By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO — He walked into the room holding a margarita in one hand and a stack of petitions in the other but Dan Lopez was all business Thursday night at Fiesta Guadalajara.
Lopez, the co-owner of Treasure Valley Steel, wasted no time as he explained to a standing-room-only crowd of residents and merchants how they were going to stop the city’s 1 percent sales tax.
How? A ballot referendum dubbed “Stop The New Sales Tax.”
Lopez, one of the leaders behind the referendum, handed out petitions and answered questions regarding the process Thursday night. Along with Lopez, Ontario residents Larry Tuttle and Jackson Fox are the chief petitioners on the initiative.
Lopez, like many others on hand at the meeting, opposes the sales tax because the Ontario City Council recently approved the tax without seeking voter approval.
Ontario Mayor Ron Verini and Councilor Dan Capron were also on hand at the Thursday night session.
“I am just here to listen. See what they say. Just trying to understand,” Capron said.
Businesses must start charging the sales tax Jan. 1, a step that follows a year of debate and discussion by city officials, community leaders and residents.
The tax is considered by the council as the best way to solve the city’s financial challenges.
City leaders expect the new levy to produce about $3 million each year. The tax is narrowly tailored to retail goods while vehicle sales and agriculture products are exempt.
The tax is bitterly opposed by a growing number of Ontario business owners and residents.
Some business owners said they feel that a sales tax will take away one of Ontario’s main advantages as a place shoppers can visit to avoid Idaho’s 6 percent sales tariff.
A referendum petition must contain the signatures of 10 percent of the total voters in Ontario the day it is filed.
The petitioners face a 30-day deadline from the moment the council approved the measure to file the required signatures. In this case, the minimum number needed is 541, according to the Malheur County clerk’s office.
However, Lopez said he wants more than 600 signatures by the deadline.
Once the required number of signatures is in hand, Lopez would deliver the petitions to the city. From there, the clerk’s office must verify the signatures before the measure is put on the May primary ballot.
Petitions are available in Ontario: Treasure Valley Steel, 1460 North Verde Drive; Ernie’s Electric, 471 S. Oregon Street; Oregon Trail Hobbies and Gifts, 272 S. Oregon Street; Burger West, 691 S.W. 4th Ave., and the Plaza Barbershop, 1128 S.W. Fourth Ave.
Lopez was surprised by the number of people who showed up for the meeting.
“The turnout was higher than I expected,” said Lopez.
John Echanis, the owner of Echanis Distributing Co. in Ontario, said the sales tax is a bad idea.
“I’ve been here since 1972. I think I know more about the business structure in Ontario than anyone and it will kill us. All these businesses are struggling and you throw this on top of it? Are you kidding?” said Echanis.
Coy Mott, owner of the Diamond Gallery in Ontario, said he is worried the city may increase the tax in the future.
“We don’t know where it will stop,” said Mott.
Ontario resident Steve Fogelson said city residents were frozen out of the sales tax process.
“The people didn’t have a chance to vote on it,” said Fogelson.
For contractor Riley Hill, the sales tax means higher construction costs.
“From my standpoint, I want growth but they just added $1,000 to the cost of a house,” he said.
Hill also agreed with Folgeson that voters should have the final say on the sales tax.
“Put it to a vote of the people. They will tell us what they want,” said Hill.
Lopez said the referendum will get help from the Oregon Taxpayers Association, a state tax watchdog organization. Tom Butler, an Ontario resident who served as a state representative, is the president of the association. The association furnished an attorney to help opponents of the tax, Butler said.
Butler said Friday his organization is not a partisan organization. Its focus, he said, is to ensure voters get to have input on tax issues.
“All we are saying is, No. 1, if you are going to tax, get the people to say yes or no. And if you are going to tax, please have some accountability for it,” said Butler.
The city council sought voter approval of a sales tax in 2004, but it was defeated 3,566-991.
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