His first question had asked for a copy of the district's bylaws, which Collier couldn't provide.

Fincher said if the board wasn't operating within its own bylaws, it wasn't "meeting the criteria for a qualified meeting," and should immediately adjourn and reschedule at a time when members knew what their bylaws were.

"If you would," said Fincher, "recite me those portions of your bylaws that make this a valid meeting."

Collier said he didn't wish to "enter into a debate."

Fincher continued against a visibly upset Collier.

"There are certain regulations required for an organization to have a meeting, which is held in front of the public," said Fincher, "and you must follow those bylaws to a T."

"I can't quote you word for word," said Collier, "because I don't have them memorized. "¦ At this point, I'm going to tell you, to the best of our knowledge, at this moment, we are in compliance with our bylaws."

Fincher pressed on, asking what Oregon statutes allow "assessing an arbitrary fee for services not yet rendered."

The $6 monthly water service fee was enacted by the board during the summer, even though many residents said that because no water was being provided, the fee was illegal.

"What people don't understand," said Collier, "the fact we are holding this meeting and have been holding other meetings is providing a service. That's part of providing a service to the public, that and the other things we're trying to do to bring water to town."

Residents have complained to the Oregon Department of Revenue. In response to an inquiry from Collier, the department sent a letter clarifying its position.

It said because the water fee "does not appear to be a tax levy, it would not fall within the Department's authority to render an opinion as to whether or not the fee is proper."

Shady Cove relies on about 1,000 wells for water and is the largest incorporated city in Oregon without a municipal water system.

The district's current budget includes a $20,000 debt accumulated because of personal loans that had been used to pay attorney fees and court costs to fight an election that dissolved the district. Collier loaned nearly $18,000 of the total.

Some residents have said they will not pay a fee to retire a debt they feel overturned their vote.

Earlier last week, Collier promised the water service fee would not be used to service the debt and will not be repaid "until the district is selling water and has a stable income."

As soon as the meeting was over, Fincher was surrounded by supporters and others who were upset.

"Wow," said Shady Cove resident Winnie Nichols. "I had a lot of questions to ask, but he (Fincher) took care of them all."

"I don't understand it," said resident Will Hardy. "These people are trying to do something for us."

Fincher said he will wait for a response to his questions from the district before he decides whether to take further action.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

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