Plan approved by council means city workers must live closer to Ontario

Recent action by the Ontario City Council means future city employees must live within the boundaries of the Ontario School District. (Enterprise file photo)

ONTARIO – New workers for the city of Ontario will have to live closer to town and administrators will have to live within the city limits following recent action by the Ontario City Council.

Employees already on the city payroll do not have to meet the requirement, said City Councilor Norm Crume.

The 5-1 decision Feb. 27 attracted a standing-room-only crowd to city hall.

As part of the new policy, all city employees are eligible for a credit up to $50 on their city water and sewer account.

The policy culminates at least a year’s worth of work by Ontario dentist Ben Peterson. Peterson, born and raised in Ontario, left when after high school but returned after college to open a business. However, he said, about 10 years ago he noticed the town he loves was beginning to change.

“I spearheaded this effort out of concern for the future of Ontario,” said Peterson.

Peterson believes that income inequality and a shrinking middle class were putting the city in decline. He said it was becoming a place to work, not to live.

 “In the 14 years I have been back, I have seen our educated middle class nearly gutted. Many employees work here, but choose to live elsewhere, often out of state. In small towns like Ontario, public employees are the bedrock of the community. Their social and economic impact is tremendous,” said Peterson.

He said Ontario can’t continue to export wages or the social capital and stability public employees bring to the community.

“Growing up, we always had a few teachers or other public employees who lived in surrounding communities but today if you are an Ontario city employee, police officer, teacher or even a school administrator you are in the minority if you live here,” said Peterson. Crume also agreed with Peterson that it is vital to keep public employees in town.

The policy will cost taxpayers and also could draw fire from the unions that represent Ontario’s police and firefighters.

The financial piece is tied to the sewer and water bill incentive. According to a city staff report, if every city employee lived within city limits and qualified for the incentive, the cost would be $28,200 a year. The cost of furnishing the incentive to city employees currently living within the city is estimated to be $11,400 a year. Now, 30 percent of Ontario police live in Ontario.

The money will come from the city’s water and sewer fund.

Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said the residency incentive is a good trade off.

“If, indeed, an individual selects Ontario to live, that $50 we are giving back to him or her is going to be insignificant in comparison, obviously, to the taxes they will pay. So, I think it is a very small price to pay,” said Verini. The incentive will come on the heels of a rate hike for sewer and water OK’d by the council last year. Also last year the council approved an $8 fee on residents to fund street maintenance. 

Now about half of Ontario’s 41 city employees either live in the city or within the 97914 area code. Other major government employers see the same trend.

The Ontario School District carries 145 fulltime teachers. Forty-three percent of those teachers live inside the school district boundaries. At Snake River Correctional Institution, 29 percent of its 870 employees live in Oregon while 71 percent live in Idaho.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said he isn’t sure what kind of impact the policy will have on future contenders for city jobs. Verini said the decision by the council was proof local lawmakers are responsive to voters.

“It is the same thing we’ve done with the sales tax. We’ve listened to the community and taken their suggestions to heart and, in many cases, made significant moves on the city council to implement what the community asks for,” said Verini.

The Ontario Police Association, the police union, may discuss the new policy with city leaders, said union attorney Elizabeth Lemoine.

Peterson said he’s happy with the council’s decision and hopes it will be a good step toward future prosperity for his town.

“I hope the council’s forward-thinking action inspires other local institutions to do the same. The number of local public employees not living in the community they serve is disappointing. We invest in them. Why won’t they invest in us?” said Peterson.

Pat Caldwell: [email protected]; 541-473-3377.