Sales tax gamble didn’t pay off for Ontario council

Voters scuttled Ontario’s 1 percent sales tax proposal last week after a long and sometimes contentious political battle. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – Ontario City Councilor Dan Capron wasn’t surprised voters rejected a 1 percent sales tax proposal last week.

Neither was Council President Norm Crume or Councilor Tess Winebarger.

In an otherwise mundane off-year election, city voters scuttled the proposal May 15 1,581 to 825.

That the final tally Tuesday night was a decisive statement by voters was clear but less well defined was why supporters of the measure were less than astounded by the results.

“I knew the sentiment was always against the sales tax. We are Oregon. People have it ingrained in them not to have a sales tax. I had told everyone that the only way I’d be surprised is if it passed,” said Crume.

Capron said one unusual dynamic contributed to the failure.

“You had business owners who didn’t want the tax and I understand that. I mean, it’s their livelihood,” said Capron.

Capron, who stepped onto the council last summer, said the fact Oregon voters traditionally dislike sales taxes played a role. Capron said he also believes some of the no votes were triggered by pro-marijuana dispensary supporters. Now, Ontario bans marijuana dispensaries within city limits.

“Not all of them, but a lot of people, said if you get a no on the sales tax, they are going to have to do marijuana,” said Capron.

Winebarger said she was “disappointed…I knew there were a lot of citizens who were against the measure, and, at the end of the day, not everyone can get what they want,” said Winebarger.

The results also put the exclamation point on an often-contentious campaign.

As signs for and against the tax sprouted like weeds across Ontario this spring, battle lines were drawn between the two sides.

The tax was controversial almost from the moment the city council approved it in September.

Back then, the city said it needed $3.3 million in annual revenue for its general fund to stop cuts to city services and expand police and other departments. 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.

In January, supporters of the levy formed Citizens for a Better Ontario, a political action committee. The biggest contributor was Ron Verini, Ontario mayor.

Other contributors included City Councilor Marty Justus and former city budget committee member Charlotte Fugate.

Fugate became the center of attention in the campaign in April when she walked into Vintage Rose, a downtown Ontario business, and ripped down a campaign sign opposing the sales tax. After the incident, Fugate, a longtime fixture on the local political scene, resigned from the city’s budget committee and the PAC.

Lopez said Thursday he was pleased with the vote.

“It’s done and over and I am happy with the outcome. That is what we wanted,” said Lopez.

Verini, who poured money and time into the sales tax effort, was philosophical the day after the election.

“The people have voted. They’ve expressed their opinion. And we have to live with that as far as the city goes,” Verini said.

Living with it, though, may be difficult, said Verini.

“I hope the folks that did vote understand the consequences of that vote,” said Verini.

The consequences, he said, are clear.

“On the near term that’s no additional firefighters, no additional police and no ordinance officers at this point in time going into the new year,” said Verini.

Verini said Ontario voters made a clear statement.

“They have challenged the city, you might say, to not only live within our means but struggle to make ends meet in the truest sense of the word,” said Verini.

Last week, Crume expressed frustration the tax measure failed.

“They (voters) asked me to do a job. I couldn’t figure out any other way of making it happen. They don’t like it so they get what they asked for,” said Crume.

Capron said he now feels the council made an unnecessary political gamble last September.

“Was the sales tax the right thing for the town? Yes. But maybe we should have put it to voters and I had bad advice and I listened to it,” said Capron.

Capron said the council approved the sales tax ordinance believing that opponents would never be able to collect the required number of signatures to place the repeal on the ballot.

“That is what we rolled the dice on. We put our political futures on the line and it was a huge gamble,” said Capron.

Lopez said the city should have placed the issue before voters to begin with.

“I can’t tell you I would have agreed with it personally and I probably would have still voted no. But I would have been more accepting of it. They made it clear, though, they weren’t going to listen,” said Lopez.

Verini said the tax failed because of two reasons.

“I think it is easy to be against a sales tax. It is so hard for an individual to tax themselves. And, maybe, there is misunderstanding on why we were putting this package together the way we did,” said Verini.

He said perhaps the tax debate will spark more citizen participation in city government.

“The reality is there are winners and losers and I might have lost the vote but I am hoping the community, because of this conversation, actually steps up and comes up with some true solutions,” said Verini.

Winebarger agreed.

“I hope that as a council, with the help of the community, we will find some other strong options for revenue that don’t place a heavy burden on our town,” said Winebarger.

What those options are remain elusive and Crume said he will be “hard-pressed” to vote for more fees.

“The public just said hell no!” said Crume.

The vote, said Crume, was also a referendum on the council.

“It was 100 percent on the council. The council couldn’t find any other way. And the people, nearly two to one, said no,” said Crume.

John Breidenbach, Ontario Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the community faces “challenges” going forward.

“Our hope is as we move into the summer tourist season that the town goes back to being a friendly and wonderful place,” said Breidenbach.

Funding, whether it is for the city or a business, is always going “to be an issue,” he said.

“Businesses need money to grow and cities need taxes to grow,” said Breidenbach.

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