EDITORIAL: Strong reasons exist to create Ontario recreation agency

Mary Jo Evers is fashioning a life ring to rescue the Ontario city recreation program from disappearing. She wants voters, not city officials, to determine the importance of youth sports and aquatics to the community.

She is exercising a fundamental duty of a good citizen – petitioning her government to act. She is not complaining. She’s not sitting on the bench, waiting for someone to solve problems. She has stepped up to promote a new recreation district in the Ontario area. She’ll soon learn whether there is popular – and then government – support for the idea.

Ontario’s city recreation program is headed for demise. The defeat of the sales tax doomed the office that fielded sports teams for kids throughout the area. Ontario city leaders concluded before the vote that if the tax failed, the city could afford to run the recreation program only until the end of this year.

Evers thinks the community wants something better. She is proposing the formation of a new government whose function would be to provide recreation. The new district would run off property taxes – but only if approved by voters in the fall.

We’re not talking about some elitist program to serve a handful of patrons. The city program provides soccer, volleyball and other sports to hundreds of children. Those kids come primarily from Ontario, but provisions allow kids from anywhere in the county to participate on a fee basis. If you want to judge the value of such programs, just go watch a bunch of elementary school kids running up and down a soccer field.

Evers’ goal is more ambitious than simply keeping soccer going. Under a new tax district, money would be in hand to fix the mothballed Ontario Aquatics Center and open the doors and the lanes. Money would also be available to manage the splash pad park, the citizen-driven project to provide summertime outdoors fun for kids. Local people are raising the money to build it, but the question is open about who will care for it once the water flows.

We think Evers and recreation supporters ought to consider being even more ambitious. The boundaries of the new district would match the Ontario School District. What about including Nyssa and Vale territories? Would there be a benefit to moving the Vale pool operation into such a district? And would there be enough money to make the splash pad a true gift to the community – eliminating any admission fee? We hope no kid ever has to stand outside, peering through wire fence, watching those can afford admission playing in the fountains and buckets and more.

A big unanswered question is how the city of Ontario would handle its shuttered aquatic center. There appear to be three options – lease it to the new district, sell it, or just deed it over. The latter option seems most sensible. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the building a second time. And as is, it has zero value to the city.

Some of those questions ought to be addressed, at least generally, in the next couple of weeks. Evers and her associates are still gathering signatures for a petition that would put the idea of a recreation district on the fall ballot. The Malheur County Court has agreed to move the measure to the ballot if Evers gets enough signatures.

That’s a wise move by the court, and we hope county commissioners recognize the citizen voices reflected in every signature Evers collects. Those who support youth activities and particularly restoring the aquatic center ought to find her petitions and add their signatures. The County Court should be ready without reservation to move the issue to the ballot, letting the citizens decide whether they are willing to tax themselves to provide the community this service. – LZ