Ontario sales tax flops and service cuts loom

Karen Pugh verifies ballot signatures Tuesday afternoon at the Malheur County Clerk’s Office. Voters rejected a 1 percent sales tax proposal for Ontario Tuesday night. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

UPDATE: This story has been updated with final unofficial returns.

ONTARIO – Surprising no one, Ontario voters have decisively defeated the proposed 1 percent sales tax.

The final unofficial count released by the Malheur County Clerk’s Office as of 1 a.m. Wednesday was 1,581 no, 825 yes. That’s 66 percent to 34 percent. That represents about a 44 percent turnout of Ontario’s 5,449 voters.

In a twist, voters also overwhelmingly decided to change city law to require a public vote to raise a sales tax above 1 percent. That provision in the city charter will go unused for now, but voters favored the limitation 1,944-390, signaling the electorate’s interest in having a direct say on tax matters.

The failure of the sales tax means the city is likely to proceed with cuts in service come July 1, including eliminating a police job, two code enforcement officers and making plans to shed the city’s recreation department.

This is the second time Ontario voters have snubbed a sales tax. In 2004, 70 percent or 2,531 voters cast a no vote.

The sales tax would have raised an estimated $3.8 million that city officials said would not only keep current services but dramatically expand them.

City leaders said enough money would have been available to reopen the aquatics center, pay for a new ladder truck for the fire department, work on city streets and pay for a full-time airport manager.

Public safety proved to be one of the important issues for city leaders as they worked to sell the tax to voters.

Sales tax money was earmarked to add a police captain, two detectives, three new patrol officers and new equipment.

Instead, the police department is slated to lose two patrol positions. One is vacant because of a recent resignation.

Two other police jobs will be saved even without the sales tax. City officials intend to impose another $5-a-month fee on city residents, raising about $220,000 to cover the police costs.

The sales tax issue became contentious soon as the city council imposed it last September without a public vote.

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.

The tax was tailored to retail goods while vehicle sales and agriculture products were to be exempt. Also, products such as gasoline and tobacco, which are already subject to state tax, were not part of the tax.

In January a pro-sales tax political action committee, dubbed Citizens for a Better Ontario, formed to promote the levy. One of the biggest donors to the PAC was Ron Verini, Ontario mayor. Verini donated $3,357 to the organization, according to campaign filings.

Verini was the prime champion for the measure, with few community leaders stepping into the limelight to promote the tax.

Many business owners fought the tax, insisting it would drive away business and cost them too much to collect.

As the election approached, tensions began to rise as a member of the Citizens for a Better Ontario ripped a “Vote NO sales tax” sign off the door of a local business and social media posts became increasingly malicious.