County Court opens door to new Ontario recreation district

A plan to create an independent recreation district for Ontario moved ahead last week when the Malheur County Court agreed to place an initiative on the November ballot. (The Enterprise/Jayme Fraser).

VALE – A plan to create an independent recreation district in Ontario gained new life last week after the Malheur County Court agreed to support the proposal.

Mary Jo Evers, an Ontario resident, is spearheading the effort and she gave her second presentation to the court in two weeks May 16.

Evers decided to get involved after she learned Ontario city budget woes meant elimination of the city’s recreation department, which fields a variety of sports teams for area youth.

Two weeks ago, Evers asked the court to place an initiative on the November ballot to create a new government that would run a recreation program. She sought the court’s intervention because the deadline to place the measure by petition had passed.

Initially, the court appeared lukewarm to the proposal and wanted to wait to see if the city’s 1 percent sales tax initiative gained voter approval.

The sales tax proposal was soundly defeated May 15.

The court agreed to directly place a measure on the November ballot – but only if Evers collected 1,250 signatures of support from Ontario voters by June 13.

Such a measure would set the boundary for the recreation district, proposed to be the same as that of the Ontario School District.

The measure also would set a property tax rate to fund the new government’s operations.

The recreation district would resemble the Ontario Library District. The library district, once part of city operations, is independent and is funded by property taxes. Under Evers’ proposal, the recreation district would collect a property tax of 55 cents per $1,000 of property value.

Continuing the signature gathering process was important to both Evers and the court.

County Judge Dan Joyce said the court was willing to support Evers only if there was a clear interest from voters.

“Those signatures have to be vetted and verified. What we did is not an endorsement,” said Joyce.

If Evers can’t amass the required number of signatures, the court will pull its support, said Joyce.

 “What I like about this is they are doing their due diligence as a court should. At the same time, they are giving me the opportunity to demonstrate to them there is voter support,” Evers said.

The preliminary recreation district budget would be nearly $680,000 the first year. Evers said the cost to run the district for one year stands at $123,720. The other money would be used to repair and open the aquatics center, said Evers. Evers said once the pool is open, the cost for taxpayers could drop.

Evers said the court asked some good questions during her presentation. One query was why she didn’t expand the boundary of the district to include all of Malheur County.

“The reason I didn’t is if you look at the history of the library district, it started down that way and it failed. When they moved it into the school district (boundary) it passed,” said Evers.

Commissioner Don Hodge asked Evers if the now defunct Ontario Golf Course could be rebuilt if the district secures voter approval Evers said that was a possibility.

“If the pool breaks even, you could reconstitute the golf course,” said Evers.

Evers admitted her plan is still preliminary and several questions remain. Chief among them is whether the city would provide a new district access to the pool building.

Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said he isn’t sure what the city would do. It could lease the building or sell it to the organization.

“We haven’t sat down and actually talked about that yet. I am sure we will come up with some solution. We want to be as cooperative as possible,” said Verini.

Evers said she felt the court made the right decision.

“I agree they needed to be cautious about it. That’s their role. They are not supposed to make it easy for new taxes to be levied,” said Evers.

Evers said she hopes to collect at least 2,000 signatures to demonstrate community interest. She said she has also created a Facebook page, “Form a new Ontario Rec District,” to gather support.

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