Budget whistleblower draws heat from Ontario city officials, pro tax campaign

A screen shot on Wednesday captures a Facebook post on the Citizens for a Better Ontario page. The post was modified later in the day after the Malheur Enterprise began reporting on the matter. (The Enterprise graphic/Jayme Fraser)

ONTARIO – A local woman who raised the alarm about a significant error in the proposed Ontario city budget stands accused of “fanning the flames of discontent” by the campaign seeking a city sales tax.

Mary Jo Evers, an Ontario resident, questioned the city’s accounting last week as fiscal writers put the finishing touches on a new budget that takes effect July 1. Evers said it appeared the city had double counted or otherwise wrongly accounted for certain city funds. Evers said she pressed the matter as a private citizen, not in her role as finance director for the Ontario School District.

Ontario city officials acknowledged this week that there was a $200,000 error. City Manager Adam Brown said he is scheduling a special meeting of the city budget committee to consider what to do.

But Evers was Brown’s focus this week while the Malheur Enterprise was preparing to report the error.

Evers said that in a “pretty aggressive” call on Monday, Brown questioned “what were my intentions” and why she went to the newspaper.

A day later, Brown called Nicole Albisu, Ontario School District superintendent and Evers’ boss. Albisu said Brown questioned her about Evers’ actions.

Albisu said that Brown told her the city “wants to have a partnership with the district but this puts a damper on it.”

Brown didn’t respond to emailed questions Wednesday asking his account of the calls.

Mayor Ron Verini, however, confirmed one of the calls was made. He said he did talk with Brown before he called Albisu.

“I saw no reason not to bring the information to Niki to make sure she was aware,” said Verini, adding that Brown didn’t tell him the results of the call.

Verini said he was “disappointed” that Evers had not approached the city about the apparent discrepancies before contacting the Enterprise. Evers said she sent a letter to the budget committee last week and got no response. 

The Enterprise previously has published investigative reports about the city budget.

Verini said he was unaware that Brown called Evers.

Citizens for a Better Ontario, the political action committee headed by Verini to promote a 1 percent sales tax, criticized Evers in a public Facebook post Wednesday morning.

“Mary Jo Evers (the chief financial director) for the Ontario School District took it upon herself to review the city’s budget and report her findings to the Malheur Enterprise before approaching the city about the error she found,” the post said. “Some people would think she was fanning the flames of discontent.”

The post continued, “There is some concern whether she did her review on her own time or the school district’s as the in-depth review could have taken several hours.”

Late Wednesday afternoon the post was modified and any mention of Evers was edited out.

Verini couldn’t say who posted the comment on behalf of the campaign.

“I didn’t know about it until after it hit,” he said. “It was a little over exuberant but still somewhat on track with the message.”

Evers said she became involved in the city budget saga because she heard rumors that the recreation program was to be cut. She said she got a copy of the proposed budget and reviewed it at home on her own time April 24 after her child’s soccer practice.

Evers said it didn’t take her long to spot the fiscal miscue.

“It literally took half an hour,” said Evers.

She said she wrote her letter to the Budget Committee the following day, questioning the budget. She said she got no response.

Verini acknowledged the city got the letter.

“The way it was written was extremely difficult to understand,” he said. “I think she could have made her case and her observations a little more clear and directly to us.”

Late last week, Evers alerted the Enterprise to her doubts about the budget. City officials on Friday and again on Monday insisted to the newspaper that there was no problem. The city subsequently conceded there was an error.

The error is not a matter of a decimal point out of place.

The Budget Committee concluded its work by proposing a 2018-2019 budget that would cut one police officer, one firefighter, the city’s entire code enforcement operation, and fund the city’s recreation program for only six months.

The recreation program, which serves hundreds of youth, was slated for complete elimination. The committee, however, provided a temporary reprieve – after Evers told the group last week that she wanted time with others to create a separate recreation district.

The $200,000 error could be used to forestall some of the budgeted cuts, city officials said. It is now slated to be part of a $1.1 million payoff on the city’s obligation to the state retirement system. As budgeted last week, $200,000 of that would come out of city revenues, money usually spent on day-to-day operations of the city.

The tax campaign group on Facebook acknowledged cuts might not be as deep as expected with the discovery of the error.

“We feel confident that the Budget Committee will be able to resolve this issue and that money will help soften the blow to the already discussed shortfalls,” the campaign said on Facebook Wednesday.

Darin Bell, a Treasure Valley Community College instructor who chairs the city budget committee, said he learned about the budget miscue Tuesday.

He said he didn’t see anything wrong with Evers’ interest in the budget.

“Mary Jo is a concerned citizen and wants to be involved in her community. I am not aware of anything she did that was improper,” said Bell.

Evers said the episode was “disheartening” because she was trying to help the community.

“You don’t slander someone for doing that,” said Evers. “I just started to ask some questions.”

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