Audience members listen during a Town Hall session at Four Rivers Cultural Center on the city’s proposed 1 percent sales tax Thursday night. (The Enterprise/John L. Braese).
ONTARIO – A 1 percent sales tax will produce a safer community and be a down payment for future prosperity, two top Ontario officials said Thursday night during a Town Hall sponsored by the Malheur Enterprise.
But if the proposed levy is voted down, Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said he would push for a $9 fee to be added to water bills to help the city cover a funding gap.
An estimated 150 people – including almost all of the Ontario City Council – showed up for the session held at Four Rivers Cultural Center that included questions from the audience, a Facebook live feed and responses from Ontario Mayor Ron Verini and City Manager Adam Brown.
“A town hall is about participating. We hope you leave here a little better informed,” said Les Zaitz, the publisher of the Malheur Enterprise and moderator of the event.
VIDEO: SALES TAX TOWN HALL
The city council approved the 1 percent sales tax in September. The city said it needed an estimated $3.8 million in annual revenue for its general fund to stop cuts to city services and expand police and other departments.
In October, a group of Ontario citizens, spearheaded by residents Jackson Fox and Dan Lopez, gathered enough voter signatures to put a repeal of the tax before voters on the May ballot.
For almost two hours, the two Ontario city leaders explained the tax and answered questions from Zaitz and the audience.
Verini said a $9 fee “absolutely, without question,” would be added to city water bills if the sales tax does not pass. The city will also slash services, said Verini.
“The cutbacks we are looking at down the road are more serious than anything in the past. We are down to the bare nubs at City Hall,” said Verini.
The two city leaders explained costs for such items as the public employee retirement system – or PERS – and other services they said citizens want that have put the city budget in jeopardy. In short, they said, a funding gap existed between what the city must pay for and what citizens want.
Both leaders said they want the community to be safer. And both said they want the city to grow. All of that, they said, takes investment.
“To bring jobs to Ontario we truly need to do more than maintaining what we have,” said Verini.
Verini said he and fellow council members keep their fingers on the pulse of the city through feedback from citizens.
“We get input from the community every day,” said Verini.
Brown said PERS continues to haunt city finances, consuming a large chunk of cash each year.
“It is something we have very little control of but it has a lot of control over us,” said Brown. The city currently owes $10 million to PERS, said Brown.
Brown acknowledged that during the past few years the city added positions. For example, a code enforcement officer was hired by the city even as elected leaders discussed budget challenges. Brown, said however, that the code enforcement officer was hired based on feedback from residents.
“The city council had a lot of people say we have got to get rid of the blight,” said Brown.
An audience member asked why the city spent $20,000 for consultants to evaluate the sales tax. Brown said the survey was crucial.
“How much would you invest to find out if it (the sales tax) is a wise decision?” Brown replied.
Brown said the sales tax money would be used to beef up the city police force.
Zaitz asked Brown how much would crime be reduced with more police officers.
“The goal is to provide a safer community. Everything is done incrementally,” said Brown.
Verini said Ontario is becoming “less safe,” but sales tax revenue would add more “boots on the ground.” Brown said the city would add three police officers, two detectives and a captain if the sales tax is approved by voters.
According to the city, sales tax revenue would be used to repair the city-owned pool.
“One of the loudest outcries from citizens is recreation. The pool is a community resource. It is truly what our citizens are telling us,” said Verini.
Megan Cook, who owns Stan’s Heating Inc., in Ontario with her husband Brad, asked Verini and Brown about reducing salaries of city employees to help cut costs.
“We have discussed it. But with that discussion comes the challenge of working with our unions,” said Verini.
Bob Wilkins, who owns Wilkins Saw and Power in Ontario, said the forum helped him get a better understanding of what the city was trying to do with the sales tax.
“It was about education and I think that is the most important thing,” said Wilkins.
Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
Ontario mayor Ron Verini listens to a question during a Town Hall at Four Rivers Cultural Center Thursday night on the city’s proposed 1 percent sales tax. Verini, along with city manager Adam Brown, answered questions and briefed the crowd of more than 100 people on the purpose and history of the sales tax proposal. (The Enterprise/John L. Braese).