Sales tax voters will chart Ontario’s future

Ontario’s future will be charted by what voters decide on the city’s proposed sales tax. The debate has been clouded for weeks by sometimes excessive rhetoric. Voters should now judge for themselves: What would Ontario look like with and without money from a sales tax?

Ontario sits at a significant junction in its history. It remains one of the most impoverished communities in Oregon. Its housing stock is anemic, leaving people few choices. It’s the industrial heart of Malheur County yet some of its largest employers can’t find enough employees. Streets are degrading, the swimming pool is a shuttered hulk, and downtown struggles to keep a sense of vibrancy.

Opportunity is there, though. Economic projects in the works could bring new industry and employers to Ontario and the area. The city and other entities are getting state money to fix more roads. A state board is focused on how to make the area more competitive with cross-river rivals. And local volunteers are so passionate about a splash park they have rolled up their sleeves in a civic effort to get the needed money.

As you look at the community today, both worry and optimism can be justified. Voters will decide which dominates civic life in the years ahead.

Ontario city officials have made it easy to say no to the sales tax. They were tone deaf to simply slap on the tax without voter approval. They muddled their messages. The explanation at first was that the tax was the only way to avoid municipal ruin. Then, the tax became a fountain of cash that could drive a remarkable expansion in city services. 

Those city officials said the city was short about $700,000 to just run even. But they ended up with $400,000-plus in extra cash for this year. They portrayed crime as an unchecked menace, but they overstated their case, overlooking years of declines in crimes. In perhaps the worst political move of the year, city leaders warned they would jack up city fees if voters don’t pass the sales tax. Talk about tone deaf. 

Opponents haven’t had to work very hard. They know “sales tax” is evil to Oregonians. They have suggested a sales tax would hurt the elderly. They have suggested there is wasted spending at City Hall. Indeed, there has been lots of public commentary across the community that everything would be fine but for “waste, fraud and abuse.” That’s an easy claim to make, and thus far remains unproven.

The prime complaint of opponents has been that the Ontario City Council imposed the tax without a vote. Well, the opponents fixed that, and thus the vote now. There was worry that the city would never leave the sales tax at 1 percent. Well, the city fixed that, giving voters a measure that locks the tax rate into the city charter. Then, no increase could happen unless voters approved, which seems unlikely.

None of this, however, addresses the central question: How do we strengthen Ontario as a community?

We see the sales tax, with tight oversight and citizen involvement, as the way. Before you get out the ropes, hear us out.

We prefer optimism to gloom. One is energizing, the other debilitating. Ontario can improve, and we trust most citizens share that civic ambition. New tax money could pay for a more promising future. Without the tax, Ontario remains status quo. Look around you. Are you happy with how your community looks? How it functions? The opportunity for kids? The opportunity for business? If you are, then a no vote will satisfy your needs.

But if not? Consider the local business need for employees. Drawing in new residents takes more than a job opening. Ontario has to be a place people want to live. That means a safe place. The Ontario Police Department needs the patrol officers and detectives to focus hard on gangs and on drugs, two of the biggest threats to community safety. We need streets that don’t rattle your teeth because they’re worn. We need city workers who will get after the hovels that depress property values with their untended yards, piles of garbage, and junked cars. And the community clearly loves its swimming pool, now just rotting away year by year.

Given the right investments, Ontario can be an enlivened community – clean, safe, and a draw for business, industry, families and visitors. Eliminating police jobs, letting the pool remain a shuttered bunker, and kicking kids out of recreation programs is not a vision we can endorse.

The biggest wall between those competing visions is trust in City Hall. It’s screaming yellow apparent that many in the community don’t trust the mayor, councilors or city administrators. Justified or not, that suspicion imperils a sales tax. That distrust could be overcome, and here’s how officials should do that:

First, half the sales tax money – about $1.9 million – should be locked away in a vault. Not a dime should be spent until city leaders demonstrate they understand what the community wants. Efforts to think out the future of the community are underway. That strategy, the ideal for what all of us want for Ontario, should drive spending of much of the new tax revenue. Dream, plan, and then fund.

Second, no new city employee should be hired until citizens are told exactly what that the taxpayers get out of the deal. Hiring a new police officer? How many more arrests? Adding a new code officer? How many yards cleaned up? Promising “better service” isn’t good enough.

Third, the city needs to skip the fees. Repeal the $8 a month charge tacked on local bills. Put enough money into aquatics so no family has to dig for the $1 admission to let a kid cool off.

Fourth, the city must do more to spare local business from even a nickel in expense to be the city’s tax collector. The city has made a start by offering compensation. It should go farther, ensuring any business that can prove extraordinary costs gets extraordinary compensation.

Fifth, city leaders need to own the trust issue. The mayor and councilors can’t dismiss that concern. They need to figure out how they got out of sync with their constituents and work to rebuild faith.

If voters approve the sales tax, the Enterprise will watchdog that money at every step. Count on us to be there on your behalf, questioning and digging.

Opposing the sales tax would have been a painless choice for us. But we have too much confidence in the future of Ontario to surrender to easy politics. We think it’s time for community ambition. Ontario voters should say yes to the sales tax – and then stay on city officials to use the money wisely. — LZ