Ontario’s threats of cuts fade as money moves save services

Ron Verini, the mayor of Ontario, said the cuts made to Ontario’s budget could impact lower-income residents. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – The projections from Ontario city officials last fall were dire and continued into the spring.

Unless voters agreed to tax themselves more, city officials said, they had no choice but to make the city less safe and less clean.

“Ontario finds itself in a dire situation to either cut services or find new sources of revenues,” read a sales tax brochure produced by the city last fall. “Recreation programs, police officers, and fire fighters must be cut without additional revenue.”

Voters rejected the proposed 1 percent sales tax, but the city has found a way to continue most services without it, an analysis of the city budget by the Malheur Enterprise has found.

The city’s new budget year started July 1. Instead of cutting four police officers, the city has left just one job vacant. Instead of eliminating code enforcement, the city dropped one part-time position but kept a full-time worker to chase weeds and nuisances. Instead of eliminating a firefighter, the city cut a clerk’s hours in half. And instead of shuttering recreation programs, the city is keeping the Recreation Department alive for six months, pledging to turn it over to a new recreation district voters may form in November.

Sales tax opponents point to the absence of deep cuts as evidence that the city had adequate money to run the city all along.

City officials think residents will still feel the impact of the diminished cuts.

They add that this budget leaves the city vulnerable to more cuts next year.

City Manager Adam Brown said the city was $900,000 short to cover costs of city services. He saw the growing financial obligation to the state’s retirement system as a threat that needed to be addressed immediately.

That led the Ontario City Council last fall to approve a 1 percent sales tax. The money would save city services, pay some of the retirement debt, and fund new city employees.

Many residents were outraged that city officials would implement a sales tax without consulting voters first.

They weren’t convinced that the city didn’t have the funds to maintain services.

They organized and put an initiative on the May ballot to repeal the sales tax. Voters didn’t want sales tax.

But the projected cuts haven’t happened.

To keep most city workers listed for elimination, the Ontario City Council maneuvered funds around in the budget, cut other expenses, and added a $5 monthly fee to residents’ water accounts.

The public safety fee is forecast to bring in $217,500 in the current budget year, enough to pay for one code enforcement officer and one police officer. However, the police job is empty because an officer resigned.

City officials also shifted money to offset PERS obligations. The city’s public works department will now pay pension costs of its employees.

Brown said those added costs will be passed on to residents’ water bills in the future, but for now the move saves $200,000 in the general fund that can be spent on other needs.

The city found other savings, cutting funding for local transit and summer lunch programs.

Additionally, it saved $111,175 by cutting temporary labor for lawn mowing and trash pick-up in cemeteries, public parks, and streets.

And in a last-minute adjustment, city officials put an additional $198,000 into street and sidewalk work after a budgeting error was found.

The future of recreation programs is uncertain.

The city council allocated $60,000 from the general fund to staff the program through the end of this year. Mary Jo Evers, who found the $198,000 error, is leading the drive to create the new recreation district.

Voters will make that decision in November.

City officials said the most noticeable change for residents will be the new $5 fee and less code enforcement.

Code enforcement officers patrol the city to make sure businesses and homeowners comply with city codes concerning yard maintenance and parking regulations. They also respond to complaints about of vicious animals.

“Code enforcement is really going to challenge us,” Brown said. “We’re only going to be able to focus on the main streets. Looking at neighborhoods will take more.”

Businessman Dan Lopez was one of the most vocal opponents of the sales tax. He agreed that the cuts are being made would affect residents. But he’s not convinced the city needed to make those cuts.

“They said from the beginning, which was not true, that there wasn’t money there,” Lopez said. “We showed that there’s money there.”

Lopez said he wants to see Ontario residents start following the budget negotiation process closer. He thinks that participation will motivate city officials to spend within their means instead of trying to implement new taxes.

Mayor Ron Verini said after the sales tax failed, he and city councilors committed to cutting as little as possible from city safety services, despite the initial warnings that those departments would have to lose staff.

“It’s not like we just found extra money,” Verini said. “We had to cut other services to maintain what we did.”

Verini said cuts to funding for the public transit system and the summer lunch program will hurt lower income residents.

City Council President Norm Crume said he’s worried the council will have to have the same conversations about cuts again next year.

“Next year, the year after there’s going to be more cuts,” Crume said. “We didn’t stop anything from here on in.”

Crume acknowledged that some residents may have lost confidence in council’s credibility this year because it made fewer cuts to public safety positions than projected.

“We got creative,” Crume said “We dug in our heels and said, ‘How can we not have this impact the community this hard?’ And we found ways to do it.”

While the city managed to maintain police staffing this year, Crume and other city officials are most worried that operating with no additional revenue could put public safety positions in jeopardy in the coming years.

Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz said his department is operating at a minimum in terms of staffing.

While he’s proud the department has recently seen declines in key categories of crime such as assault, larceny, and burglary, he said that’s not a reason to keep cutting officers.

“That doesn’t mean you need less staff,” Kunz said. “That means you’re doing something right.”

Police officers primarily react to calls about crime right now, according to Kunz.

He said it’s also essential for law enforcement to do preventative policing. He’d like to have officers get out of their vehicles and build relationships with residents in the community.

“There’s nowhere else to trim other than our backbone,” Kunz said. “That kind of leads into my fear for the future budgets. Are we going be trimming at that backbone every year?”

Reporter Max Egener: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.