Ontario recreation district plan gains momentum

Malheur County Commissioner Don Hodge offers a suggestion for a proposed independent recreation district in Ontario at a public hearing June 20. The county court approved the boundaries for the proposed district and set a final public hearing on the matter July 11. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

VALE – The wording on the formal announcement bothered Ontario resident Judith Kirby.

She recently spotted the official notice about a proposed independent recreation district at Ontario City Hall and then at the Ontario Community Library.

“I kept seeing it as parks and recreation. And I thought, we can’t take over parks,” said Kirby.

She decided to attend the hearing set on the recreation district before the Malheur County Court held last week.

“I didn’t want to be a thorn in the side but I wanted to make this clear,” said Kirby.

Kirby joined a small group of residents and recreation department supporters at the public hearing.

At the session, the county court approved the boundaries of the proposed district and set a final public hearing on the plan for Wednesday, July 11.

After that, the court will place a measure on the November ballot.

The proposed boundaries of the district will be the same as that of the Ontario School District. The proposed tax rate for the district is 55 cents per $1,000 of assessed value beginning in 2019.

For Mary Jo Evers, the Ontario woman leading the recreation district effort, the June 20 decision by the county court meant her idea cleared another hurdle in an odyssey to save youth programs in Ontario.

During the public hearing, Kirby asked whether the proposed district would manage city parks as well. She also wanted to know whether its employees would be part of the state’s Public Employee Retirement System.

Kirby said she supports a recreation district but wondered if the proposal was too vague.

“I wanted to get some clarification. I want it very clear what the voters will be voting on,” said Kirby.

She wasn’t the only person with questions for Evers at the session. Commissioners Don Hodge and Larry Wilson also asked about specifics of the plan. County Judge Dan Joyce was absent.

Wilson voiced concerns that Evers may be moving too fast while Hodge emphasized he supported the district but wished its boundaries would include all of Malheur County. Hodge said the recreation district plan must “be presented to the people right.”

Evers, who decided to get involved after she learned Ontario budget woes meant elimination of the city recreation department, welcomed the questions.

“I think they brought up some valid points,” said Evers.

Evers said she didn’t intend for the district to manage city parks. Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, confirmed last week that the city would continue to oversee its parks. At the end of the public hearing, the county court elected to delete the word “parks” from the official recreation district name.

Evers said many of the questions asked by Hodge, Wilson and Kirby wouldn’t be answered until voters approve the measure and a five-member board is selected to manage the district.

“PERS, for example, is something the board would decide and is beyond my scope,” said Evers.

Evers said she didn’t feel she was moving too fast with the proposal. She also said the existing sports programs, the aquatics center, the splash pad and “maybe the tennis courts” would fall under the recreation district.

She planned to meet with Brown this week to begin discussions about the aquatics center and the recreation district.

Brown said one plan would be to ink a longterm agreement with the new recreation department regarding the aquatics center, similar to the pact between the city and the Ontario Community Library district.

“It is a 20-year agreement and, if it (the library district) is still intact it reverts to the district. Something like that makes sense,” said Brown.

Evers said she isn’t sure that is the best idea.

“City revenues have already paid for the aquatics center once. If the city leases it, in effect the voters have to pay for it twice,” said Evers.

The recreation district building behind the aquatics center would also be part of the new district, Evers said. Evers also said there is a possibility that in the future the district would open the defunct Ontario Golf Course.

Hodge said while he had “some reservations” he wanted to see the plan move ahead. He emphasized that the recreation district supporters must do their homework.

“The key to me is to get stuff in the paper and have meetings and forums where people can come and tell you what they think and you can answer their questions,” said Hodge.

Evers agreed.

“We will probably get door fliers that will answer all the questions about what the programs are and break down the costs,” Evers said.

Evers, the finance director for the Ontario School District, asked the county court to place an initiative on the November ballot to create the new government to operate the recreation department. She sought the court’s intervention because the deadline to place the measure by petition had passed.

For Kirby, the future of the pool resonates. That’s because her 7-year-old grandson swims, but in Payette.

“I’d love to see the pool open,” said Kirby.

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