By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO — The fate of Ontario’s sales tax will be decided by voters next May.
Last week sales tax opponents delivered the last of 1,500 petition signatures to City Hall to place a referendum on the ballot.
But unresolved is the language of the ballot. That’s because sales tax opponents recently sued the city in Malheur County Circuit Court to force changes to the language used by city officials in drafting the ballot measure. The county clerk’s office will now send a letter certifying the 541 signatures to city hall.
Last week the Malheur County Clerk’s Office verified the minimum number of signatures needed – 541 – to place the issue on the May 18 ballot.
The Ontario City Council unanimously passed the 1 percent sales tax in September. Businesses must start charging it Jan. 1, a step that follows a year of debate and discussion by city officials, community leaders and voters.
Ontario city leaders expect the new levy to produce about $3 million each year. The tax is narrowly tailored to cover retail goods while vehicle sales and agriculture products are exempt.
Ontario business owner Dan Lopez along with Ontario residents Jackson Fox and Larry Tuttle are spearheading the referendum campaign.
The next step in the process typically would be for city recorder Tori Barnett to create final ballot language to file with the state. Because of the pending legal action the process is stalled.
Fox, the plaintiff in the suit against the city, claims city officials used misleading and biased terms in describing what it is that voters are deciding. He asserted that the language of the measure doesn’t explain the real purpose of the referendum.
Instead of the referendum being about whether the sales tax should be repealed before it goes into effect, Fox said the city used language that would leave voters thinking they were only to be asked whether the city should accept any revenue generated by the sales tax.
Wilsonville attorney Eric Winters, representing Fox, said the circuit court has until February to decide whether to order revisions to the ballot language.
Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said the referendum effort was no surprise to him or the council.
“I would say they were either not surprised or expected it. We will see what happens with the voters,” said Brown.
Brown said the council isn’t considering repealing the sales tax. However, he said, the council will “discuss different options on the sales tax generated by different concerns brought up by opponents.”
“Businesses should not be spending any money on trying to implement this until it is decided by the voters,” said Brown.
Lopez said his anti-sales tax group would launch a campaign to support the repeal.
“It is about everyone educating everyone. The first thing is to let people know what the ballot actually is and when we will vote on it,” said Lopez.
Lopez said the 1,500 signatures gathered in just days sends a message.
“It makes us think there are a lot more questions that people have,” said Lopez.
In 2004, city officials placed a similar sales tax proposal before Ontario voters. Then, as now, the issue provoked controversy and sharply divided the community. At that election, 70 percent of the voters – or 2,531 residents – voted to scuttle the sales tax.
Also in 2004, sales tax opponents challenged the language of the sales tax ballot in circuit court. Opponents asserted the ballot title contained insufficient information and unfair language. Opponents also claimed the city didn’t have the authority to place the measure on the November ballot.
Eventually, a judge ruled for the city and declared the ballot title to be in proper form.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
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