SPECIAL REPORT: Ontario tax approval built on outdated crime claims

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

ONTARIO – Ontario city officials have overlooked a five-year drop in crime while they seek millions in new taxes they say are needed to protect the community.

They said police jobs have been cut. The jobs City Manager Adam Brown and Mayor Ron Verini say were eliminated happened as long as 12 years ago.

The budgeted force, however, has been stable for at least four years, according to city budgets.

They also wrongly claim the city has no detective, but one is assigned to a regional drug team.

In recent weeks, they have warned the community could lose more police officers unless a sales tax goes into force. The Ontario City Council approved the tax in September with estimates it would raise $3.3 million a year. Among other expenditures, the city has told the community that the new money would not only save police jobs but allow for new ones.

The sales tax, though, is in doubt. City voters next May will consider repealing the measure before it ever goes into effect.

Ontario’s future is the issue, Verini and Brown said.

More spending is needed to keep the community safe and attractive and to bring in new residents and businesses, they say. The alternative is a town that’s less safe and has less curb appeal.

“We are down to the nitty-gritty of our city services,” said Mayor Ron Verini. “We’re finished with the fluff.”

Critics aren’t buying it. They question whether the city is wisely using the money it already gets and how it will handle the millions more to come with sales tax.

The Malheur Enterprise dug into the city’s budget, examined budget reports and police statistics and interviewed city leaders at length. The city, the review showed, has expanded some city agencies while focusing the public on cuts it was making in others.

During sales tax presentations, city officials frequently used the “no” word– no golf course, no swimming pool, no money for playground updates.

They have been less emphatic about what a successful sales tax would mean: the largest increase in city general fund spending in recent history. The new tax money would among other things create new city jobs and buy $100,000 worth of “beautification.”

Verini and Brown justify the sales tax in part because they say the police department is short of officers. They have no recent analysis to back up that assessment, citing instead an outdated consultant’s report that recommended additional detectives. The report, now three years old, also suggested ways the city could free local police to spend more time on serious crimes. The city ignored those recommendations.

The consultants focused on crime reports and police activity in 2013, and Verini and Brown say Ontario’s crime hasn’t improved since then.

Compared to other cities, Brown said, “Our citizens are at a greater risk of being impacted by violent and property crime.”

City officials never updated the consultants’ numbers, so the Malheur Enterprise did, examining the city’s annual crime reports from 2012 through last year. The results contradict the mayor and city manager.

Serious crime such as rape and assault has dropped by a third, and property crimes such as burglary and larceny are down 24 percent.

As reported crime dropped, so did arrests.

Five years ago, the city reported 748 arrests. Last year, the total was 601. The city has 22 sworn officers in its budget.

Verini and Brown couldn’t explain the drops because they weren’t aware of them.

“You’re throwing a lot of numbers at us,” the mayor said in an interview.

In a later interview, Brown said it was “dangerous” to rely on such numbers but didn’t dispute them.

“You could do a great injustice to this community by painting a picture that is simply out of touch with what we, who live here, experience on a daily basis,” Brown said in a follow-up written statement.

Brown said the public instead should consider a 30-year trend, which he said shows crimes against people increased. He couldn’t explain why the city continued to rely on a consultant’s report that focused on a single year’s statistics.

Verini said he uses monthly reports from the police department to gauge the level of crime in Ontario. He referred several times to “calls for service” – police activity that generates a case.

That, he said, is going up.

Questioned about the numbers, the city had to correct the total it originally provided for 2016, adding 128 calls for a total of 10,321. Even then, the total was less than five years ago.

And although “call for service” is listed as a police activity, the city uses its civilian code enforcement officers to handle some of the load. Last year, they processed 1,200 calls for matters such as weed complaints.

The consultants in their report three years ago keyed in on the city’s handling of such calls.

They found that citizens weren’t behind all the listed calls. In nearly 40 percent of the cases, police officers themselves generated the report in response to something they had seen on the streets.

The consultants noted that most of the cases filling up Ontario’s call list weren’t crimes at all.

Of the 10,321 calls for service registered by Ontario police last year, 1,772 were classified as crimes.

“Indiscriminate assignment of police officers to nuisance calls does nothing more than appease a caller who does not have a police emergency,” the report said. The consultants said Ontario could eliminate a “substantial number” of calls for service and put that time better use. The report recommended a panel be put to work to accomplish that.

That never happened.

Verini, asked what he did about that recommendation, responded that a conversation “started that eventually concluded that we need to hire a chief with new ideas and a fresh look at efficiencies.”

Police Chief Cal Kunz, hired last year, said he continues the policy of sending a uniformed officer to personally handle all calls from citizens regardless of their severity.

“Policing is a lot about customer service,” Kunz said.

He acknowledged that his patrol officers spends hundreds of hours responding to minor cases while also being charged with fully investigating serious crimes such as burglary and assault.

“It is a choice we made,” he said.

Les Zaitz: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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