Ontario to cut police, fire jobs under budget approved Thursday

The Ontario Police Department loses one officer under a budget approved Thursday. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO ­‑ The city of Ontario will lose a police officer, a firefighter and two code enforcement officers under a budget approved Thursday night by the Ontario Budget Committee.

The committee threw only a temporary lifeline to the city’s popular Recreation Department, which offers soccer, basketball and other sports to area youth. Committee members voted to keep the department for six months, giving citizens time to form a separate recreation district.

And Ontario residents will face yet another new fee, this time a $5 public safety fee tacked on to monthly water bills. The money raised – about $217,000 a year – would pay to keep two police officers.

And the city’s public works contractor, the engineering firm CH2M, provided money to cover a second police job that was proposed for elimination. The contractor estimated that trimming back mowing and trash pickup on city property during the summer would save about $110,000 – the cost of a police officer.

The three-day budgeting process was difficult, said Darin Bell, a Treasure Valley Community College business instructor who chairs the city budget committee.

“I’ve been on the budget board for four years and this was probably the most difficult one I’ve seen,” said Bell.

Bell said there was no attempt to manipulate the budget with cuts as a way to pressure voters to approve a sales tax.

“Some people may see it that way but it never came up that we need to do this. There is that perception out there but I don’t think the process reflects that,” said Bell.

The new budget would take effect July 1. A police officer resigned last week, so no layoffs would be needed there, according to Adam Brown, Ontario city manager. He said the code enforcement officers, who last year handled about 1,500 complaints of trash, junked cars, and more would lose their jobs.

Brown also said the budget-writers decided to shift about $700,000 that would go into street work to instead pay down the city debt to the state Public Employees Retirement System. That means the city would do no chip sealing or other street maintenance in the coming year, Brown said.

Instead, he said, the money would help pay off $10.5 million the city owes to the state retirement system.

Bell said the PERS issue haunted the budget work.

“Going forward, just with the budget direction, revenues can’t keep up with personnel costs and PERS is part of that,” said Bell. “It was a situation where you can make cuts now or make them later.”

City officials have been warning for months that cuts in services were likely unless the city got more revenue. The Ontario City Council instituted a 1 percent sales tax to avoid the cuts and instead expand city services. Petitioners, however, have forced a vote on the tax and ballots with that measure went out to Ontario voters this week.

If voters defeat the tax, the city council would act to implement the budget crafted this week. The Budget Committee includes all seven councilors and seven citizens. If the tax is approved, the committee would meet again in May to consider how to use an estimated $3.8 million that would be raised each year through the sales tax.

Les Zaitz: [email protected] or 541-473-3377. Reporter Pat Caldwell contributed to this report: [email protected]