Questions put local accountant into the spotlight of Ontario budget controversy

Local accountant Mary Jo Evers came under fire recently after she pointed out errors in the city’s calculations on its upcoming budget. Evers, who is the financial director for the Ontario School District, was criticized on a pro-sales tax Facebook page for her efforts. (The Enterprise/File)

ONTARIO – She questioned the city’s proposed budget and then took fire for her efforts but Mary Jo Evers believes she did the right thing.

She also said she continues to support the city’s 1 percent sales tax proposal, now before voters.

 “I want Ontario to be more than what it is,” said Evers.

Her stance may seem at odds with events that unfolded last week when Evers, Ontario School District finance director, raised the alarm about the city’s accounting. Evers said it appeared the city had double counted or otherwise wrongly accounted for certain city funds. Evers said she never received a specific answer to her concerns and so decided to go to the Malheur Enterprise with her information.

When city officials doublechecked their work, they discovered they had mishandled $198,700.

All of this occurred just days after the Ontario Budget Committee recommended a string of cuts in city services to balance spending for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

As a result, the budget committee was scheduled to meet in a special session Tuesday, too late for press time.

City Manager Adam Brown said beforehand that the committee had the option of using the approximately $200,000 as it was budgeted to pay down the city’s retirement debt or instead use it to keep city jobs planned for elimination.

After reports emerged on the matter, Evers faced criticism from city officials.

She said Brown called and questioned her motives.

Brown said in an email to the Enterprise that he told Evers he wished she had approached him with her concerns.

“I asked her if there was something she was trying to accomplish and told her I would be happy to help. We had a friendly conversation,” Brown wrote. “I wish that Mary Jo had provided the professional courtesy of speaking directly to us.”

Brown then called Evers’ boss, Niki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District.

Albisu said Brown asked her why Evers went public by contacting the Malheur Enterprise instead of going to city leadership with her budget concerns.

Brown doesn’t recall the conversation that way.

“I wanted to make sure she knew that she or anyone could come directly to city staff if they had ideas or concerns about our budget,” Brown wrote.

Evers also recieved attention on the Facebook page of Citizens for a Better Ontario, the political action committee organized by Mayor Ron Verini to promote the sales tax.

“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.”

Later that same day the post was modified and the mention of Evers was edited out.

Verini said he did not know who crafted that Facebook post.

“There has been various folks able to post on the Citizens page as needed,” said Verini.

However, messages from another administrator on the page credited the post to Councilor Marty Justus. Justus didn’t respond to email questions and has asked the Enterprise not to contact him.

Evers said she did her budget analysis on her own time, taking time off from her school district job.

The Enterprise’s account of the city criticism drew considerable social media discussion. Most commentators praised Evers for her work and criticized city officials for their reaction.

She said that she was subsequently approached by 15 to 20 people commenting on her decision.

“Honestly the most common thing I got was this is why I am not voting for the sales tax,” said Evers.

Evers said she believes she did the right thing.

“I think government has a duty to listen to its citizens. And if they don’t foster that communication then it stifles the process,” said Evers.

Now, city officials are moving to fix the budget mistake.

The budget error, said Brown, happened in the city’s initial budget draft when $200,000 was mislabeled as part of the city’s left over funds from prior years.

The money should have been listed as part of what the city expected to take in from taxes and other sources in the new budget year.

What the city intended to do was take $200,000 from savings to pay down the city’s debt for retirement costs of the state Public Employees Retirement System.

Instead, it used $200,000 from the checking account – an account typically used to pay for day-to-day costs at the city.

That meant $200,000 in money that could be used to pay those costs to run the city instead was used to make a one-time payment on the retirement debt.

When framed against the city’s budget troubles, the $200,000 is a big deal. That’s because the budget committee finished its work on the 2018-2019 budget by cutting one police officer, one firefighter, the city’s entire code enforcement operation and funds for the city’s recreation program. Budget writers, though, agreed to fund the recreation department for six months. 

Brown said he will probably recommend to the budget committee that it leave the budget alone, letting those cuts go into place while paying the retirement debt.

Evers doesn’t think that is the right way to go.

She said she believes the money should be used to pay for city services such as police.

“Why is PERS a higher priority than services to our citizens?” asked Evers.

Brown said that in the long term, paying down the PERS debt is an urgent need.

“If we don’t do anything we will still pay a million dollars a year for the next 20 years,” he said.

Darin Bell, budget committee chairman, said Friday he wasn’t sure what he would recommend.

“I am undecided. I need to listen to all the information presented Tuesday,” said Bell.

Evers said her difference of opinion doesn’t mean she believes city officials have done anything wrong.

“I don’t think they have mismanaged money. I think they are using it responsibly,” said Evers.

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